The ice-cream maker of Gaza
In the heart of Gaza city, one man is making and selling ice cream that is famous among Israelis and Palestinians alike.
"First time in Gaza?" said the tall, suited man who caught up with us as we heaved our body armour onto the motorbike trailer, and began to wheel the rest along the concrete walkway towards the entry checkpoint. Ashraf Abushaban then tagged along. His holdall was full, he said, of small denomination shekel coins for his shop. He had just been on a course in Tel Aviv about making Italian ice cream.
He was in fact the owner and manager of the celebrated Kazem Ice Cafe, purveyor to Gaza, for more than half a century, of ice creams, sundaes, and slush of the most lurid colours and extravagant flavours you've ever seen.
It's hard to give you a sense of quite how odd that seems.
Ice cream, to me, is about happy days in the sunshine, holidays, beaches and laughing children. It is, above all, about safe normality. There isn't a lot of that right now in Gaza.
Of course there are lots and lots of children. The beaches are certainly long and golden, and in fact Ashraf has just opened a new branch by the beach in Gaza City. And, despite the apocalyptic destruction in parts of the city from last year's war, you do also see a lot of giggling, playing children among the ruins. And every last one of them knows about Kazem's ice cream. The group of five we found sitting on a pile of rubble with small empty tubs, shrieked in approval when we asked if Kazem's was the place to go for such treats.
"They're so used to war," Ashraf says. "Gelato and the beach are maybe the only way to express their feelings."
But of course it all costs money. Not much - a couple of shekels, about 20p, for a small pot. But at the end of each month, Ashraf waits to see if the civil servants get paid by the Palestinian Authority - business will be tight, he knows, if they don't.
We got to know Ashraf a bit better in the few days we spent in Gaza. He's a quietly spoken, slim businessman, with a passion for the trade he inherited from his father, and many friends on both sides of the border.
He proudly showed us the shiny Italian gelato machines installed in the back rooms of his cafe building. When he was trying to import them, it was hard to convince the Israelis apparently that there wasn't some other, more threatening purpose for the tall chrome boxes with pipes and chutes and nozzles.
It's likely at least some of the machines were hauled through the tunnels under the border with Egypt, until that smuggling operation was closed down a few months back. Now that's a strange image: young men in pitch darkness, sweating to drag huge boxes through rickety holes in the sand, and all so that Gazans could eat fine ice cream.
Ashraf has every right to be proud of the cafe he has built above the street front shop just a couple of blocks up from the sea in Gaza City. It's a kind of 50s diner with coloured upholstery almost as garish as the ice cream he's serving.
But grey and grim reality is never far away. Almost directly opposite, across the road, is the wreckage of an apartment block demolished by an Israeli missile last August. "Took out all our windows," Ashraf says. But the cafe and shop reopened within weeks of the end of the fighting.
He draws some comfort from the fact that the Israelis do know who he is and what he is doing. During the August war, at one point their military spokesman apparently said if Israeli troops launched a ground invasion, they would be "eating ice cream in Kazem's in half an hour".
And what about Hamas - the hardline Islamists who run the Gaza Strip? In a place where they put up big posters discouraging young men from wearing low-slung jeans, how do they take to that other staple of American influenced youth culture - a cup of multi-flavoured ice slush?
"Very nice," said Ghazi Hamed, the deputy foreign minister for Hamas. "Everyone here knows Kazem's."
And now so do I. The question you're asking - how good is it? Well I, of course, chose the most over the top confection I could find on Kazem's laminated menu. It was, let's say, colourful and the ice cream was pistachio, mango and raspberry I think. And I have to say - and this is one of the oddest things - from the decrepit heart of a half-destroyed city in a besieged and blockaded enclave, sometimes described as the biggest open air prison in the world, comes the best ice cream I have ever tasted.
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