The Muslim holy month of Ramadan began six days ago here in Gaza, and this year it’s scorching (it’s based on the lunar cycle, so varies yearly). I've dabbled in Ramadan before, but have never had the privilege of spending it with a family for more than one iftar (the celebratory evening ‘breakfast’).
Living with a fasting family is insightful in many ways. I see the considerable willpower they exhibit to ensure nothing passes their lips. For many going without water is the hardest. For the smokers, it’s the lack of nicotine that causes nerves to fray. And as the countdown to the evening call-to-prayer rolls on, drivers get more irritable and distracted. Were this any other time I'd assume the many strained faces and lethargic movements were down to illness.
Despite the serious challenge of abstaining from consuming anything for what amounts to about 14 hours in Palestine (this period differs depending on geographic location), everyone tells me Ramadan is the most beautiful month. And while I was initially skeptical, I see their happiness at iftar and throughout the night as people meet with friends or sit through the late hours with family.
Some Palestinian treats during Ramadan are bird's tongue soup (so named for the rice-shaped pasta made into soup), dates, juices, and qatayef, a pancake stuffed with sweet cheese or a walnut-raisin mixture and shaped into crescent moons before frying.
Qateyefs (pancakes) being prepare for the evening feast. Photo by Eva Bartlett.
I’m told that the significance of Ramadan is not merely testing one's will power and the nightly celebration when iftar rolls around. It is more about abstaining in order to empathize with the hunger and thirst of the poor while also committing to an act of devotion to God. And aside from merely feeling the pain of the impoverished, during Ramadan people are also expected to give more to those in need.
For an observer Ramadan is indeed a lesson in humility, realizing how much we take for granted and how fortunate most of us are.
And I am seriously impressed. There is very little air-conditioning anywhere in Gaza. The intense heat, long days, and regular power outages make abstaining from liquids and foods a challenging ordeal. On a normal day, one feels the urge to drink a litre of water after being outside for 10 minutes: imagine this for 14 hours.
Gaza has other special circumstances, like high unemployment (over 45 per cent) and the inability for most families to buy the special juices, yogurt, fruits and other foods Muslims enjoy worldwide. The power outages are never exact: last night the electricity didn't return until after 1am. The children of the family I stay with were too frightened to sleep in the dark (note the extremely high levels of trauma and PTSD in Gaza's children), so they waited until the power came back, catching only two hours before they had to awake for suhoor, the morning meal. The unbearable heat makes sleep nearly impossible anyway.
And this is on a good night. Two nights ago our sleep was interrupted by Israeli bombings to the east and west of our central Gaza home that violently shook the house.
About a third of families in Gaza have no running water, and most of those that do have it for only a few hours each day. Washing for prayers and the heat-relief of bathing are denied or made extremely difficult for many families here.
A large majority of the more than 6400 homes destroyed in the 2008-2009 Israeli war on Gaza remain as rubble, the displaced families either renting or cramming into the homes of relatives. At special times like Ramadan, the pain of losing their home and martyred family members is more pronounced.
I visited farming friends in southeastern Gaza a few days ago. Their farm, both the land and the building, had been destroyed by the Israeli army. They now rent a home in the area. But it’s been months since they could pay their rent and they face eviction. They were all smiles and generosity to me but this will be one of their hardest Ramadan's yet.
It's nearly sunset. Time to sit for another iftaar and marvel at the strength of Gaza's Palestinians, observing under harsh conditions but still laughing and sharing.