The Drone Eats With Me
In the foreword to Atef Abu Saif’s diaries chronicling the 51-day Israeli incursion in Gaza during the summer of 2014, Noam Chomsky writes that “descriptive and analytical prose is too cold, too remote from the human tragedy that is depicted [here]… Further explanation seems only to sully what Atef Abu Saif conveys with such simple dignity and eloquence.” Indeed, a similar conundrum faces the reviewer, forced to deliver a verdict on the pages beneath your fingertips, weighing up the prose, the imagery, the use of realism, before making the final judgement.
But, as Chomsky rightly points out, The Drone Eats With Me defies such conventional forms of analysis and scrutiny, just as the bare facts of Operation Protective Edge defy the logic of human understanding and compassion. More than 2,000 Gazans killed, mostly civilians, and a further 11,000 injured as a result of air, land and sea bombardments; compared to a death toll of 66 Israeli soldiers and 5 civilians. The political debates regarding who started the war, and why, have been pored over and picked apart by the international media, with both Israeli and Palestinian politicians blaming the other side and refusing to shoulder the blame.
And yet, the facts alone do not help us understand what it is like to live life from moment to moment, surrounded by death and destruction and fearing the arrival of the bomb that will finally end it all. The facts alone do not convey what it feels like to go to sleep with your arms around your spouse, hoping they will still be there when you open your eyes in the morning; or to see the fear in your children’s eyes and have nothing to offer them but lies and empty promises. The facts alone simply cannot capture what it means to live through 51 days of constant bombings, the scent of death lingering in the burning air along with clouds of acrid smoke that make your eyes water and burn your lungs. Facts alone cannot kill; that privilege is for war alone.
The Drone Eats With Me is an evocative and searing account of the daily realities of war, told in simple and at times brutally honest prose. Abu Saif’s diaries offer a series of vignettes that depict real people struggling with the real dangers and difficulties of carving a life for themselves in the centre of a warzone. Through Abu Saif’s eyes, we see death at close quarters, witness “its brutality, its vulgarity, its mercilessness”, its power to “snatch away the beauty of life”; through his nose, we smell the “fragrance” of war, the “disgusting” stench of death; through his ears we hear the “echoes of explosions”, learn to distinguish between the “all-engulfing, all-encompassing boom” of shells launched from ships from the “hollower sound” of tank rockets, leaving “an echo in the air”, from the constant humming of the drones as they circle, waiting to strike. But most of all, through Abu Saif’s words we come close to understanding the ebb and flow of a life lived on the edge of death, of an entire people holding its breath, striving to live when there is nothing to do but die.
And yet, despite the horror that surrounds them, despite the way in which “everything becomes normal; the barbarity of it, the terror, the danger”, people somehow get on with their lives, living in pause in between the falling of shells. What makes this book so remarkable is not just the stylised and simplistic description of war, but the way in which it shines a light on everyday rituals of survival as people attempt to imbue meaning in a meaningless world. Even when surrounded by death, life somehow goes on; people meet in cafes, drink coffee, play games, search for food, cut their hair, and fast during Ramadan. And in all of this, the war is both active participant and sly observer. In describing the breaking of the Ramadan fast one evening, Abu Saif writes:
“Darkness eats with us. Fear and anxiety eat with us. The unknown eats with us. The F16 eats with us. The drone, and is operator somewhere out in Israel, eat with us.”