CULTURE

Fasting for Ramadan While Gaza Goes Hungry

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On the evening of February 28th, thousands of people gathered on Al-Rashid Street, in Gaza City, in hopes that a convoy of aid trucks would bring them desperately needed food. The trucks arrived early the next morning, at around a quarter to five. When a large crowd encircled them in an effort to obtain food, Israeli forces, who were standing by, opened fire. More than a hundred people were killed, and hundreds more were injured. Later, the Israeli Army said that its troops had felt threatened, and that some Palestinians died in a stampede. The day has become known as the “flour massacre.”

After I saw the news, I called my father to check on him. I’m in New York and he lives in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., but much of our family is in Gaza and the West Bank. He’d heard about what had happened but didn’t know many details. “I can hardly stand to watch the news anymore,” he told me.

I pointed out that in ten days many Muslims would start fasting for Ramadan. I was struggling to imagine the holy month in Gaza, where the World Food Program has been warning of mass starvation.

“Do you think people will still fast?”

“Of course they will still fast,” my father said. “They are fasting already.”

He forwarded me a WhatsApp voice message from my cousin Jinan, in northern Gaza. In December, Israeli forces attacked the U.N. school where Jinan was taking shelter with her husband and two children. A blast broke her jaw, and she could no longer eat solid food. Her daughter, Nouran, who loved to draw anime, lost her right eye, part of her cheek, and the use of both hands. They waited three days for the Palestinian Red Crescent to take them to Al-Shifa hospital, and have been there ever since, waiting for surgeries. Lately, Al-Shifa has also been treating survivors of the flour massacre.

I was amazed to hear levity and humility in Jinan’s voice. “Our situation is better than many others,” she said. “But what can we do—this is our fate written by God. All we have is the Day of Judgment.”

I messaged Jinan to ask how she was doing, and what she was planning for Ramadan. A day passed before she was able to respond. “Do you believe that we haven’t tasted eggs or chicken for months,” she wrote back. She has been surviving on pre-cooked rice, sometimes with lentils, hummus, and fava beans. Her family can’t find fresh fruits or vegetables. “As for Ramadan, we’re going to fast as we can . . . Inshallah we will manage.”

Lately, images from Gaza have been filling my Instagram feed. I keep seeing photographs of Yazan al-Kafarneh, one of at least sixteen children who have reportedly died from malnutrition or dehydration in Gaza. In old photos of him, he looks like a ten-year-old boy. In more recent photos, his skin appears wrinkled and yellow, his open eyes look hollow, and his skeleton is clearly visible. I feel sick and sad and scared. How could anyone allow this to happen to a child? In another post, I see a photo of a refugee tent decorated with Ramadan lanterns.

As I read the news from Gaza, I think about the special cruelty of killing hungry people. Death ends their misery, but forever denies them the relief that they were seeking. Part of Ramadan’s joy is the act of looking forward: to iftar, the meal that breaks the fast every evening; to Laylat al-Qadr, the night when the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad; to the feast of Eid, which marks the end of daily sacrifice. How do you celebrate the holy month when you fear the suffering will not end?

My parents grew up in the West Bank, and their entire city, Nablus, transformed for Ramadan: you could arrive late to work, businesses closed early, and shops and restaurants reopened in the evenings for souq nazel, a nightly descent into the Old Town market. My father, ten years older than my mother, remembers the days before the Israeli occupation. At his grandfather’s house, his family made dough and then brought it to a public oven, to bake it into bread. Homemade lentil soup and fattoush salad were always on the table, along with qamar al-deen, a juice made from dried apricot. They waited to eat until they heard the call to prayer from the local mosque. At night, in the Old Town, he and his friends sang, walked, flirted, smoked argileh, and poured cups of mint tea or sous, a licorice drink, from copper pitchers. Sometimes people would stay out until suhoor, the predawn meal, and only then head home to sleep.

My mother was a child when the Israeli occupation began. Not all of her four siblings fasted, and she found it too difficult. But she loved the evening rituals. One of the kids would carry a plate to the local market, ten minutes away, and spend a shilling, or about five cents, on hummus. If there hadn’t been any incidents with Israeli forces that day, they could go to the playground, but outings were often cut short by curfews. Each morning, before sunrise, someone walked through the neighborhood banging a drum, to let people know it was time to get up for the morning meal. On Laylat al-Qadr, when the late-night sky is said to open for God to answer all prayers, and angels are said to descend to earth, she and her siblings would sit on their balcony and ask for money, clothes, or toys.

When the crescent-shaped moon appeared in the sky, Eid arrived. “We’ve put a man on the moon, we used to say,” my mom told me, laughing, “but we still can’t tell when Eid will be until the day before.” In preparation, she laid her outfit on her bed as her mother chased one of her younger brothers around the house, trying to wrangle him into his Eid clothes. My father’s Eid was different: he’d wake up early for morning prayer, then head to the cemetery to read verses from the Quran at family graves. They’d give meals and sweets—often date-filled ma’mool or cheesy, syrupy knafeh—to people who couldn’t afford it, or who had lost spouses or parents. (According to the Hadith—the teachings of the Prophet—anyone who supports an orphan goes to Heaven.) After breakfast, they visited family; children kissed the hands of elders and received a few coins. In my dad’s memories, Christian and Jewish neighbors were the first to come over to wish them happy Eid.

