One Man's Struggle to Do Business in Gaza Palestinian computer entrepreneur Hadi Abushahla is determined to run his businesses and lead a normal life. But the realities of daily life in Gaza intrude on his optimistic outlook.

One Man's Struggle to Do Business in Gaza

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

A year ago President Bush made this statement about the Middle East during a press conference at the White House.

(Soundbite of press conference)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I believe we've got a great chance to establish a Palestinian state, and I intend to use the next four years to spend the capital of the United States on such a state.

NORRIS: Now that Israel has pulled out, the Gaza Strip could be the beginning of the viable, credible Palestinian state President Bush seeks, which raises the question: What exactly is a viable state? Over the coming months we'll take a look at the reality of economic viability in Gaza by following one Palestinian businessman. Whether a determined shop owner can thrive may offer clues about the future. Can the region find stability and growth, or will it return to violence? Nancy Updike spent several weeks with this Gaza entrepreneur, and she has our first story.

NANCY UPDIKE reporting:

Gaza needs a certain kind of person. It needs Palestinians who, by dint of their money, brains, gumption or luck, could be living elsewhere, making better money and keeping their blood pressure down but who are willing to come to Gaza and be changed by the place, even if they hope to help Gaza change.

Mr. ABDELHADI "HADI" ABUSHAHLA (Computer Store Owner): In Gaza the minute you open your eyes in the morning, you know that you're in a totally different place. Everything is different.

UPDIKE: Four years ago Hadi Abushahla left London and a successful career as an export manger to move to Gaza City and start a computer store. When he arrived, he wore cuff links every day. His Arabic was marginal and had the wrong accent. He copied his mother's West Bank style, not his father's Gazan one. He was 27 years old, and he'd been visiting Gaza since he was 18. Living here, he found out, is not like visiting.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: You'd go to the biggest gym in Gaza called Rosy's, and they've got two treadmills. The last gym I had joined in London was about--you'd be standing on one treadmill in a line of 50. You'd have remote control on your neck connected to your speakers. You'd be watching CNN or MTV at the same time that you're jogging. Here you have the local stereo on the side, and one guy wants Arabic music while the other guy wants dance music. I've put on over 20 kilograms of weight since I've come into Gaza.

UPDIKE: That's 44 pounds. For each ounce he's gone up, Abushahla's learned something important about living and doing business in Gaza. Don't wear cuff links; people will think you're a show-off. Cultivate the hard G's of the Gazan dialect if you don't want to sound girlish. Do not expect policemen to enforce the law. Get used to not being able to import anything for weeks at a time. And have faith that everything will get better, no matter what you see or hear.

(Soundbite of sonic boom)

UPDIKE: That's a sonic boom at around 1:30 in the morning, but the sound is actually a lot louder than that. It shatters glass and sets off car alarms. Sonic booms went on for several days in Gaza at the end of September. For at least two of those days, they were happening every two or three hours day and night: Israeli warplanes flying low over Gaza after Islamist militants fired rockets at the Israeli town of Siderot. The week of the sonic booms, Abushahla, who has a boyish full face and a goatee, sat at his store on Omar Mukhtar Street waiting for customers who were not coming.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: Let's look out the window. This is the main road in Gaza, OK? So it's like Oxford Street in London. We have a mosque being built in front of us; that's where all the racket is coming from. Normally here you have traffic jams on this road. Next week is Ramadan, and so now is the time for people to go and buy stuff they need, run around, do the shopping. You don't see much of that happening at the moment.

UPDIKE: A computer store in Gaza, even more than most businesses, is a bet on the future. Abushahla's place is an ambitious, sleek, two-floor, glass and steel showroom called Information Technology Partners, ITP. Competition surprisingly is fierce. Abushahla keeps his profit margins as low as he can stand.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: A brand-new Pentium 4 PC with a 17-inch monitor--with, with, with--for $367.

UPDIKE: That means Abushahla makes about $5.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: I'm forced to do things like this because--I'll give you a simple example. I have many small companies who buy from me as wholesale. He buys from me the PC at $400. He is prepared to sell it at $390.

UPDIKE: Which sounds like a loss, but the guy sells for cash, so he has cash in his pocket because Abushahla has given him two weeks' or a month credit. And a lot of times Abushahla just doesn't get paid back. The bind is that he can't afford not to give credit. It's the norm in Gaza for businesses his size. So he's now owed more than $55,000. Some debts go back a year. He pulls out his date book.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: My third item on my list today is debts. There's also the third item on Tuesday, the fourth item on Monday. It's always there.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

UPDIKE: It's 10 days later. Abushahla's in his big apartment full of cream-and-gold furniture on the ninth floor in a posh neighborhood called Talahawa(ph). It's around 10 at night. He's looking out the window. Ramadan has started.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: I've actually started sort of being able to distinguish by the sound of the shooting. This is M-16. This is a what the things they call, I think, an 800, sort of the heavier machine guns.

(Soundbite of shooting)

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: There's something down this road. See. There's a guy hiding behind that (audio loss) over there.

(Soundbite of shooting)

UPDIKE: Abushahla had planned on being open at night during Ramadan. It's usually a time people stay out late going to cafes, shopping. In Gaza tonight's unknown shooters never even make the news. Gunfire is too common.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: Remember that explosion I told you about that sort of broke glass into our house and...

UPDIKE: Before Abushahla can get into this story, Natalie(ph), his wife, walks over to the window to pull us away, asking for a reprieve.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: ...driving up this road.

NATALIE (Abushahla's Wife): Please give some rest or a break.


(Soundbite of gunfire)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of car door opening)

UPDIKE: Abushahla is taking a drive to a place that plagues him and rules his work life but that he's never been to before. It's Gaza's import-export point called Karni. Israel usually closes Karni when there's violence in Gaza, whether the violence is at Karni or elsewhere. Gaza businessmen never know when it'll open up again once it's been closed. Karni's now been closed for about two weeks, but Abushahla's heard that today it's open so he's going to check on an overdue order, a couple of laptops.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: I got my purchase order--remember I showed you the purchase order actually. It was about a week ago for Paltel.

UPDIKE: Paltel's the phone company, very important customer.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: And at the time they gave me a limit, I think, of two weeks to bring them the items and I promised them that the day after Karni opens, items will be here.

(Soundbite of traffic)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

UPDIKE: At Karni there are some trucks but no computers. Open, it turns out, meant partially open. Abushahla is visibly frustrated.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: I mean, I wouldn't have believed this if I hadn't seen it. The doors that my items would have come in from haven't opened at all. Now I'm going to have a problem with my customer tomorrow because he's going to call me. He's going to say, `Karni was open yesterday. Why didn't my laptops come in?'

UPDIKE: At the office Abushahla imagines a near future that's better, full of laptops that arrive on time and lots of other changes, too.

Mr. ABUSHAHLA: I would like to have a cinema open in Gaza. I'd like to take my wife and go watch a movie, for God's sake. I'd like the newspapers to write whatever they feel like. I would like to be--for Gaza to have freedom of speech. If Gaza is cleaned of arms within the next six months, I mean, that would be wonderful. It's as simple as that.

UPDIKE: In Gaza, Nancy Updike for NPR News.

NORRIS: Next time in our series, the art of the haggle and doing business when the most simple transactions get buried in complications.

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