*Ramadan lights stand out during a power out in Gaza.
Since I already had iftaar (break fast, the meal after sunset during Ramadan) invitations for the first half of Ramadan, I felt I should try fasting, however long I could manage.
Not being Muslim, I needed to read up a little on Ramadan and why people fast, what the month is all about. I read:
During the lunar month of Ramadan, observant Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex from sunrise to sunset. It is believed that God began revealing the Quran to Muhammad during Ramadan, and the faithful are supposed to spend the month in religious reflection, prayer and remembrance of the poor.
Fasting the month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars upon which the structure of Islam is built. The other four are the declaration of one’s belief in God’s oneness and in the message of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), regular attendance to Prayers, payment of zakah (obligatory charity), and the pilgrimage.
Fasting Ramadan, which is the fourth of these pillars, has a particularly high importance, derived from its very personal nature as an act of worship. Although in a Muslim country it is extremely difficult for anyone to defy public feelings by showing that one is not fasting, there is nothing to stop anyone from privately violating God’s commandment of fasting if one chooses to do so.
This means that although fasting is obligatory, its observance is purely voluntary.
And Ramadan began.
The first day of Ramadan passed without too much difficulty. Early morning my alarm went off so I could drink a bottle of water, knowing fluid is the thing I miss the most when fasting. I drank, and slept again, rising later to write and visit a friend.
His family was surprised I am fasting. “Walla, you haven’t drank any water today? Nothing?” Nothing, although I can’t say that I’ll last. At least I’ll get an idea of how one feels when fasting day after day, in the heat. This year Ramadan falls in summer, making it all the more challenging.
[Israeli-occupied house in Deir Istiya, occupied West Bank, and IOF flag marring the Ramadan beauty.]
[I recall being in the occupied West Bank in 2007 during Ramadan, being on a bus from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, and when our bus stopped at one of the Israeli military checkpoints en route, the occupation soldiers who boarded carrying ice cold bottles of water, taking long slurps and wiping their brows. I’d never seen the IOF doing this before Ramadan. This pointed and deliberate disrespect struck me clearly at the time, as I looked around at the other passengers: the majority were Muslim Palestinian, fasting, and it was very, very hot.]
Just as the sun sets on day one and the call to prayer rings out, I arrive at the home of my Ezbet Abed Rabbo friends in time to break fast with them in a simple meal of cracked wheat soup, salad, bread, and macaroni. But first, before eating, we drink deeply, cold water or juice, and ate dates, allowing their sweetness to awaken our blood sugar and digestion.
Later, continuing to read about Ramadan, I learn that dates –eaten because the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) broke his fast with them –contain a surprising variety of nutrients: calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, thiamine, niacin…
After our meal, Abu Abdullah suggests coffee, and following a day without the cardamom-spiced black gold, I am quick to accept. H. frowns a little, tells me I should re-consider: “Coffee blocks the absorption of iron and other nutrients,” he says. I know he’s right; I’ve read this about coffee before. Abu Abdullah doesn’t mind: “Look at me,” he flexes, “I have enough iron.”
Around 11pm, the family which had crowded into the ground floor space outside the house has thinned out: some have gone to visit families of martyrs, prisoners, or poor. Others are off praying –on their own or at mosque – and the children who were rambunctiously dancing are somewhere else being loud, or have maybe crashed for the night.
Abu N. sits in his white jalabiya, elegant, studying the Quran. H. did likewise for a while, but plays with his toddler son who never seems to tire.
Fatema talks of the true meaning of Ramadan.
“You know, some people think that Ramadan is just about eating, about all the different special foods you can eat. But it’s not, and that’s getting away from the point of fasting.”
She goes on to describe how later the women will sit together with Abu N., the elder, and discuss morals and behaviour. She recalls her own slight mistake today, when she bribed her son to come, after he hadn’t listened to her, but in fact didn’t give him the shekel she promised.
“I lied,” she said, ruefully. And my uncle saw me and told me it was wrong.
H. says, “during Ramadan I feel closer than ever to Allah. But also to my family. We feel all our relatives and neighbours are like us, equal.
