THE FIRST day of Ramadan fell this year on a Friday, the Muslim holy day. As my family and I sat down for our first evening meal to break our fast, none of us could fully appreciate the beauty of this special month that is meant to spread compassion, faith and family togetherness. Rather, we sat quietly around the table nibbling at our food, looking hauntingly at the empty chair where my brother-in-law should have been.
Instead of being with his family, Yasser was in some cold, damp cell in the Russian Compound detention center in West Jerusalem, probably shivering, deprived of sleep and also nibbling – most likely on a piece of stale bread.
“May God ease his way,” his mother whispered quietly over her bowl of soup.
This Ramadan brings little cheer for the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. After more than a year of confrontations, the Palestinians are feeling the strain of their many losses more in this month of fasting than ever before.
Financially, the situation is close to collapse. According to the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, overall losses incurred by the Palestinian economy in the one-year period between September 2000 and September 2001 totaled $5.3 billion. In addition, Palestinian ministries dish out an approximate $80 million a year to families in crises. This includes the monthly assistance to families of martyrs, detainees and those injured in the Intifada.
This devastating cost is clearly reflected in the lives of everyday Palestinians. While Ramadan in previous years meant lavish tables spread with a colorful assortment of salads and pickles, alongside a variety of meat, rice and chicken dishes, all topped off with desert – usually the traditional Ramadan sweet of walnut or cheese-stuffed pancakes dipped in a syrupy sauce – this year most Palestinian tables have a lot more empty space.
“We don’t make meat dishes every single day this year,” says Um Ahmad, a mother of five from Ramallah. “Nobody really minds,” she concludes, as if to rid herself of the guilt of not putting the best possible foods in front of her fasting family.
And true, Um Ahmad’s situation is enviable compared to those whose families will never again be complete. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, 823 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli gunfire since September 29, 2000.
“I hope God will give patience, not only to me but to all mothers of martyrs this Ramadan,” said one mother of a Palestinian killed by the Israeli army, in an interview with Abu Dhabi television as she and her family sat down to break their fast. A picture of their fallen son hung on the wall above her head.
Breaking the siege
This year, the most pressing demand is getting to the dinner table on time before the voice of the mu’azzin calls out “Allahu Akbar” from the minaret, signaling the end of a long day of fasting. While in the past it was taken for granted that everyone was to be sitting at the table at least five minutes early, this year, Palestinians understand when someone is late. They know where he or she is.
“We broke our fast at the checkpoint yesterday,” says May, a schoolteacher with three children who works in Ramallah but lives in a village on the other side of the Qalandiya checkpoint that splits Ramallah and Jerusalem. “We thought we had left early enough, but apparently we should have left earlier.”
The 90-something additional checkpoints that Israel has erected over this past year of Intifada in the West Bank and Gaza are a constant irritant to almost every Palestinian in the occupied territories. People are late for work, cannot make it to family gatherings and many times cancel appointments – just to avoid the humiliation and inconvenience of crossing the many roadblocks.
At Qalandiya, where a seemingly permanent Israeli military checkpoint has taken root since last March, cars queue in either direction. Taxis no longer pass through into Ramallah. Instead, they drop off their passengers who then must walk through the barrier, while the taxis turn around to carry those going the other way.
For those who try to brave the checkpoint crossing in a vehicle, the wait is almost always long and grueling. “We ended up breaking our fast with a date,” says Suleiman, a Birzeit University student, of his trip back home. “When the mu’azzin called ‘Allahu Akbar,’ we were still in Qalandiya.”
As Muslims purge themselves of their sins through prayer and fasting, one venue sorely sought but hardly attainable is Al Aqsa Mosque, in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City. Third in importance only after the mosques of Mecca and Medina as the holiest place in Islam, Al Aqsa has been the site of Palestinian Muslims’ most devout worship and bloodiest conflicts. It is said that one prayer in Al Aqsa is worth five hundred prayers and that during the “Night of Destiny” or “Laylat al Qadar” the sky opens up above the holy grounds and worshippers may wish for their hearts desire.
In Jerusalem, the narrow streets of the Old City have been decorated with colorful and festive lights. Traditional Ramadan lanterns hang from the historic ceilings and colored bulbs and illuminated paper-mache stars have been strung across the alleyways. Street vendors line both sides of the corridors, selling sweets, hot milk pudding and chocolates for the children. And while it seems as if the roads to Al Aqsa are swelling with people, their numbers are nothing compared to what they would be if Israeli restrictions on movement did not exist.
“Getting to Jerusalem has become only a dream for me,” says a 29-year-old resident of Al Ram, who preferred not to give his name. “Now that it is Ramadan it is really sad and frustrating that I cannot reach Al Aqsa.”
This young man says that he cannot even reach his in-laws in Jerusalem, only a few kilometers away. “Yellow-plated [Israeli- licensed] taxis do not even pick up West Bank residents anymore,” he says.
No more than 20,000 to 30,000 worshippers were able to reach the mosque compound on the first Friday of Ramadan, Al Aqsa director Sheikh Mohammed Hussein told the Voice of Palestine. In normal days – i.e., without Israeli checkpoints – the numbers easily rose into the hundreds of thousands. One Old City resident recalls his childhood years when worshippers flooded into Al Aqsa in the millions. “People were praying inside the mosque, on the grounds, outside the gates and all along the streets leading to Al Aqsa,” he says with nostalgia.
But those who can make it to Jerusalem come in busloads. Every Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, streams of excited visitors unload with backpacks, bags and straw mats and make their way hurriedly into the grounds to secure a tiny corner of the courtyard. Most of these visitors do not come from other areas of the West Bank and certainly not from Gaza, which is locked away from the rest of the country by strict Israeli military orders and an oppressive airtight border crossing.
These visitors are those traveling across the imaginary but all too ubiquitous Green Line separating Israel from the occupied territories. These Palestinian Muslims bear Israeli passports and are therefore allowed to move freely into Jerusalem. While their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza are barred, it is this group of Muslims that is saving the economy of the Old City.
“If it weren’t for the ‘Israeli-Arabs,’ we would not be able to keep our heads above water,” says Tayseer, who owns a small shop just meters from Al Aqsa’s main gate. He and his brother have spread their wares on an ice-cream refrigerator, the contents of which have been replaced with frozen foods. Different types of cheeses, breads and cakes are displayed for passersby and many of those visiting from inside the Green Line are enticed by the relatively cheaper prices of Jerusalem merchandise.
“We are doing all right,” he concludes. “Not like the people in the West Bank and Gaza. They have really been hit hard,” Tayseer says sympathetically.
Despite the difficult economic situation and the heavy human losses Palestinians are now enduring, Muslims this year have not lost the spirit of Ramadan. As families sit down to break their fast with the setting of the sun, Palestinians are learning to appreciate what they have – rather than pine over what they don’t.