The Cultural Challenges of Life in Gaza Hadi Abushahla moved from London to Gaza four years ago to open a computer store. In the latest in a series of stories about the entrepreneur, we explore the difficult transition for Abushahla's family.

The Cultural Challenges of Life in Gaza

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Lawlessness has spread in the Gaza Strip since Israel's withdrawal four months ago. Clashes between armed factions and security forces are intensifying as Palestinians head toward elections expected later this month. Since Israel's withdrawal we've been following the story of a 31-year-old Palestinian entrepreneur named Hadi Abushahla. He was raised in London and four years ago he moved to Gaza, where his father grew up. to open a computer store. The transition has been difficult. Today Nancy Updike looks at why Abushahla moved to Gaza in the first place and how his decision to stay affects those closest to him.

(Soundbite of television program)

NANCY UPDIKE reporting:

Right next to their apartment building in Gaza City is a small grocery store, and Abushahla's wife Natali is scanning the refrigerator shelves for milk. The cashier is glued to an Egyptian movie on TV.

Ms. NATALI ABUSHAHLA (Wife): Oh, no, they don't have fresh milk. (Foreign language spoken)

UPDIKE: Natali stands out in Gaza. She has dark shoulder-length hair she does not cover up, and wide-set eyes. She wears tiny diamond earrings. She was born and raised in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Both of her parents are originally from Gaza but she's only lived here a couple of years and she's still not used to the fact that dairy products, which come in from Israel, are one of the first things stores run out of when the cargo crossing into Gaza is closed.

(Soundbite of cooking noises)

UPDIKE: Natali's decided to make a nostalgia meal for breakfast. She's frying up French toast. She learned how to make it from an American friend at university. She misses her friends and family every day.

Ms. N. ABUSHAHLA: When they knew that I'm getting married with Hadi, they're really shocked and saying, `OK, good luck, but try to let Hadi come to Dubai and work in Dubai.' And they are afraid to work here and `We miss you.'

UPDIKE: Natali came to Gaza on vacation with her mother two years ago. Then she decided to stay. She started a job she loves, working for an aid organization funded by the US, met Abushahla one day at the job and married him six months later. She's building her life in Gaza, but every once in a while she does say to her husband, `Let's get out. Let's move to Dubai.'

Gaza is the lifelong question for a lot of Palestinians who were raised outside Gaza but have roots here. Some stay outside in London or Cleveland or Dubai; some choose Gaza. Neither choice is pain-free. The decision of Abushahla and his whole family to return to Gaza has reshaped their lives, but at least they're all together. Natali has to make do without her family.

Ms. N. ABUSHAHLA: No, I'm not going--for my family to ask them to come back.

UPDIKE: Come to Gaza?

Ms. N. ABUSHAHLA: Yeah. I know it's very difficult for my sisters.

UPDIKE: When you tell them, you know, you should come to Gaza what do you say to convince them? What do you tell them?

Ms. N. ABUSHAHLA: There's no way to convince them. Just try and say, `Now you have your sister here. You will find--I will cook for you. You will try something.' And they say, `OK, you're crazy.'

Mr. OMAR ABUSHAHLA (Hadi's Brother): I've always known that this is where I belong eventually. I mean, I've always known that this is home.

UPDIKE: Abushahla's new business partner is his 25-year-old brother, Omar. Omar was the last member of the family to leave London. He's been in Gaza less than a year, fresh out of graduate school for chemical engineering. He and Abushahla are good friends with a clear hierarchy. Omar defers in business decisions to his tough-minded older brother. It's easy to picture Omar in London. He shows up at work at the computer store in his Diesel jeans with his hair slicked back from his widow's peak. On his desk all the Post-it notes are in English. But like a lot of young, observant Muslims who were born and raised in Europe, he found parts of his home culture impossible to accept.

Mr. O. ABUSHAHLA: All of the guys in my class would be drinking and getting pissed and everything and I'd be...

