Reading anyone’s diaries, Raph Cormack writes, carries with it a prurient fascination. But Atef Abu Saif’s self-translated The Drone Eats with Me: Diaries from a City Under Fire (2015) confronts the reader with the question: In our act of reading, are we down there with the narrator or are we up there with the drone?
By Raph Cormack
In contemporary parlance, “drones” have become a shorthand for something much bigger. As in the case of all words that stand in for much larger concepts, shorthands risk sloppy thinking.
About a year ago, I realized that I had not fully thought through my use of the word “drones.” I was at dinner with someone who had been involved in the military (I don’t think I ever knew exactly in what way) and I raised the issue of “drones.” He was much more primed than me and responded with the argument that they were, essentially, just a technology. Yes, people did some bad things with drones (targeted assassination, killing civilians) but those things were not because of drones; these things happened before drones and would happen without them. In fact, he went on, perhaps drones were better than bombing raids, as they were more accurate and led to fewer mistakes.
At the time, I was unable to come up with a response. It seemed to me that, although people can be bombed without drones, the growth of drone technology makes this much more possible. Drones can hover above Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq or elsewhere dropping bombs without worrying about too much about consequences, or so it appeared. However, I didn’t know enough to speak authoritatively on the subject.
It was reading The Drone Eats with Me by Atef Abu Saif that gave me another way to think about the issue. A drone is not “just a technology”; it is a technology that hangs disturbingly in the sky, incessantly watching. Abu Saif’s book, a diary of the war in Gaza in the summer of 2014, captures the many ways in which this is psychologically disturbing. The diaries also go a step further and connect the drone and the reader in an unsettling way.
While under the bombs, Abu Saif meticulously records, where he can, details of war: the names and ages of those dead, the buildings destroyed. He also records the minutiae of his daily life: getting food, watching soap operas, having a shave. He is compelled to record not only the big events but the mundane too. In the afterword, he mocks his own urge to take the dangerous journey to the internet café to send his diaries.
Another main character in the narrative is the faceless drone operator, scrutinizing every detail he can see from his faraway terminal. Small details from across Gaza are beamed back to his screen. Perhaps, Abu Saif speculates, even pictures of him and his wife sitting on his blue sofa. For Abu Saif, the drone is a constant intrusion. Its heat sensors see him smoking shisha, and he imagines it in his bedroom and at his pre-dawn meal when “the drone, and its unknown operator somewhere out there in Israel, eat with us.” There is a constant presence looking over every detail of his life.
The drone and its presence get deep in to Abu Saif’s psyche. He describes “the inevitable whir of a drone, sounding so close it could be right beside us.” He adds that, “It’s like it wants to join us for the evening, and has pulled up an invisible chair.” This constant presence is something you don’t get with a plane, and it has clearly affected the narrator deeply. Silences in these diaries are punctuated by the hum of drones. The book captures this constant presence, an aspect of the drone campaign not featured in official numbers.
From a literary perspective, the presence of the drone in Abu Saif’s diaries also does something very interesting, but also unsettling, to the reader. The genre of private, personal memories is already a voyeuristic one. Reading anyone’s diaries carries with it a prurient fascination. Here, we are confronted with the question: In our act of reading, are we down there with the narrator or are we up there with the drone? Two separate figures watch the narrator, and they sometimes appear uncomfortably close.
This would be true in any situation. However, in Gaza it is even more on display. Gaza, particularly in times of high media coverage, is both totally isolated and heavily scrutinized. This contradiction is always present in Abu Saif’s diaries. Activists, during bombardments, are given random phone numbers to ring in Gaza to express their solidarity. On the 11th of July, the author receives a phone call from a Frenchwoman who rings to show her support. Abu Saif, who knows a few words of French, thanks her and she begins a long sentence which he does not understand. He ends the call, “Merci pour votre solidarité.” “De rien,” she says. One wonders who got more out of the exchange, Abu Saif or the activist who gets the glimpse into life in Gaza the reader of this book craves.
When drone policy is debated, deaths and destruction rightly take the central place. However, Atef Abu Saif’s diaries show some of the drone’s real psychological power, which cannot be ignored. More than this, Abu Saif plays with the reader. He brings us in to this relationship between himself and the drone, but he never lets us know exactly where we are. Reading becomes surveillance, and the experience is unsettling.
Raphael Cormack is a PhD student at Edinburgh University working on 19th and 20th Century Egyptian Literature. His blog is http://ergamegala.wordpress.com/