Like many places in the Middle East, when we think of Gaza the images that spring to mind are ruined houses, exploding shells, orphaned children, and political treaties in tatters. Yet, like so many places that we only see horrifying glimpses of in the media, even in Gaza there is hope, beauty, and life.
Last year, Al-Andalus Experience received a tour request from a young journalist in Gaza, Yasmine, who wanted to arrange a trip for herself and her family. By the time our admin department had sent her a plan for our popular ‘Within the Heart of Al-Andalus’ 7-night tour, we heard that the family were already in Jordan, en route to Europe! Within 24 hours, Ahmed Zaruq picked them up from Malaga airport, an hour and a half by road from our base in Granada.
We began the tour in Ronda, with an overview of the different historical phases of the Iberian Peninsual, from pre-history to modern times. After delicious seafood meal at Línea de la Conception, a stone’s throw from Gibraltar – named after the Arabic Jabal Tariq, or Tariq’s mountain – we headed on towards Córdoba. But Yasmine’s family made a special request along the way: to visit a particular cactus garden in Seville.
Having worked for many years as a gardener, our chief guide Ahmed Zaruq was more than happy to make a detour, and as it turned out, our visitors wished to see a number of different plant nurseries along the way. Subtropical gardens in around Malaga and the Costa del Sol also provided inspiration for the greenfingered family, and before we knew it, our visitors were snapping up dozens of specimens to take home with them!
What at first seemed like an impossible task quickly became a reality, as the family bought a further five jumbo sized suitcases to carry home all their exotic purchases, which easily fitted into our 7-seater A-class Mercedes 170 minivan. We carefully wrapped each one of the plants and fitted them together like a jigsaw puzzle inside the suitcases. Two of the five cases were used only for tiny cactii, each one only 5 to 10 cm each; once the roots had been cleaned and they had been wrapped up in newspaper they looked like tennis balls. All in all, over 500€ had been spent on cactii, mostly protected species which had been grown under license for commercial sale.
Though it seemed impossible that all of the plants would make it through customs back to Gaza, incredibly, all arrived safely and proceeded to be planted out in Yasmine’s family’s project, the Gaza Archaeo Garden, a wonderful botanical garden in the heart of Palestine. The flowering cactus is a potent symbol for the barbs of aggression giving way to beautiful blooms of many colours. You can see it in action in the video and photo stream below:
In these times of political turmoil, a constant dripfeed of terrible news about the Palestine-Israel conflict, and the general misrepresentation of Muslims and Muslim countries in our media, it is heartening to see a project such as the Gaza Archaeo Garden – quite literally – taking root. Yasmine’s younger brother had commented to Ahmed Zaruq during their trip to Andalusia that his homeland was not such a terrible to place to live; life was pretty normal there, except for certain areas. He seemed sad at the situation his people were in, but it did not make him lose heart about the future. His whole family showed nothing but enthusiasm, interest and spirit throughout their trip with us.
As we send them our messages of hope and solidarity today, our prayers for peace and protection, we ask ourselves what the future holds, for them and for us. At times it seems that the political players of today’s world are content to push forward with dangerous, illegal plans that harm individuals and societies as a whole, safe in bulletproof offices while the people on the ground are the ones to suffer. But we have the utmost admiration for people who live with the constant threat of tanks, snipers, and government bills that treat them as ‘collateral damage’, and yet still look to the future with hope for the survival of a life worth living.
We as historians look to the lessons of the past to learn about the patterns that society repeats. It is a study that leads us all too often to lose faith in humanity. But the example of Al-Andalus yields some timely clues about the success of pluralistic, multifaith societies. The keys are invariably mutual respect, tolerance and cooperation; more than anything, hope for the future must remain alive. Seeing a project such as the Gaza Archaeo Garden gives us hope for a Gaza – and a world – where life can continue to flourish.