I go on reading about Ramadan and the morals one examines and tries to perfect during the month.
Fasting is an act of self-discipline, of high restraint. Islam requires Muslims to couple patience with voluntary abstention from indulgence in physical desire.
It is believed that the person fasting shares the hunger pains and thirst that poor experience daily, and in theory this will encourage those with money to share with the poor.
H. describes how this year is of course worse than previous years, with the combination of the siege and the 3 week Israeli war on Gaza. It is hard to imagine the challenges those homeless still face, the despair they must overcome daily in their efforts to survive.
Abu Abdullah says he brought a large carton of dates to each of the poor families he visited that evening. He goes on to tell about the project from their mosque this year.
“Every year, every day, our Islam tells us to be charitable. But especially this year we know there is great need. In our mosque we are collecting 30 shekels from whoever can give it. We use this money to buy ingredients and take cooked meals to families whose homes were destroyed, or who have martyrs, or who have family members in prison. This is a very hard time of year for such families.”
Around the 15th of the month of Ramadan, they will sacrifice 2 goats and invited relatives, neighbours and poorer people from their area to share with them.
And while these friends adore Ramadan for its spiritual practises more than the feasts, they are not oblivious to the food.
“After not eating or drinking all day, everything tastes better, stronger, juicier…We appreciate the food more,” says Abu Abdullah.
Fatema speaks of Islam, the Quran, giving bits of information but not forcing it upon me.
“I tell you these things because many people don’t know about or understand Islam,” she says.
But the scene is not all tranquility and quiet devotion. Earlier, when the children roamed, music was hooked up to speakers and the rap music of Native Deen, an American Muslim group, blasted. Not especially religious myself, nor accustomed to listening to music focusing on any religion, I find nonetheless that the words are fairly pragmatic: be strong, believe in yourself and in God/Allah, if you see others in need help them, don’t give in to peer pressure… The morals our parents try to instil in us. Nothing overwhelming, nothing impossible.
Fatema’s toddler, who dances whenever there’s a beat, was up immediately bouce-dancing. Young Fatema, all of maybe 6 or 7 years old, joined in with a surprising child’s version of a belly dance.
Not what I expected from my friends, very dear and very devout. But for them it comes down to their relationship with God, Allah, and behaviour towards one another. Otherwise, laughter, dancing (the children), and incessant teasing (the adults, to me) are all the norm.
We are all chugging water every so often, aware of the next long, dry day.
3:30 am and Fatema is rousing us from our three hours of sleep to partake in Suhoor, the morning meal and prayer before sunrise.
She and A. have been up since about 3 am, blending mangos into fresh juice and preparing a variety of light foods: yogurt, halawa (sweet sesame seed paste), cheese, cucumbers, and something I can’t identify.
“It’s ajwa w baid,” Fatema says. Ajwa is the sweet date filling used in some traditional cookies. Baid are eggs. “I didn’t want to try it at first,” says Fatema. “I didn’t know it; it’s refugee culture food, from al-Jammama (a Palestinian village, south of al-Khalil or Hebron, ethnically cleansed of its Palestinian inhabitants in 1948, nearly all the original buildings destroyed.).”
“The idea of scrambled eggs and sweet dates may be strange, but the sweet and salty combination is delicious,” she says.
Although we’ve had juice and much water, tea is served, “because we are addicted to caffeine and can’t drink it all day,” Fatema says.
She reflects, “Ramadan is so special for families. But every year we lose a member of our family. Last year S. got married, and this year our mother was killed (in the Israeli war on Gaza; Sarah had been out to buy bread for the family when the first bombs rained down.) Next year Susu will marry.”
“Jemama is a wonderful place. It’s elevated, and the nature is beautiful. The onions grow to the size of saucers because the soil is so rich,” Faterma recalls having visited her husband’s hometown. “It’s only about an hour’s walk from here, if we could leave Gaza.
They pray, and we all return to bed. The early morning is still dark, last bits of prayers from mosques fading. Many hope sleep will stave off thirst and hunger; others have their faith.