The month of Ramadan began about ten days ago. Most of my colleagues are fasting, as are most of my friends, though – as you may already have guessed – I am not. Abstaining from food from sunrise to sunset would be OK, because the weather is still hot and I don’t feel like eating very much – but going without water is really more than I could bear. So I eat and drink discreetly, and observe Ramadan from a subtle distance.
Many Gazans enthuse about the month: they say it gives them a change of routine, and precious little changes in Gaza these days. Some people exude an air of calm and seem to be taking the month in their stride, pacing themselves through the days: but others are already being driven slightly bonkers by hunger and thirst. As blood sugar rates plummet, the rate of car accidents apparently sky-rockets.
A couple of days ago I drove to the southern Gaza Strip with one of my colleagues, Khalid, to visit some local guava farmers. We wanted to see how they were coping, as exports of fresh produce from Gaza are still almost completely banned by Israel, who control the commercial crossings in and out of the Gaza Strip. The farmer, Abu Rabia, welcomed us into his home. He owns thirty dunumms of guava plantations (a dunumm is 1,000 square metres) and harvests 150 tons of guavas a year. But he hasn’t been able to export his fruit out of Gaza for years. So he’s forced to sell it all on the local markets, at a fraction of the price he would earn if he could just sell it in the West Bank, or neighbouring Jordan or Israel.
‘My father and my grandfather were both guava farmers, and I’ve lived on this farm all my life’ he told me. ‘I know this land so well, and I love it.’ He survives with the help of five of his sons, who work with him on the farm. Abu (father of) Rabia was, of course, fasting for Ramadan. But he knew that, as a foreigner, I probably wasn’t, and he immediately offered me water and then juice. I declined – I don’t want to eat or drink in front of anyone who’s fasting. He started to look worried, and called my colleague over, explaining he was embarrassed he couldn’t offer me the hospitality that he wanted to. Khalid took him to one side, and then took me to one side. ‘Abu Rabia doesn’t know what to do’ he said, ‘and to be honest, nether do I. You respect him and he respects you, and so the situation is a bit complicated.’ In the end we found a simple compromise: whilst Khalid, Abu Rabia and his sons prayed, I went down into the garden as instructed, and picked some fresh figs, dates and a ripe guava from the trees around me, and ate quietly.
After their prayers, Abu Rabia showed us around his farm: we wandered slowly through the guava plantations, where date and fig trees also thrive, and then rested under the fruit trees, shaded from the hot sun. ‘This is paradise’ I told him. He nodded slowly. ‘Yes, it is’ he said, smiling. ‘Just promise me that you and Khalid will come back here at the end of Ramadan, and then we can offer you all we have.’