A Palestinian Ramadan

Published April 04, 2024 by Naz Qureshi

It is the last 10 days of the month of Ramadan, a holy month of spiritual development and service. Muslims across the world are fasting, spending time with family and friends, and dedicating themselves to prayer and worship. By abstaining from food and water and disconnecting from desires, Muslims are easily moved to reflect on the purpose of life and foster feelings of empathy for the less fortunate. Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan with a holiday celebration, Eid al-Fitr, translated as the "festival of the breaking of the fast". On Eid day, Muslims attend a religious service, visit relatives and friends, feast on delicious food and exchange gifts.

Each year, Ramadan is special, filled with joy and celebration. However, this year is different. This year for many Muslims, the holy month is filled with heartbreak and mourning. For six months now, we have witnessed the people of Gaza undergo massacres, disease, and starvation at the hands of the Israeli army. Its violence and brutality have not stopped during the month of Ramadan. How does one find joy in Ramadan while witnessing the ongoing genocide?

I am married into a Palestinian family and have been fortunate to share a number of Iftars (fast-breaking meals) in Calgary with my sister-in-law and her family. This year, Wafaa and her husband Hazem have chosen not to decorate their home, and their large gatherings are limited to family only events. For them and many Muslims, it is not a time to celebrate, but a time to grieve and show solidarity with the suffering of the people of Palestine. Other Muslims I know, have made a conscious decision to do the opposite – they have chosen to decorate and celebrate, in an effort to recognize the blessings of Ramadan in the midst of all the misery.

We arrive on Sunday afternoon to the smell of spiced lamb, garlicky yogurt, and toasted nuts filling the home. Wafaa has been hard at work preparing an array of Palestinian dishes. Being a Muslim of South Asian descent, many of the Ramadan traditions are the same but the variety of foods differ. I help Wafaa make the traditional Levantine sweet that are made exclusively in Ramadan, Qatayef. Qatayef are similar to pancakes that are filled with Ashta (a clotted cream) or nuts then fried and soaked in a rose sugary syrup.

Spoonfuls of batter are dropped on to a hot griddle. The pancakes are cooked only on one side before being stuffed, folded and set aside. They will be fried and drenched in the syrup before they are served. We also make Asafeer, the slightly easier but equally delicious sibling of Qatayef. In this version, the pancakes are folded and filled with chocolate, pistachio and Biscoff spread.

With sunset approaching, the finishing touches are added on the dishes. Toasted nuts are thrown on trays of roasted chicken and rice. Salads are tossed with pomegranate syrup and olive oil. Drinks are mixed with fruit cordial, hibiscus tea and tamarind syrup. Even with just family, there are over twenty people, and a dining table will not suffice. A large tablecloth is spread on the living room floor, and we all gather, communal style around it. The call to prayer is heard, and everyone breaks their fast with a whispered prayer, a date, or a glass of water. Food is dished out, plates passed around, and there is silence as everyone eats their fill.

As I eat, I think about the people of Gaza. A huge part of Ramadan's joy is looking forward to such nightly Iftars that bring people together. In Gaza, people fast past Iftar because they have no food or water. The families gather together not to break the fast and make memories, but rather, to mourn the dead. I wonder, how does one celebrate the holy month when they fear the suffering will not end? While I can fast by my choice alone, the people of Gaza have had starvation forced upon them. With the continued genocide in Palestine, we grapple with grief and anger as the death toll in Gaza continues to rise. While we continue to watch an unfolding tragedy before our eyes, one that gets worse every day, we are still grateful for the gift of the month of Ramadan. Although this Ramadan has been a sombre one, it has allowed for deeper perceptions of the world in which we live. And like all things in life, there exists a constant movement between moments of sadness and moments of joy. The joy is not meant to delude you, and the grief is not meant to destroy you. You can hold both emotions simultaneously in your heart, it is all just a matter of perspective.

After the Iftar, some pray, while others wander outside to smoke. Dishes are cleared away and coals for a shisha are heated. Wafaa starts preparing Jordanian coffee and mint tea. Everyone moves slower now with their bellies full. Now is the time to relax and let the food digest. I host a game testing Quranic knowledge that we play as we enjoy our coffee and desserts.

The Palestinian diaspora is replete with its handed-down stories and longing for their homeland. I observe them with the watchful eye of an outsider. So much depends on when and where they were born, if their families were displaced or occupied? The matriarch of the family, Hazem's mother is older than the State of Israel itself. Her three granddaughters, in their twenty's, translate her Arabic into English for me. I suggest the girls document their grandmother's stories to spread awareness. The grandmother is very uncomfortable with this idea, perhaps for fear of reprisals or due to trauma.

After some of the guests leave, Anas and I take our nieces and nephews to a field where we light paper lanterns and set them adrift into the sky. I tell the kids to imagine that the lanterns will go to the children of Gaza and carry our messages of love and support to them. As we watch the lanterns fade away into the dark sky, four-year-old and ever-inquisitive Mahmoud, asks, "What are we going to say to the children of Gaza?" I turn to him and ask, "What would you like to say to them?" Without missing a beat, he replies, "Free Palestine".

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