My parents did their best to hand down these traditions to my brother and me. In the D.C. suburbs, Ramadan was one of my favorite times of the year. When I was old enough to fast, my father started waking me up for suhoor with a bowl of cinnamon Life cereal, which I slurped down before falling back asleep. At school, I couldn’t eat or drink, so I dipped cafeteria French fries in ketchup and fed them to my friends. At birthday parties, I took a piece of cake home with me to enjoy after dark. We watched Al Jazeera’s recorded broadcast from the Kaaba, in Mecca, until the sun went down. The certainty that Ramadan would end, and so would the hunger, made the days easier. So did the iftars we spent with friends, which sometimes doubled as fund-raisers for Palestinians in need.

I always loved to eat—as a baby, I once scampered off my changing table to snatch a falafel sandwich from my mother’s friend—but food never tasted more delicious than after a day of longing. My favorite dish was bazella: chopped carrots, green peas, tomato sauce, and cubes of lamb served over basmati rice. For dessert, we ate atayief—little pancakes that were folded over sweet cheese or walnuts, and then fried and doused in syrup—and watched Syrian sitcoms on TV.

I believed in God and loved Islam, but my fasting was less about religion than about ritual. In the diaspora, with its handed-down stories and its longing to be elsewhere, Ramadan helped us connect with our heritage. It offered belonging. The act of sacrifice taught me to appreciate whatever I had—itself a Palestinian tradition, given how much the vagaries of history had shaped our lives. So much depended on when and where you were born: were you Forty-eighters or Sixty-seveners? Displaced or occupied? I could endure the hunger because I was part of something, and we were together.

One aspect of Ramadan, for my parents, is remembering better days. Even as a child, my mother wished that she could have celebrated like her mother did before the occupation. My father misses Ramadan during his college days, in Egypt, when the Nile glowed with lights and theatres played movies from the fifties, Cairo’s golden age of cinema. Too often, these stories are followed by talk of how much has changed. Two years ago, my mother and her brother drove through a town near Nablus on their way to an iftar. Israeli soldiers seemed to be everywhere, carrying guns. “I’m scared,” she told him.

“Why?” he said. “It’s always like this now.”

It’s difficult to imagine Ramadan in Gaza this year. I want to imagine that, even at a time of devastation and deprivation, a personal act of sacrifice can still lend purpose to senselessness. Maybe it can give powerless people a small sense of control. When you fast, you can think, I chose this hunger; it was not forced on me. But maybe that’s wishful thinking. Hunger is painful. It is one of our most primal desires, and the most human; inflicting it on someone else can seem inhuman. The only antidote is to eat. And in the same way that food brings people together I wonder whether its absence keeps us apart. Hunger makes us weak, and not only physically. It cuts us off from the strength that comes from being together.

In Islam, Ramadan is the month during which the Quran was revealed as a guide for humanity. God prescribes fasting as a means of self-discipline, a way to show Muslims what they’re capable of and to protect themselves from hellfire. But He is merciful; not everyone is called on to fast, especially if doing so causes harm. The Quran grants exceptions to those who are pregnant, breast-feeding, or menstruating, and to people who are travelling, elderly, or ill. Starvation or P.T.S.D. would count as illnesses; fleeing your home would count as travel. These exemptions seem almost absurd, and maybe they won’t matter. Some will choose to fast regardless. Sometimes the best way to forget one pain is to focus on another.

I stopped fasting in college, mostly because I was away from home, but I went to iftars hosted by my classmates, and I often returned to D.C. for Eid. My uncle, the one who hated Eid clothes, always brings his five kids to brunch at the Silver Diner, in Tysons, Virginia, and we order pancakes for dessert. In the afternoon, we visit my mother’s cousin and his wife, where we eat more. My uncle plays the piano, and my mother’s cousin sings on the guitar.

In November, 2022, I gave birth to my first daughter, Nour. Motherhood has made Ramadan more important to me. I want to give Nour what I had—a heritage that’s being erased, and one that’s become increasingly dangerous to inhabit, both here and in Palestine. During Nour’s first-ever Ramadan, my mother came to visit and spent many mornings playing Arabic songs for her, particularly one by the legendary Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez. During Nour’s tummy time, my mother told her that she’s not only American but also Palestinian. And when Eid came, a couple weeks later, my wife and I took Nour to a Moroccan restaurant, and then to the bucket swings at the playground. I missed the Silver Diner, but there was something special about forming our own Ramadan traditions.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about mothers in Gaza. I read in the news that, at one Gaza clinic, one in five pregnant women are malnourished, which makes it difficult to produce breast milk; eighty per cent of mothers have been skipping meals to feed their children. Jinan told me that mothers have been feeding their children green leaves cooked with tomato paste and a pinch of rice. Others try to quiet their desperately hungry children by giving them chewing gum. These stories make me think of my pregnancy, when I often woke up ravenous—not only for myself but for Nour. After she was born, her most painful and guttural cries came when she was hungry. I cannot imagine hearing them with nothing to offer her.

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