UPDIKE: Getting pissed--getting drunk?

Mr. O. ABUSHAHLA: Yeah. The thing is why on Earth would you want to do that to yourself? You're going to wake up and you're going to have done really stupid things most of the time. I mean, at least, I don't know, you puked in the couch.

UPDIKE: Yeah. College life is a pretty strong indictment of drinking even though there are other ways to drink that are not quite so repulsive.

Mr. O. ABUSHAHLA: Yeah, but, I mean, we have--I mean, as in my religion (Foreign language spoken). Basically, if something you drink a lot of makes you drunk, drinking a little bit of it is bad. Don't do it.

Ms. ABEER ABUSHAHLA (Hadi's Sister): When I first came here I was very, very depressed and I couldn't live here. And I was like waiting for any chance to leave.

UPDIKE: Abushahla's younger sister, Abeer, is at the local fast-food joint. It's called Quick Pick. She owns and runs a nursery and the 20 kids, including her son, are on their very first outing. Abeer looks a lot like Abushahla--full-faced, big eyes, impish smile--but her life is very different. She's divorced, a single mother. Coming to Gaza was her only option when she and her husband split up four years ago. The rest of her family, including Abushahla, had already moved to Gaza. It's hard for her.

(Soundbite of children's voices)

Ms. A. ABUSHAHLA: I met guys who have wanted to marry me and they've always faced the problem even if they liked me they come to the part where their family, `No, she's divorced.'

(Soundbite of toy laser)

UPDIKE: Back at the nursery most of the kids are gone except Abeer's son, Kareem(ph), who's running around firing a toy laser. Abeer goes into her office, closes the door and lights up a cigarette. If Abushahla were here they'd have a fight about it. He doesn't approve of smoking for women. He smokes about 30 cigarettes a day. In Gaza men smoke, women never do, at least not in public.

Ms. A. ABUSHAHLA: A woman who smokes is a nightmare. To them it's very wrong and people here they--they're just waiting for the chance to talk about--you know, like, `Oh, she's divorced and she smokes? Oh my God, she's unspoken. Oh, you know, she's really bad.'

UPDIKE: And what is it--I mean, I want to make sure I understand. The fact that you're divorced and that you smoke, does that mean that you're sleeping around? I mean, what is the implication of those things?

Ms. A. ABUSHAHLA: Yeah, you're bad-mannered. And so if someone does come and say, `Oh, she sleeps around,' they will believe it a lot easier than if you didn't. I mean, I couldn't change everyone around and so I have to just accept their way of life.

Mr. HADI ABUSHAHLA (Gaza Entrepreneur): In a place like Gaza you have to fight every single day with your bare hands, with your teeth, with your--you have to claw at every single step of the way in order to make anything of yourself.

UPDIKE: Abushahla is at the computer store, sitting at his desk decorated with a tiny Nerf football printed with a British flag and a photo of his wife Natali as a little girl. He had a rough week at the end of December. His storefront window was shattered by a sonic boom from an Israeli warplane. A man was shot dead just down the street and a customer threatened to lob a grenade into the store because his motherboard was broken. Abushahla's dream is that that kind of week will some day be an unbelievable story he'll tell his future kids. But he has no illusions about the difficulties he's choosing to face or the pleasures he's left behind.

Mr. H. ABUSHAHLA: I didn't leave London because I hated it or because the people aren't pleasant. It is the happiest memories of my life. It's as simple as that. Everything in London to me was incredible. But Gaza is where I wanted to bring my kids up, is where I wanted to get married, is where when I wanted to put my own capital into work I wanted it to start from Gaza. I wanted to prove to the world that Palestinians have it in them to build a country like all other nations have built their countries. Now I actually never expected Gaza to be this bad, but I've always had optimism. I've always told myself things will get better.

UPDIKE: Nancy Updike for NPR News in Gaza.

BLOCK: And you can hear Abeer Abushahla talk about women in Gaza and hear the earlier stories in our series at npr.org.

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