Love in a time of conflict

Couple on a beach in Gaza Image copyright ALAMY

Gaza is more often associated with conflict than love - but when Marie Keyworth spent time with a family there, she found romance was very much part of young people's lives.

After a morning with the family, lunch, it transpired, would take at least another hour-and-a-half to cook. Their eldest son - who I'll call Ahmad - was my guide and translator. With us was a female friend of his, who I'll call Safaa. Both were in their mid-20s.

Ahmad suggested we while away the time up on the roof of the house. "I will take you to my safe place," he announced, as he walked up the two flights of stairs and through a door that opened up to the glaring sunshine, and a view across the rooftops of Gaza City.

The rooftop wasn't large, but there was plenty up there. In one spot someone was growing herbs - mint, basil and thyme. Next to that, in the corner, was a coop filled with pigeons. And on the far side was a shelter made of dried palm fronds trussed together. The end result was a shady box, much like a sauna but for keeping cool. Ahmad's "safe place".

Inside there was room for a single bed and a couple of plastic chairs. Ahmad proudly asked us to sit. "This is the only place I can come to feel peaceful and happy," he said again.

Of course it doesn't take a genius to work out that some palm leaves trussed together with twine would do nothing to protect Ahmad and his siblings from the shells that fall on Gaza whenever a conflict erupts there. But what the shelter does provide is something equally important - a kind of psychological security. Something painfully absent from Gazan lives, and something Ahmad clearly craved.

"During the day I come up here and lie in the shade, everything is peaceful. It's my happy place," he told me.

And you could just about see it. Up there on the roof we paused and listened - the world far away below. It was almost silent, save for the rustle of birds and the shuffle of someone pottering by the herbs. You could almost forget you were in one of the most densely populated and frequently bombed places on earth.

But of course the reality for Gaza is the constant threat of war. I asked Ahmad a question about last summer's confrontation with Israel, and the strength he had to muster to discuss it without breaking down was obvious. "I never talk about it," he said, his eyes turning immediately glassy with tears he battled to contain. Safaa agreed, "The things I have seen - dead bodies in the streets. I lost two friends last summer."

They both valiantly answered a few of my questions. And then the subject moved on. Now I don't know how it happened but we started talking about boyfriends and girlfriends, and love. Something suddenly changed. The tense atmosphere melted away. We gobbled up each other's storytelling with enthusiasm.

"Technically in Gaza you're not allowed to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend," they tell me, and all romantic exploits are reserved for when you're married. But that doesn't stop young people from meeting, falling in love, and playing out their courtships in snatched moments when out with friends and having tea, with parents always present.

Safaa and Ahmad bickered and shared tips on tactics and deceptions. Ahmad appeared to be in the profound throes of love. He talked about his feelings with an impressive certainty for a relationship that was only three months old. Safaa was the same age but far more worldly-wise, having already been married and divorced. It emerged after much prodding (from both of us) that Ahmad had not yet kissed his girlfriend. This, Safaa found hilarious. "What? You say you love her and you haven't kissed her? You're crazy. And why haven't you kissed her? Are you scared?"

We both mercilessly mocked Ahmad as he explained he was "taking it slow". But also that it was impossible because they were never alone. Safaa - clearly not the romantic - instructed him to try harder. Then it was lunchtime, and the gossiping had to stop.

Two days later I went back to see the family. Safaa and I picked up Ahmad from the town centre to go back to the house. He hopped into the armoured car with a certain bounce. "Yes, I've had a good day," he told us. And after exchanging a few pleasantries he broke the news. "Guess what?"

"What?" we asked

"I kissed her. Last night. Not once but three times."

We drove along, listening to Ahmad's detailed account of his romantic triumph all the way to his house. After all, it's far more fun to talk about stolen kisses than it is to talk about bombs.

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