A Prequel to a Ghost Story
Late night phone calls and football in the halls
TW: This piece mentions instances of brutal violence related to war.
There’s a haunted hotel in Gaza that only a few know about. To be precise, everyone knows the hotel. It’s where the VIPs stay — journalists, NGO employees, diplomats. Also known as foreigners, but I digress. What I mean to say is that only few know that it’s haunted.
We had just driven past the dusty, brick red building with white trimmings when I was let into the secret. My friend who was giving me a lift to a beachside cafe had previously worked at this hotel. A fan of horror stories with credible narrators, my ears perked up.
“The ghosts, they dance on the roof. You hear it so loudly throughout the building. It sounds like thunder.”
Perhaps against the backdrop of religious conservatism, it felt like an exhilarating novelty to hear someone in Gaza speak so openly of the paranormal. I smiled at these words leading my imagination to new terrain. Leaning in and reciprocating his matter-of-fact energy I asked, “What else do they do?”
“They call each other on the hotel phones from the different rooms. I could see that the phone lines were busy from the receptionist’s desk. The rooms were empty, but the lines were busy.”
The imagery of the red lights inexplicably flashing on the receptionist’s console in the middle of the night riveted me.
“They play football in the halls,” he continued, shoveling more coal into my captivation.
“I believe you,” I concluded. “It’s definitely haunted.” A haunted hotel in Gaza. Now that’s a story, I thought. I’m going to write that story.
Here I am, sat down to write the story. My mind begins by unpacking the ghosts’ antics. I imagine after they dance on the roof, they sit on the edge to rest their legs and catch their breath. This hotel has a stunning view, the dining room with its floor-to-ceiling windows is situated right upon the Mediterranean. Sitting side by side, their legs dangle off the roof. Their laughs howl to the moon hanging low and heavy in the night sky. In my imagination, they’re holding hands. In my daydreaming, I find myself longing to join them.
Late night phone calls and football in the halls. In the summer of 2014, four boys murdered by Israeli airstrikes were playing football on the beach by this hotel when they were killed, their ages between nine and eleven. I’ve been told they were the sons of fishermen. Their bloody bodies were retrieved from the beach by this hotel’s staff and brought to the patio. I wonder if my friend worked there at this time, if he had witnessed this brutal chaos.
I think about the ghosts’ choice to occupy this particular hotel. I stayed there for a few nights the first time I visited Gaza in 2016, before I had officially moved to Palestine. In my few years in Gaza, I returned several times to this hotel for various work dinners and shisha outings. Its high ceilings and low occupancy rate of fleeting foreigners always made it feel eerily empty.
“This hotel is deconflicted,” they told me upon check-in. It was several months later that I learned that when a building is “deconflicted” it simply means that the Israelis commit to not dropping a bomb on it. It would be uncouth to level a building where diplomats enjoy the sunset over the Mediterranean, I guess. A school converted to a war-time safe haven, however, is another story.
I don’t blame the ghosts for choosing a place that’s safe and beautiful. It’s empty most of the time anyways.
It doesn’t seem plausible to me that these ghosts dance to instill fear. What’s more likely is that they dance in joy. They dance to mark their liberation and celebrate their arrival to a liminal space where warplanes can’t reach. They dance to embrace safety they have never been previously afforded.
Late night phone calls and football in the halls. These are the antics of children, not paranormal terrorists. I begin to feel uneasy about these ghosts, the more I am convinced their hauntings are not sinister. They haunt because they’re not ready to be invisible yet.
In my final time crossing out of Gaza in June 2021, less than a month after the intensely violent 11-day war that broke out in May, I noticed a banner had been installed at the Hamas checkpoint. A compilation of photos of the 67 children killed in the latest violent aggression in May. Each photo accompanied by a name and age. Upon entering and exiting Gaza, you are forced to remember. Perhaps therein lies a definition of being haunted: being forced to remember.
Ghost stories at their core are tragedies. They are stories of a soul’s unfinished business, of loss that merits avenging. Perhaps joy — or more specifically, childhood — are my ghosts’ unfinished business. The tragedy of this ghost story lingers in the idea that a beautiful hotel has been converted to a refuge for orphaned souls. There is no place in Gaza that is free from being forced to remember.
I free my mind from the notion that ghosts are beings to be hunted, exorcised, banished, or comically vacuumed up. That their stories are relegated to horror, their characters relegated to antagonists.
In my daydreaming, I find myself longing to join them. I long to write stories that defend the space they take, that celebrates the irreverence of their youthful antics. That upholds the lost time they’re making up for, that mourns their stolen childhoods. In my writing, I find myself longing to hold them.
Note: I originally wrote this piece in July 2021 and posted it on my Medium page. I will occasionally cross-post some of my work here on this platform.
Another note: All photography is mine.