Fatherhood in a Conflict Zone

We move this week to another part of the world, a storied location, rife with fruit for the plucking: Gaza.

I just read another chapter in Globalized Fatherhood, that recent anthropology anthology highlighting the ways in which modern fathers all over the globe are enacting their visions/versions of fatherhood. The chapter is entitled “On Fatherhood in a Conflict Zone: Gaza Fathers and their Children’s Cancer Treatments” and in it, the authors explore the harsh realities faced by fathers of terminally ill children – most dealing with cancer – in the Gaza strip.

The situation is hardly newsworthy to those of us in the Western, media-saturated world: an ongoing conflict in a part of the world hotly contested by multiple religions for decades centuries millenia. Palestine vs Israel, Muslim vs Jew vs Christian, one holy lander vs another holy lander. I’m not going to touch the politics of the region with a ten thousand foot pole. That’s not really what I’m writing about, after all. Ultimately, we have a well-known and highly volatile situation that I need not explain in detail. Let us content ourselves with the fact that the players in our drama can be easily divided by an entirely man-made international border: Poor, landless, Palestinian Muslims on one side; affluent, land-owning, agential Israeli Jews on the other. This is oversimplifying in the extreme, but hey, I’m not writing a book about the topic, so deal with it.

The problem with the Gaza strip is that it is exactly that: a strip. It’s a piece of land with people living on it, and it’s hemmed in tightly. We don’t call it the Gaza serengeti or the Gaza rangeland. It is densely populated and mostly lacking in the trappings of modern society. More to the point, there is not much going for the average Gazan in terms of access to things most Westerners assume are inalienable human rights: healthcare, sanitation, law enforcement, basic human freedoms like speech and clean water. These things are accessible, however, just on the other side of the border – in Israel. And they are available in vast quantities.

Here comes the shitty part.

People living in Gaza deal with the same issues humans all over the globe deal with. They get sick, they lose their jobs, a friend or relative dies, their houses burn down, their children get colds. Nothing about their baseline humanness is original: they suffer as people living in New York City suburbs and Bangladeshi brothels suffer. Gazans are not unique in this regard. We are, after all – all of us – made of the same “star stuff”, as Carl Sagan once said. But what about those Gazans confronting the steely reality of cancer? Why, they have to cross the border into Israel where the cancer treatment clinics can be found. And this in and of itself is no easy feat. Often, people seeking treatment at cancer clinics in Israel are outright denied access to the country; they must return home and pray for a miracle. Others are lucky, and get clearance to cross into Israel. But not, mind you, clearance to come back. Once you’re in, you’re in. If you leave, don’t plan on returning, perhaps ever.

This is a reality for many families living in the Gaza strip. The article I refer to focuses on children with cancer, and how they sought treatment in Israel. Guess who accompanied them, for the most part? If you guessed “their fathers” then you’re correct. There are some excellent reasons for this:

  1. Many Gazan men have fallen on hard times and are un- or underemployed; therefore, “expendable” for long-term absences from the home
  2. Families are typically large: at least two children, often many more. The women are tasked with looking after the rest of the family while the one sick child (and father) go abroad in search of treatment
  3. Women are much less likely to obtain visas to cross into Israel from Gaza

Thus, many Gazan men find themselves accompanying their sick (often dying) children across the border into Israel. They cannot return to Gaza until the treatment is finished. The treatment period is, of course, highly variable: some patients (children as young as several months) are declared in remission or cancer free in no time. Others linger, vacillating between life and death, for months, years even. Throughout, their fathers stay by their bedsides, stroking their withering hands, combing their wispy hair, sponge-bathing their skeletal bodies. The task is thankless, the distance from family seemingly infinite, the isolation in a foreign land – with a foreign tongue, religion, people – is crushing. Most fathers simply retreat into prolonged silence of the most profound sort, only occasionally being afforded the opportunity to call home to their families.

Why do I write about this? Isn’t this awful? Yes, it is. Yet so much of what happens in the world is incredibly awful. Why choose this one, then? Why not choose from a nearly limitless supply of documented human suffering? The article, however, reveals something at once relevant and paramount – relevant to our current understanding of the Arab speaking world and the misalignment of views on Islam; and paramount as in “this shit is really important to be aware of”: the authors describe tender scenes of heartbreaking interaction between sturdy, grim-faced Arab men and their frail, wasting children. Unless you are fluent in Arabic, you probably find your news from media sources that don’t paint speakers of Arabic, practitioners of Islam, and people who pray toward Mecca in the most attractive light. Almost daily, we are fed an image of Arab men, Muslim men, Islamic men as hard-liners; as strict authoritarians, admonishing their wives to adjust their hijabs, drilling their boys to recite lines from the Koran. The image we have of the average Muslim male is, these days, dominated by an ISIS-styled caricature: masked, sword-wielding, spouting archaic phraseology about holy wrath against infidels. This is not the image the article presents. Instead, a soft light is cast on isolated men lovingly caring for dying children, in a foreign land, with little or no knowledge of Hebrew (the language most/all of the hospital staff uses), and little to no access to their families back home. I’ll tell you which image I think is more accurate as regards the average, day to day Arabic-speaking man; it’s not the guy with the sword. It’s the guy with his strong, steady hands on his dying daughter’s cheekbone, watching the sun sink low through the glass of a hospital ward window.

As I sit here on my porch swing in the calm and cool of a mid-spring evening, I am reminded that this plight could just as easily have been mine. We become agents of our personal fortunes with time, piling experiences one atop the other, accruing knowledge then wisdom. But we are not born into this – in this matter we have no choice. I’m smelling the sweet spring air this evening with my wife and child in the room beside me, when I could be desperately fighting for a life-saving procedure, in broken Hebrew, far, far away from everything I know and love. It’s a daily practice: reminding myself that I’m blessed as hell.


Birenbaum-Carmeli, Daphna; Diamond, Yana; Abu Yaman, Maram.

  1. On Fatherhood in a Conflict Zone: Gaza Fathers and their Children’s Cancer Treatments. In Globalized Fatherhood. Marcia C. Inhorn, Wendy Chavkin, and Jose-Alberto Navarro, eds. Pp. 152-174. New York: Berghahn Books.

2 thoughts on “Fatherhood in a Conflict Zone

  1. Jim, I’ve really enjoyed your blog thus far and today’s entry gave me more reasons to be extremely thankful for the life I have in spite of the challenges I’m facing. Thank you.


    1. Thanks, Alex! I really appreciate that you read it! It’s a blessing back to me to know that you are uplifted by something I have written. That’s why I love studying and writing about culture: it regularly refocuses and enlarges my narrow vision of reality. That said, challenging times are challenging times. I hope you find a way through the thick of whatever forest you may find yourself in.


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