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The highs and lows of Ramadan in Gaza

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.

Pancakes
Qateyefs (pancakes) being prepare for the evening feast.  Photo by Eva Bartlett.

Large, decorative lanterns are strung throughout streets and markets, and children spend most of their post-iftar evening swirling tin cans with lit charcoal into circles of fire reminiscent of the sparklers I played with as a child.

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.

Will you marry me under occupation?

Wedding season began weeks ago with the first convoys of honking cars overloaded with singing, dancing, cheering shebab [guys]. From 4pm onwards, the beeping cars and wedding bands – five or more musicians dressed in traditional trousers and blouses, playing different-sized drums and something akin to a kazoo – blot out all other noise as they pass my apartment every half hour or so, en route to the seaside wedding halls.

Gaza evenings are filled with the sounds of celebration. Those who can scrape together the money to rent one of Gaza’s many wedding halls do so – borrowing, taking a bank loan, or if they are lucky having saved from years of work – and invite a few hundred of their family, relatives and friends to the night of dancing. Most families arrive by the busload, a rental bus stuffed with women dressed in their best, already dancing in the all-female bus. Another bus is for the men.


What may seem like an extravagant expenditure is in reality for most Palestinians the biggest party they will ever have, an important mark from single life to married, and an important declaration to the community that the lover they later walk hand-in-hand with is their lawful spouse.

Sadly, this happiest day doesn’t come to many Palestinians in Gaza, or comes much belatedly, owing to the poor economy, high joblessness, and consequent inability to save for the whole marriage package. Aside from the wedding hall, the apartment or room in a family house must be dressed up with at least a bed and a wardrobe, new clothes must be bought, and there are guests to feed. Plastic chairs, the DJ, invitations… it all adds up.

Today I was chatting with a pharmacist. Fluent in English aside from his native Arabic, trained also in acupuncture, the young man – a catch by many standards – is unmarried, though he wishes otherwise. ‘Money,’ he says. ‘I can’t marry because I can’t afford it.’

We talk about the rise in cost of living in the Strip over the years and the soaring apartment and housing prices (thanks to the vast destruction from Israel’s 2008-2009 war on Gaza). Just considering those two factors, even an educated, working man can’t afford the costs. In much of Palestine, it is still the man’s role to pay for virtually all the wedding costs, including a bridal dowry.

A family friend will soon marry, though neither he nor his family can afford it.  But the decision has been made, including with the bride’s family, so there’s no backing down for want of more time to fundraise. This means everyone in the family will chip in however they can, taking cuts to their own family expenditures, selling personal belongings, taking loans.  

Family, being so strong in Palestine, will do these things unquestioningly. It is his time to marry; another time they themselves may need help.

Things would be a whole lot easier if the economy were actually functioning, not hobbling along as it is. Open borders, allowing free import and export, not closed borders, soaring unemployment, and factories and farmers with goods to send if only it were possible.

The other day at a trade show, this point was reiterated. Despite the destruction during Israel’s war on Gaza, factories have gotten themselves running again. But they’ve lost their outside markets, and anyway can’t export anything, save some token flowers when Israel wants good press.

So it’s closed borders, families going under (or already there), and impossible weddings for Gaza until the siege is lifted completely.

Photo by the author.

Take one <i>za’atar</i> tea and call me in the morning

Palestinians seem to have this inherent knowledge of what foods and herbs are best according to the situation, time, ailment or celebration. Certainly, the average Palestinian knows a lot more than I do.

When I was ill last year with a nasty sinus infection, I wasn’t given any nose-drops or other medication. I was made to eat lemons, peel and all, or when not eating them, stuff them up my nose and inhale. Fairly painful, but also amazingly successful.

Photo by Gabriele aka Yellow.Cat under a CC licence.

Lemons are a natural healer for a variety of ailments and are a general boon to the immune system. Not surprisingly, lemon is found in most Palestinian dishes: hummous, roasted eggplant, salad, and is added liberally to chicken and fish meals, served as a juice, or just eaten peeled like an orange. Lemon and other citrus trees flourished in Gaza until about a decade ago, when Israeli bulldozers upped their campaign of destruction, demolishing nearly all the fruit, nut and olive trees along Gaza’s border.

Garlic is another healer found in most foods and was also thrown into a mug of lemon and parsley I was made to drink/eat another time I was ill.

But these are also common worldwide; there are a number of herbs and plants, even fruit I’d never encountered before, or if so in a different incarnation, for eating purposes only.


Photo by Eva Bartlett.

Zaatar, known as wild thyme, traditionally flourishes in the hills of occupied Palestine, less so in flat Gaza. Za’atar has a number of different varieties, but the three I’ve seen are used in breads, for tea, and as a herb condiment with olive-oil soaked bread.

Ilham, from the occupied West Bank, was a professional with home-grown herbs. She always had za’atar chai ready for sipping, deftly plucked and folded fat za’atar leaves into olive-oiled bread dough, and made her own dried za’atar spice.  

Za’atar, I’ve learned, is good for your memory, and also helps clean the stomach.

Merimmea is another wild herb usually used in tea only, as far as I know. Its taste is unlike za’atar or anything I’ve had around the world and is good for upset stomachs and getting rid of gas, among other benefits.

There’s mint and ginger, not exclusive to Palestine, good for the immune system, blood pressure, heart, relaxation, and amazing teas as well.

There’s anise, which I’d used in baking before but which a grandmotherly healer tells me helps with relaxation and digestion, stomach pain and coughs.  

And then there are a number of herbs and seeds I don’t know the English names for: shomar, amoora, and ekkleel jebal among them, good for your general health but also helpful for diabetics, asthmatics, and the heart.

