The lights have been strung up and the lanterns have come out of storage. Ramadan has arrived and the Muslim world has begun its month of fasting. There is something special about the season, an undeniable sense of togetherness that I marvel at each year. Like the months of Ramadan before, people will break their fast together, cook together and enjoy sugary desserts after the sun goes down. Restaurants will be packed with special Ramadan buffets and families will finally get the chance to spend quality time at iftar (the breaking of the fast) unlike the rest of the year when hectic schedules get in the way of family downtime. In the evenings, music groups and plays will be performed for fasting children and people will spend hours in the streets at night eating boiled corn, cotton candy and the much needed coffee after a caffeine deprived day.
While this Ramadan, just like the forty-plus Ramadans before is taking place under Israel’s occupation, Palestinians, I have noticed, still find ways to just have fun. It is not only in Ramadan, however, that Palestinians have learned to make the best of what they have. Every summer, various cities in Palestine host cultural and music festivals. This year in Jerusalem and Ramallah, swarms of Palestinians went to one or more of the performances of foreign dance or singing groups to enjoy the cultural exchange and just forget, even for an evening, the political tumult in which we live.
It is not easy, that’s for sure. With Israeli checkpoints hindering Palestinian movement, there will be many who will not be able to visit relatives this Ramadan because they are in Jerusalem, which requires a permit to enter. Thousands of Palestinians continue to sit behind Israeli bars and others will find this Ramadan especially painful because they will be reminded of the empty place at the table, the son or daughter they lost to Israel’s occupying army. No, the Palestinians do not have it easy and each year brings new challenges their way. However, being a Palestinian myself, I also do not want our people to only be framed within the context of their political situation. We are more than the oppression under which we live. Much more.
To better understand this, one only has to surf Facebook to know that Palestinians have a lot more going on than just politics. In Ramallah, almost every night there is a poetry reading, a standup comedian or a music performance. Jerusalem, where Israel’s hold is even tighter, there are French film festivals and book launches. There is whole list of activities one can find in Ramallah or Jerusalem that have nothing to do with the occupation or the political strife between Palestinian factions. If you want to, you can attend a fashion show or “Music in the Garden” or a “Ramadan Event” at one of Ramallah’s high end hotels. Film screenings, documentaries by local up and coming filmmakers and young Palestinian artists regularly showcase their work, drawing quite a respectable crowd. Even in villages, there is cultural life. In the small Ramallah-area village of Saffa, the popular debka (dance) troupe Al Funoun Al Shabiyyeh opened the summer festival there to a crowd of villagers and Ramallah residents. The troupe, which has been around for 30 years always builds its performances around themes on Palestine, on the people’s displacement, their struggle for freedom and independence and their love for their homeland. However, over and above, one takes away the experience of a beautiful dance performance, colorful and creative costumes and Arabic songs that mix tradition with modernity for an evening of stress-free fun.
Another uplifting occurrence was the reopening of the Jenin Cinema, which has been closed since 1987. While this may sound like a small event to Western readers, for the people of Jenin this is huge. For years, they have been deprived of a rich cultural life both because of the Israeli occupation and the strained economic situation many of them live under. For them, the cinema will be a breath of fresh air, a way out of the suffocating environment that surrounds them.
My point in all of this is that, if you look hard enough and in the right places, you will find that Palestine and the Palestinians are more than the political masks they are forced to wear. We are people who appreciate a good poetry reading, a good novel, a concert, a symphony or a play. We are a people who will most definitely observe the holy month of Ramadan just like centuries past. But that does not stop us from enjoying the after-dusk celebrations, from going to a dance performance and from allowing ourselves, even if momentarily, to escape from the darker side of our reality.