From feast to famine: Gaza's bleakest Ramadan amid Israel's war

From feast to famine: Gaza's bleakest Ramadan amid Israel's war
Israeli bombs instead of calls to prayer. Ghost towns instead of busy markets. Grief instead of joy. Palestinians mourn the Gaza we lost, writes Ahmed Alsammak.
6 min read
02 Apr, 2024
Israel's war has not only destroyed Gaza and starved Palestinians, it has also robbed the festive spirit from the holy month of Ramadan, writes Ahmed Alsammak. [Getty]

I eagerly await Ramadan every year. Not solely for prayer and Quran reading, though I do partake, but for its fabulous vibes. The bustling marketplace comes alive with vendors hawking their wares – the air thick with the calls of "Kharoub!" and "Qatayef!”

Each Ramadan, people across Gaza diligently clean their homes, preparing for social visits. While it's customary for Muslims to visit relatives regularly, these visits become more frequent during Ramadan.

In our home, this tradition also sparks my annual battle with my mother, Somaya. As I strategize my escape from the two-story house cleaning, my phone is strategically switched off, and my poor younger brother, Momen, gets strong-armed into tackling the cleaning beast. Excuses? I can weave them like a pro.

"Just here for moral support and as an advisor, not a worker, Mom!” I always tell her before dodging her well-aimed shoes.

Although Ramadan is the month of fast, we spend more money on groceries during Ramadan than any other month. Fourteen hours without food? You'd think savings would abound.

"Ramadan evenings used to be a symphony of bustling markets, sweet shops overflowing with Kanafa, and the melodious call to prayer echoing through the streets until dawn"

Actually, no! Ramadan also means mountains of mouthwatering feasts cooked by mothers like mine. Chicken, lamb – and you name it! Kitchens turn into food heavens.

Before al-Maghrib (sunset) prayer when we break our fast, Gaza men hit the bustling markets - I ironically call it a pre-Maghrib market pilgrimage as we gather, so enthusiastically, to browse mountains of all types of desserts, glistening samosas, and popular food like falafel and shawarma.

But before that time, disputes always decide to make an appearance. It seems hunger has a miraculous way of turning us into quarrelsome creatures.

So, wives and mothers, bless their patient souls, always truly appreciate this delightful time to keep us occupied by hitting the markets, and out of the kitchen in any way, until we hear the call for prayer and the ‘hanger’ vanishes.

Almost daily in Ramadan, all my family members go to the mosque to pray al-Taraweh (the night prayer) and then to a dessert shop to have Kanafa.

Ramadan evenings used to be a symphony of bustling markets, sweet shops overflowing with Kanafa, and the melodious call to prayer echoing through the streets until dawn. But the symphony has been replaced by the loud sounds of the Israeli raids and ambulance sirens.

Every Ramadan, Israeli soldiers and settlers escalate their attacks and provocations against Palestinians, particularly at Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, consistently imposing restrictions on worshipers, often prompting retaliation from the resistance.

In May 2021, an 11-day war erupted following massive attacks on Palestinian worshipers at Al-Aqsa Mosque and calls from far-right extremist Jews to forcefully storm the holy place.

This Ramadan is not different as Israel is wiping out Gaza, killing more than 32,400, two-thirds of whom are women and children.

As for our house, it was bombed and became a temporary military base for the Israeli army when they were stationed in our neighbourhood, burning and turning it into a ghost town.

"It was our most beautiful month, now it's the worst," my mom told me with a suffocating tone.

“No Suhoor [pre-dawn meals] or Iftar feasts, just canned food that has made us sick many times. We've been fasting for four months straight, one meal a day. Yesterday was like Eid. We found six, yes, only six, frozen drumsticks for $20. It had been 120 days since chicken graced our table.”

Only in Gaza can people be starved to death in the 21st century and no actions are seriously taken. But don’t worry! While Israel starves Gaza, international powers have issued “strong condemnations”. That will surely nourish hungry children better than milk and a loaf of bread.  Long live international law!

When I called my family yesterday, Yafa, my 2-year-old niece, ran to my mother to talk to me. “Ummo” she calls out, using the Arabic term for uncle. “I want koko [chicken],”. I promised to bring her the most delicious chicken in the world.

"'All of us feel homesick for Gaza. This is not Gaza. This is hell'"

Chicken has become a treasure in Gaza, as precious as a diamond. Grocery stores stand empty, and some butchers have resorted to selling horse meat.

"When?" her innocent inquiry echoed in my ears, each word a dagger to my heart. How can I tell my niece that she won’t eat chicken until international pressures are put on Israel to allow chicken to enter Gaza?

Yafa is too young to understand the complexity of war and famine. However, for Israel, even Gaza children must be starved because they will be “terrorists” or “human animals” when they grow up.

Before this unfolding genocide, Gaza was a vibrant Islamic city where prayers echoed loudly through speakers, especially in Ramadan. Now, Gaza’s mosques are silent, as Israel has destroyed almost all of them. Calls to prayer have been replaced with a constant unbearable hum of Israeli surveillance drones - locally named Zanana - that monitor every movement in the strip.

The cherished tradition of congregational Tarawih prayers has faded from public areas, leaving behind sombre silence. In its place, there are only continuous heart-breaking prayers for all the martyrs who have been killed by Israel. Sadly, It seems these prayers won't stop as long as Israel is treated by the USA and the West as a spoiled, naughty child who has never learned good manners – and won't.

My friend, Hamza, from Jabalia, whose family has been mixing animal feed with flour to make bread for months, told me yesterday there is nothing in the markets except tomatoes, and you'll be lucky if you find rice. Thankfully, there's cheeseweed in some areas.

"Imagine, five months of the same bitter greens in your belly. My neighbour, bless his kind heart, buys it for his family and even their donkey. There's nothing left, not even proper feed for the poor donkey," he told me.

"The children are playing in the overcrowded schools, where people are sheltering. No swings creaking in the wind, no laughter echoing from cartoons, no movies to take them away. No Ramadan feasts, no barbecues under the starry sky. Just sounds of bombings and ambulances. This Ramadan is the bleakest I've ever lived.”

I asked my mother if my brothers were still visiting my only aunt in Gaza, Iman. 

“Yes, of course. We’ve been visiting her regularly, but at the hospital, as her two sons were injured in the bombing of their house. Their house now is the hospital.”

This is the first Ramadan I've experienced in Ireland, where Muslims are minorities, and there are no vibes like back home in Gaza. I told my mother how much I am homesick and missing that bustle and hustle.

"All of us feel homesick for Gaza. This is not Gaza. This is hell," she said.

Ahmed Alsammak is a Palestinian journalist from Gaza where he covered the last three Israeli wars on Gaza. His works are published in The Intercept, Middle East Eye, and other outlets. He is currently based in Dublin where he is pursuing an MBA. Ahmed was a project assistant at We Are Not Numbers (WANN), a youth-led Palestinian nonprofit project in the Gaza Strip.

Follow him on X (Twitter): @Ahmed_al_sammak

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.