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We Got Lost in Gaza

Maya Arad
May 28, 2024
Editor’s note: Maya Arad will participate in the Jerusalem International Writers Festival in Mishkenot Sha’ananim taking place on May 27-30. 

When my daughter was a little girl, she loved hearing stories about my childhood. As far as she could tell, the place where I grew up was strange and exotic. A place where the muezzin’s call to prayer woke you up every morning before sunrise, only for you to turn over and keep on sleeping. A place where a 5-year-old girl would watch her 1-year-old sister overnight, knowing that if the baby woke up, all she had to do was run to the nearby shelter, the one with the TV, and alert her parents. A place where dogs and children roamed freely and no one had to make any plans in advance but just walk in and declare: Got any candy? I’m here to share your 4 o’clock snack!

Every single detail from my childhood strikes my daughter as awe-inspiring, a relic from long-gone times and faraway lands. Being recruited to pick up potatoes in the field and milk goats before school. Getting our clothes from a shared warehouse, each marked with our names. Teenagers smoking freely on the school bus. Celebrating a birthday by getting lost in Gaza.

It happened during H’s ninth birthday. Her dad, who always had inventive and original ideas, promised us a bonfire with a special surprise. We gathered in the evening, a few girls, in the kibbutz’s commercial GMC van, and after a short ride we got off and walked to the place where the bonfire was supposed to take place. On and on we walked, into the thicket of trees, until H’s dad stopped us, asked us to huddle together tightly, and informed us, quietly and coolly, that he had something important to tell us.

“Listen,” he said to us group of third graders, “I don’t know exactly how this happened, but we got lost and we’re in Gaza. Now it’s all up to you whether we make it out of here. Got it?”

The girls all nodded silently. No one cried or collapsed, but you could feel the tension. H’s dad promised that if we cooperated and followed instructions, we’d make it home safe and sound. He was just about to explain his exit plan, but then I piped up. I pointed toward the lights of Gaza City, straight ahead in the west. “I think we’re in the Simchoni Forr …”

Even as a 9-year-old, I was already a spoilsport and a party pooper. I never had much of a sense of direction, but I knew the exit from the kibbutz very well. Left turn to Gaza, right to Beersheba. I’d been to Beersheba dozens of times. I’d only visited Gaza twice, even though it was just 2 or 3 kilometers from the kibbutz. It wasn’t the kind of place to bring your kids to, but when we absolutely had to—like, for example, when we needed to buy a new bicycle—my father and I drove there, to Gaza. I don’t remember much from that drive. Just my father tensing up when we crossed over. Waving hello at the IDF patrol, to let them know: We’re Israelis, look after us. The Peugeots with the white license plates. The signs in Arabic. Hardly any kids playing in the street. We went straight to the bike shop. They welcomed us courteously. Israeli customers would come in all the time back in those days. I picked a sky-blue colored bike, we paid up and loaded it onto the car, and we drove straight home, to the kibbutz. My dad wouldn’t stop to buy me a Seven Up at the kiosk, even though I begged. Buying sugar canes and prickly pears from the kids who sold them at the Beit Lahiah junction was one thing, but a kiosk in the heart of Gaza was another.

All this is to say that as a party pooper, I had a strong feeling we weren’t in Gaza. In fact, the eucalyptus grove where we were lost looked suspiciously like Simchoni Forrest, which lay between our kibbutz and the nearby kibbutz of Kfar Aza, and which we passed every morning on our way to the regional school. H’s dad, who had the rare ability to read the room even in complete darkness, understood exactly what I was about to say. He interrupted me, asked the other girls to stay put, and took me aside. First of all, he complimented me, in spades. I was smart, he said. I couldn’t be fooled. He should’ve known that I would immediately grasp that the whole thing was a planned prank. You’re right, he said, we’re in Simchoni Forrest, not Gaza. And now that he’d let me in on the joke, would I please collaborate until the game was over?

Of course I agreed. I was a party pooper, but not immune to compliments. H’s dad taught us how to sound off and be counted. How to walk in complete silence. How to drop to the ground and roll to the side every time we heard a suspicious noise, and how to camouflage ourselves behind the bushes. I followed the instructions with everybody else, feeling a special sort of satisfaction in being the only one in on the secret. But at the end, when each girl had to silently walk alone toward a point of light between the trees, where H’s mom was waiting with a cake and snacks and a roaring bonfire, my heart still pounded as I walked alone in the dark, even though I knew it was only a game.

This was my daughter’s favorite story. She would listen to it again and again, amused and a bit astonished that this was considered an appropriate pastime for children where I grew up. Why did I remember that story now? I’m not sure. I’m just waiting for H’s dad to take me aside and tell me I’m right, it was all a game.

Maya Arad lived in Kibbutz Nachal Oz between the ages of 2 and 11.

Maya Arad is the author of 11 books of Hebrew fiction, as well as studies in literary criticism and linguistics. Born in Israel, she lives in California where she is currently writer in residence at Stanford University’s Taube Center for Jewish Studies.