It is perhaps a very appropriate year to re-read Gerald Butt's 1995 Life at the Crossroads: A History of Gaza. The many milestones of this 360 sq. km strip of land and particularly the long and rich history of its capital city, Gaza, are at the epicentre of this precise and very comprehensive historical account.
Butt begins almost every one of the 15 chapters in the present and then uses a peg to take readers to an appropriate historical period, thus creating links and frameworks for the present to the past. His message is largely that we have been here; Gaza was not only at the crossroads of civilization but a part of it. Almost half the book is dedicated to Gaza's pre-Islamic and indeed pre-Christian past, emphasizing the often forgotten traditions of the animists and pagans, the Canaanites, the Philistines and, of course, the many invaders.
A rich tradition of trade and economic self-sufficiency is unthinkable to the average Gazan today, but as Butt points out, it was the norm, both hundreds and thousands of years ago. The once vibrant life of Gazan philosophers, musicians and theologians stands in sharp contrast to today's apparently bi-polar society, pitted into two camps of political and social ideology.
Butt maintains that Gaza was burned to the ground so often and managed to re-group and reinvent itself so tenaciously that it is bound to survive and bloom again, in spite of all efforts to keep it down. The 20th century abuse that Gaza was subjected to by all its occupiers is generously laid out by the author, who is a British subject. To understand what another Gaza scholar, Sara Roy of Harvard University, calls the "de-development" of Gaza as a result of Israel's occupation can be understood more fully with a long historical perspective. Keeping Gaza's history in mind makes its state of being today all the more shocking.
The beginning of the 21st century, and 2005 in particular, has brought hope that a long awaited respite is finally beginning and that Gaza and its people will once again be a gem along the Mediterranean. To appreciate it more fully, Butt's Life at the Crossroads is key to understanding just what a fabulous gem it is.
Reviewed by Mariam Shahin
This Week in Palestine - April 2005