Fridays in Gaza are like Sundays in Canada in that it’s for some a holy day, most businesses are closed and people not at work, it’s a family day, a rest day. There are those who work though, farmers and market vendors, small shop owners, taxi drivers…
The day begins for many with an early morning trip to the souk (market), to stock up on the week’s vegetables, fruit, meat and fish, if able to buy these things. With 80% of Gaza’s 1.7 million dependent on food aid, for most the market trips are bare necessities (potatoes, tomatoes, onions) or not at all.
Via a series of pumps and hoses the large, people channel water from ground to the ubiquitous black water tanks on the roofs of almost any Palestinian home.
Men dress in their better clothes, anywhere from a clean shirt and pants to a clean jalabiya (long robe), and head to the mosque for mid-day prayers. The very devout already go to mosque every day, many even for all five daily prayers. For others, working or who pray at home, Friday prayers are essential. Post-prayers, families have lunch together, the biggest meal of the day, and the rest is up to the individual.
Evenings on many Fridays, we go to the sea, take a pack of pumpkin seeds with us and sit at Gaza’s loveliest spot, watch the lights of fishers too close to the coast (because the ZOF also fires on fishers when they go even near 3 miles off the coast), photograph horses as they race past along the beach, and watch families and youths seeking out the sea, something to do on a Friday in Gaza under siege.
Buying in the souks is cheaper than the fruit and veg stores in towns and cities, and while there are markets in different areas on any day of the week, for many in Palestine Friday is the day to do the shopping.
Some of the most commonly bought items are: onions, tomatoes, cucumbers (small, virtually seedless, crisp and tasty), garlic, hot green peppers, lemons, parsley, eggplants (large ones for roasting or frying; smaller ones for stuffing), potatoes, okra, and molokhia (“mallow leaf”). For those with the money, this time of year markets still have plums, apples, and guavas, chicken and fish (largely polluted by the up to 80 million litres of partially and not-treated sewage pumped into the sea every day for want of treatment and storage facilities, thank you siege on Gaza).
Spices in Palestinian cuisine are subtle but varied, and include sumac, a brilliant purple-red spice used in certain rice dishes, mixed with sliced onions falafel toppings, and decoratively sprinkled on plates of hummus.
There are sweets at the souks, though tooth-achingly sugary: awama, a batter fried in little donut-hole-sized balls and soaked in a sugar water; namoura, a semolina-based cake, also drenched in sugar-water; date-filled cookies, Gaza being rich in date palms…
One of the most important kitchen tools, long-handled Arabic coffee pot aside, is the heavy clay mortar used with a wooden pestle to pound and grind garlic and peppers, added liberally to most dishes. These, along with the coffee pots, and the delicate ornate miniature coffee cups to serve coffee in, can also usually be found in the souks.
It’s usually the women of the house who go to market and haul everything back, though in my area young boys with donkeys and carts drive the market goods home for about 25 to 50 cents a ride.
One day after going, I visit F who is cooking rice for their Friday lunch. She first browns about a cup of rice by sauteeing it a few minutes before adding the rest of the rice and water. The end result is a beautifully speckled array of white and tan rice. She toasts peanuts to sprinkle over the rice mixture she is making. M. tears the paper-thin flat-bread I know as shirak (but which has another name I always forget) into bite-sized pieces which will be layered with the cooked rice, served with fresh yogurt and the vegetables and likely chicken she is going to cook.
Another Friday I go to visit friends in Faraheen, east of Khan Younis. I’ve known them for 4 years and know that their lives have been filled with countless mini-Nakbas (the Arabic word used by Palestinians when talking of their forced expulsion–in the years leading up to and including 1948–from their homes, land, country, at the hands of the Zionists terrorists inflicting massacres on Palestinian towns and cities).
In 2008, the Zionist occupation forces invaded their area of southeastern Gaza and terrorized their family, including 6 small children, throughout the afternoon, night and early morning as they bulldozed the family’s olive, citrus, fruit and nut trees, destroyed their chicken barn and shot up the house the family cowered in. In 2009, the ZOF returned to demolish more land. Again in 2010 the ZOF came back, this time completely destroying their chicken barn and grinding into the earth the onions, wheat and vegetables stored within. And aside from those major invasions, the ZOF on a routine basis invade Palestinian farmland to bulldoze it flat or burn crops just when ready for harvest.
Their lives, traumatized like any Palestinian by the occupying Zionists, have been filled with dead ends and debts. But since first meeting them, they’ve shown to me and to colleagues great hospitality and generosity, to the point of embarrassment, insisting on cooking and sharing meals they can ill afford to share, and doing so on a routine basis. I know this is their way and that any attempts at saying I’ve already eaten will be ignored, so I accept the rice, yogurt, fiery salad and olives they place before me. They’ve long ago given up trying to offer me meat, but they themselves eat their small portion, chickens’ necks. Leila tells me she’d prefer other parts of the chicken, but the necks are much cheaper, so necks it is.
We talk of the home they are living in now, deeply in debt from building it. Their first home, perfectly adequate save the countless ZOF bullet holes and its razed land, remains theirs but is largely off-limits. Their second youngest daughter was so traumatized by the 2008 invasion that she since has not eaten properly and is malnourished (with the dry, dis-coloured hair common in malnourished kids).
Jaber wants to live in that house, where he was still working the land, but since there’s a ZOF invasion almost every year which destroys all of his farming efforts, and since his children have been so traumatized by the daily ZOF shooting from the border 500 metres away, he’s given up the house.
We talk of how to grow vegetables in plastic buckets, a practicality for apartment dwellers, but an insult to this farmer with hundreds of dunams (1 dunam is 1000 square metres) to his name. And they are but one of countless farming families in Palestine facing the same Zionist terrorism.
He insists on driving me in his rigged-up motorcycle and cart “tuktuk” (very common in Gaza, but not like the original tuktuk of India and southeast Asia, another Gaza modification to get around the siege its manufactured poverty) to the nearest road from where I can catch a shared taxi back towards Khan Younis and home to Deir al Balah.