A year ago, during winter, I roasted eggplant over a fire in a shelter with friends. When stepping outside into the cooler air  I was told with concern to wait and drink cold water before leaving the hot room, lest I get ill from the sudden temperature change. I’m told that if you sleep with a fan on but no blanket, you’ll have chest problems.

Maybe these are all obvious things, but I certainly never grew up knowing them (thankfully I’m in one piece). The common knowledge of what food or drink is good for you, will help with ailments, is complemented by a history of herb sellers and doctors, massage and cupping.

Gaza has its share of alternative care clinics, some legit and some lacking real training. But what has most impressed me so far is the knowledge of alternative and herbal remedies passed down from generation to generation, and in the case of the true healers, shared without fee.

An obligation to Allah, most would say, but also characteristic of the traditionally generous Palestinian society still seen today, despite siege and occupation.

Blogging Gaza: border opening fails to soften siege

I am back in the Strip.  I left Gaza via the border at Rafah in June 2010, after an 18 month stay. My exit through the Eygpt frontier crossing was a result of pressure put on authorities there to open its border to Gaza. Hosni Mubarak’s regime apparently felt the need to play down the siege a bit as Israeli commandos had just massacred nine Turkish civilians on the Mavi Marmara solidarity flotilla.

The border opened, yet life in Gaza went on as it always has done under siege: functioning, but only just. Visa-holders and medical patients crossed through into Egypt but to the vast majority of other Palestinians in Gaza with dreams of breathing different air, even if just for a week, it remained closed.

In late May this year, post-Mubarak Egypt declared Gaza’s border permanently open, but shortly after closed it again. Now it's open once more but the Rafah crossing still limits men between the ages of 18-40 from crossing unless they hold special permits.

But dreams of travel, study, medical care aside, the status of the Rafah border crossing means next to nothing in terms of the siege effects: Israel still controls what enters and exits Gaza, the power still cuts out every day, and the medical crisis is worse than ever. Much of Gaza is still in ruins after Israel's deadly 22-day assault, which ended in January 2009, leaving 1,400 Palestinian dead.

A year on, in this enclosed 40-something km strip of land flanked by the Mediterranean sea, I notice some things have changed, but the big picture hasn’t.

The water is still contaminated from untreated sewage pumped into the sea for want of treatment facilities. By World Health Organization standards, roughly 95 per cent of Gaza’s water is not safe to drink.

Diesel-fueled generators sputter into action, polluting the air and silence, when the power cuts out, day or night. Unemployment has reached 45 per cent, one of the highest rates in the world. Fishermen are still shot at, shelled and arrested by the Israeli navy inside Palestine’s waters – even as close as three miles from the coast. And farmers continue to be pushed off their land near the border by Israeli shootings and shelling.

The few changes I see are superficial. Nasser street sports new paving – badly needed for years – but now only adequately serves those transiting to the north, university-goers, and the various hospitals and clinics leading off the street. When I left last year, asphalt from Gaza’s once-stunning, now decomposing airport was being ground to make ‘new’ roads.

A new ice cream shop has opened by the sea, near the hotels and cafes. They cater to Gaza’s minutiae percentage of middle class (80 per cent of the Strip is food-aid dependent, surviving on high-carb, few veggies, low protein diets) and the foreign journalists and aid workers with money to spend.

I can see that for some people the mood is brighter, with hopes of government reconciliation – something all Palestinians want.  

But when I revisit Abu Taima, Jaber, and other farming and fishing friends, I realize that life has not improved. The only hope they draw is from their religious beliefs and Palestinian samoud (steadfastness).

Abu Taima has finally abandoned his land that lies close to, but not inside, the 300 metres flanking the Gaza-Israel border. Israel has unilaterally declared this land off-limits to Palestinians and shoots to kill within up to even two kilometres of the border in places.  

In mid-2009, when I first met Abu Taima’s family, I was walking on their land southeast of Khan Younis as they planted, then months later harvested, wheat, lentils and low-maintenance vegetable crops. Even though they were regularly shot at by Israeli soldiers from jeeps, dirt mounds, military towers and automated remote machine gun towers along the border, the family persisted in planting and harvesting.  

Between the Israeli soldiers and the lack of rain – his cistern destroyed by Israeli soldiers – the odds are against the Abu Taima’s land being worked, as with so many other farmers. When I saw the elder of the Abu Taima family two weeks ago, his bright energy was gone, replaced by a fatigued sadness.

Jaber and his wife Leila continue, by day, to visit their home – just under 500 metres from the border. A month before I left last year, the house was again assaulted by Israeli soldiers and bulldozers which completely destroyed the remains of his already destroyed chicken barn, tore down grape vines, destroyed the stored harvest of wheat and the onions he was to sell at market that week, and once again trampled their hopes to live simply off the land. It was the third major Israeli invasion on his home, not counting the routine shootings from the border.

It was the first time I saw the usually resilient Jaber cry. He just broke down and sobbed.

During their daytime visits Jaber and his wife try to cultivate what vegetables they can for their own consumption, and return by night to a rented home for themselves and their seven kids, at a price they can ill-afford.

***


It is the beginning of summer and the searing heat. The sea, with all its siege-made flaws, continues to provide relief for families who, with little money, no travel options and no other recreation possibilities, flock to the beaches with thermoses of tea to escape the stifle of another power outage at home.

One of the things that haven’t changed is Gaza’s sunset. It’s as shockingly beautiful as ever.

Photo: Sunset in Gaza. Eva Bartlett.