A message in a bottle washed ashore this week in Gaza.
"Hello! Thank you for picking up this bottle!" began the letter in neat black handwriting. "We are currently on holiday in Rhodes and would love to know how far this bottle got – even if it's just the next beach!"
The bottle floated much farther than the next beach. It traveled nearly 500 miles across the Mediterranean Sea, from the Greek island of Rhodes, past Turkey and Cyprus to the Palestinian seaside enclave of Gaza — and into the fishing net of Jihad al-Soltan, a 54-year-old Palestinian fisherman and father of seven.
He said it was the first piece of personal mail he had ever received.
Gaza is an isolated place. For the past decade, ever since the Palestinian militant group Hamas took control of this strip of land, its neighbors Israel and Egypt have imposed a blockade on the territory.
Few people can go in, and few can go out. Mail sent to Gaza must first pass through Israeli security at the border.
The message Soltan found included an email address, and the letter was signed, "Faithfully, Zac and Beth."
Word of the note reached NPR, and an email to that address led to the back story.
Beth is Bethany Wright, a 22-year-old university student from Lichfield, England. She said she had always dreamed of casting a message in a bottle into the ocean to see whether anyone would write back.
On the last day of their Greek island vacation, her boyfriend Zac Marriner, 25 and a newly qualified medical doctor, surprised her with a bottle he had brought from England. (He knew about her message-in-a-bottle dream). They composed their note on a piece of parchment.
They stuffed the rolled-up note and some small flowers inside, sealed it with a cork and watched it float away. That was July 4.
On Aug. 15, Soltan was fishing when he noticed a bottle bobbing in the sea with a note inside. He captured the bottle with his fishing net and took it home.
He broke the bottle open and had his son-in-law, Wael al-Soltan, an English teacher, translate what was written on the somewhat water-damaged parchment inside.
The bottle had reached a kindred spirit: Three years ago, Soltan himself had done the very same thing. He scribbled the words "End the siege" — the blockade on Gaza — in Arabic on a piece of paper, stuffed it inside a bottle and threw it into the sea, he said.
He never got a response. But he asked his son-in-law to email his reply to the British couple.
"I want them to know that Gazans are nice people and wish to have a nice life like theirs. We wish to be able to travel and do such romantic things," Soltan said.
His son-in-law, Wael, emailed a short reply that the bottle had been found in Gaza. Wael showed the message in the bottle to his friend Mahmoud, who was inspired to email the British couple a note of his own:
Hi from palestine gaza hi for you zak and beth my friend find ur botlle the best thing in this life love and feel happy when find people love each other like Zak and Beth wish you all the best
"It was certainly incredible that our bottle was found at all, let alone on a beach in Gaza," Wright said in an email to NPR. "So tragic the situation there means people are so cut off, but the bottle reaching there illustrates greatly how we are just all one world, all connected by one ocean and loved by one God."