GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The man constantly checked his watch as he stood at the entrance to the Borno Mosque in the center of Gaza City. Anyone coming across him couldn’t help but wonder why he wasn't praying inside with the others. Why did he keep checking his watch? For whom or what was he waiting? Then a man wearing dark glasses exited the mosque. The man at the door guided him and helped him put on his shoes. Al-Monitor asked after the two men and found that the one by the door is a Christian who regularly waits there to assist his blind Muslim friend.
Kamal Tarzi, 55, known as Abu Elias, has stuck by his Muslim friend, the 45-year-old pharmacist Hatem Khreis since Khreis lost his sight preparing a prescription five years ago. Tarzi says he is Khreis’ best friend and eyes.
“Hatem and I have been friends for 15 years, and we have been through joy and pain,” Tarzi told Al-Monitor. “I always accompany him, and people are shocked when they learn that I am Christian and that he is Muslim, given the depth of our relationship.”
Tarzi explained how he came to escort his friend: “After my friend lost his sight, his life turned upside down. He went from preparing medical prescriptions for patients to relying on people’s help to be able to live his daily life and take his own medicine.
“Growing up, Hatem would always perform prayers at the mosque, but after the incident five years ago, he was no longer able to do so because there was no one available to guide him there. I saw how he would shed tears whenever the call to prayer would come from the mosque. That is why I decided to take him to the mosque to pray as he did in the past.
“The first day I helped him get to the mosque, four years ago, he was so happy. So I told him I would be taking him every day to perform all the prayers. He was thrilled to hear my decision. It was as if he had found something he had lost for a long time.”
In the early morning, Tarzi accompanies Khreis to the market to help him buy what he needs. Once the shopping is done, Tarzi goes to his friend's house, and the two sit together to read the headlines.
Tarzi does not work, so he spends most of his time with Khreis. Sentenced to nine years in jail in 1988 by an Israeli court for political activities, Tarzi now lives off his prisoner’s pension from the Palestinian Authority (PA). He served seven years in jail and was released in 1994 under a provision of the Oslo Accord.
Tarzi told Al-Monitor that if experts said some sort of transplant would be successful and allow his friend to regain his sight, he would gladly sacrifice one of his eyes so his friend could see his five children again.
“When I lost my sight, I was not able to do anything,” Khreis told Al-Monitor. “I couldn't even make it to the mosque where I usually pray. I stopped seeing my friends because of their preoccupation with other things. My life changed a lot.
“At first, I was upset and sad since I would not be able to do what I used to do in the past, but after my Christian friend Abu Elias volunteered to help me go to the mosque and started spending most of his time with me, I felt better because the void I was struggling with got filled.”
Khreis said that Tarzi also takes him to relaxing places where the two chat until midnight about life, the political situation and the blockade on Gaza. Khreis prefers Tarzi’s company over his other friends and relatives because he feels comfortable with him. Khreis is, nonetheless, sometimes obliged to turn to someone else when Tarzi is sick or busy.
Khreis said that what Tarzi is doing shows how Palestinians do not differentiate between Muslims and Christians, who share almost the same customs, traditions and everyday life. Tarzi agreed, saying, “Nothing distinguishes Christians from Muslims in Gaza. Christians and Muslims in Gaza face the same reality. In such difficult times, Christians cannot escape the situation experienced by other Gazans, especially as economic conditions are affecting both Christians and Muslims. Christians in Gaza protect Muslims just like Muslims protect Christians. They are both united. They support each other and rejoice for each other. They suffer from the same occupation and the same blockade.”
Tarzi stressed that like every other Palestinian who loves Palestine, he does not distinguish between himself and his Muslim brothers and friends because he grew up with them under the same circumstances. He asserted that Christians in Gaza are respected, appreciated and treated well by everyone. They freely perform their religious rites and rituals and enjoy the legal protection to do so.
Out of the 2 million people living in Gaza, there are 3,500 Christians, most of them Eastern Orthodox and some 15% Latin. There are three churches, which were all damaged by the Israeli bombing during the 2014 war but eventually restored. They are an integral part of Palestinian society’s fabric and structure.