With the approach of Eid al-Fitr, the end of the holy month of Ramadan and its fasting, I am reminded of the holidays and celebrations of my childhood in Palestine; of how eagerly we awaited the Eid, its festivities and rituals. The nights of Ramadan leading up to the Eid were spent at the mosque in prayer and reading from the Quran. Our small village of Beit Hanina, a suburb of Jerusalem was still without electricity and people carried lanterns to light their way in the darkness as they went first to the mosque and from there to visit friends and family: a special part of Ramadan. Beit Hanina had a drummer, charged with the pre-dawn task of awakening the village to sahoor, the light meal whose end marked the beginning of each day’s fast. Closing my eyes and thinking real hard, still brings back the sound of Beit Hanina’s drummer banging away, and the delightful memories of joining the other children, carrying our decorated fanoosia lanterns with candles burning brightly inside them, as we ran along behind the drummer, singing, laughing and shouting to help awaken the sleeping adults and start them on sahoor and their new day. How I admired the drummer; how I wanted his job and to share his fun.
In Ramadan 1979, my first visit back to Palestine since the ’67 expulsion, my cousin and I, both 18 and living in the US, finally became the Ramadan drummers of Beit Hanina. The Israeli invasion of 1967 and the subsequent occupation made the drummers’ job very high risk and today they are scarce: Ramadan drummers were often stopped, even beaten. By 1979, the village had not enjoyed a drummer in 5 years, so my cousin and I delighted in our job of walking through the village each morning banging away on large tin cans. It must have been a very humorous sight: the elderly were happy to hear us; the younger people thought we were a great joke and made fun of the ‘bored Americans’. But everyone agreed that we had renewed some “life” that had been lost as we broke through the dark still nights of Ramadan. For me, however briefly, I was transported back to a happy childhood whose memories had never left me for a moment.
Beit Hanina’s mosque was located squarely in the center of the village, its majestic minaret dominating the landscape. Our muezzin, Sheikh Yameen, called people to prayer from the lofty heights of the minaret. The Sheikh was blind and long past 50; still, he made his way from his home on the outskirts of the village, to the mosque independently. Climbing the snaking, narrow stairs to the top of the minaret and with the strength only of his voice, he sang the call to prayer five times a day. The Sheikh’s voice was elegant and soothing: it made the call reassuring and comforting: wherever I was, that distinctive, rich voice echoed out into my ears 5 times a day: it still anchors me to the heart and soul of Beit Hanina.
Just before Ramadan 1968, the villagers collected the funds from former residents now in Diaspora and purchased a diesel generator to light the mosque and ease the Sheik’s job with loud speakers. Sheik Yameen’s voice boomed louder and more beautiful than ever, but he no longer had to climb minaret’s stairs. The blind Sheik loved to joke that the new lights made it easier for him to “see”. The first night the generator was used, the village was electric with excitement at the beauty of the glowing minaret that compensated for the offensive noise of the generator, which soon taught us to know that prayer time was approaching by the roar of it kicking into action. The minaret became a beacon of light seen from afar and lighting the area: watching us and watching over us all.
One of the first things I did in 1979 was climb to the top of the minaret and walk around its circular balcony, taking in the awesome sight of my home, my village and the surrounding orchards and hills. I easily traveled back to my childhood mind, realizing a long held dream of getting a bird’s eye view of my world, now marred by the eyesore of the Israeli settlements built on the land stolen from our village in 1977. Now, in spite of the pleas and angry protests of Beit Hanina’s residents, those settlements encircle and nearly strangle my ancestral home.
As little children, we were filled with excitement at the approach of our holiday. Throughout the holy month of Ramaddan, we would attend the special prayers called Taraweeh. During these month long prayers, which are performed in the evening, the entire Quran is recited, starting with the every first verse and progressing each night until it is completed.
The night before Eid al-Fitr was spent in the mosque at prayer. The morning of the Eid is a time for dressing in our holiday best and returning to the mosque for the special morning Eid prayers. After the prayers were finished, kisses, hugs, and handshakes peppered the joyful greetings of “Kul Sana wa intum bekheir” (May every year find you well) and Eid Mubarak. The women had spent the night making all manner of special Eid sweets and these they now brought to the mosque to share with the community. After the prayers, everyone headed to the village cemetery walking together, visiting the graves of departed friends and relatives. The women handed out their wonderful sweets as we recited Al Fatiha, the opening verse from the Quran. At once, remembering our departed loved ones and enjoying the sweets from our relatives, neighbors, and friends still very much with us. This ritual is still practiced today, in the overcrowded cemeteries that are filled with Palestinian men, women, and children who have died at the hands of the brutal Israeli occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. The pain and sorrow filled faces of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters are beyond description. Israel’s occupation has claimed the lives of more than 3,800 Palestinians, including more than 800 children, in the last 4 years. The Eid, although a time of joy, is also a time of grief for those that have lost loved ones.
After the visit to the cemetery, the men go and to visit the homes of their female relatives, bringing gifts of money and lingering there to drink coffee or tea and eat more sweets before eventually moving on to the next house. The first time I was allowed to tag along with my older brothers as they made the rounds with the other men. I was overjoyed to be one of the “men”. The village comes alive with people going from one house to the next, sharing warm greetings and camaraderie as they pass one another in the streets and on the hills. Every house extended an invitation to come in and have something to eat and drink. So it was in the small villages of Palestine.
For the children, the best part was the presents and small coins we received as gifts. We’d take our money and run to the center of the village where the butcher shop (usually bustling with people buying fresh meat for the Eid feast), a couple of coffeehouses, a barber shop (busiest just before the Eid), and a couple of small grocery stores were huddled together. We rushed to buy balloons, candy, sparklers helping to fill the village square with laughing, noisy children playing and bragging about what they had received for Eid: marbles and spinning tops were the preferred gifts, at night; sparklers helped us find our way through dark streets. We were children, enjoying the simple pleasures of the holidays as only children can. My most memorable present was the bicycle that I received on the Eid of 1968. That red shiny new bike was the envy of every boy who gathered behind the mosque, and that first day, I refused to ride it because I didn’t want to get it dirty.
My last Eid at home was in 1969. Today as I see the painful images of my people caged in their homes by the brutal curfews, living in tents after their homes are demolished (over 1,000 demolitions in Palestine, this year alone leaving many thousands homeless), mourning the loss of loved ones, and unable to partake in even the simplest part of the Eid, I am saddened, but also angered. The joy has been sucked from the lives of my people and worse, the hope and joy has been stolen from our children. There is no joy to be found in mothers mourning beside the grave of their child. What joy can be found locked under curfew, forced to remain inside the home for days on end, unable even to step outside for air or a loaf of bread? The height of Eid, a visit to Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque is now forbidden to most Palestinians who have not been allowed to enter Jerusalem sometimes for 5 years or more. How does one celebrate the sounds of children weeping from hunger and thirst?
This year, for Palestinians, at home and beyond, Eid will be a most somber one: the people of Palestine are foremost in my thoughts and prayers together with all those who suffer injustice.
May the next Eid we celebrate, be in FREEDOM AND PEACE.
NEXT YEAR IN PEACE, IN FREEDOM, IN JERUSALEM, INSHALLAH!!
May peace and happiness be the hallmark of all your holidays and celebrations.
May the Holy Land know true peace, freedom, and justice for its people.
May the tears of grief shed today be the last.
May the only tears be of joy, life, AND HAPPINESS.