Gaza Strip 24 November 2009
Muslims around the world are about to celebrate Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), one of the most important dates in the calendar, marking the end of the annual pilgrimage season to Mecca. Traditionally, Muslims slaughter a lamb (or offer money for one to be slaughtered for a poorer family), as an act of faith, as the Prophet Abraham did. In many Muslim countries, it is also a festive time of year, marked by family visits, purchasing new clothing, presenting gifts and offering sweets and candy to guests.
Daoud Suleiman Ahmad, 48, an unemployed construction worker, has been unable to find work for almost three years due to the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. Life for Ahmad and his family in the al-Maghazi refugee camp has been desperately difficult, something that is particularly on his mind during the Eid.
“Over the past three years, I have felt a great deal of bitterness inside me as I have been unable to follow the rituals of the Eid al-Adha, as well as [meet] other daily basic expenses of my family,” Ahmad said at his home, surrounded by two of his children, daughter Rawan (11) and son Ahmad (9).
The house built by UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, a few years ago, consists of three rooms: one for Ahmad and his wife, and the other two shared by all the children.
Before the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, Ahmad was among thousands of laborers who used to cross into Israel. But Israel shut out workers from Gaza, and then imposed a siege that has made it all but impossible for Ahmad to earn a living. Hours before being interviewed, Ahmad said he had quarreled with one of his sons who studies nursing. “I couldn’t afford to give him 10 shekels [three dollars] for his transportation, can you imagine?”
These daily hardships make it difficult to fulfill the social obligations of Eid. “I have two sisters who live 20 kilometers away in southern Gaza,” Ahmad explained. “Even if I wanted to visit them for Eid, I couldn’t because I cannot afford to bring with me some lamb meat or other gifts.” Because he would not want to visit family members empty-handed, Ahmad did not visit his sisters on Eid in recent years and probably will not do so this year.
Ahmad’s small home has become a sort of a prison; he prefers to stay inside rather than go outside and be confronted with the financial obligations of Eid. “If I go outside,” he said, “I need to look for things for my family and my children, things that I cannot afford for the time being.” Ahmad says his family depends mainly on food assistance provided by UNRWA.In a corner of the home, Nadia al-Ustaz, Ahmad’s wife, prepared rice for the family’s lunch using a small kerosene stove due to the lack of cooking gas in Gaza over the past three weeks due to Israeli closure.
“What shall we do, as you can see, we can only afford food for the children,” al-Ustaz said, “and I thank God that we can provide them with it.” Reflecting on the Eid, she said, “It is a special time of the year for us. I wish my husband could give me a gift, like many other women, but I would never burden him with that, for our life is hard enough and we cannot afford such things.”
For the children, too, holiday time is one of anticipating new toys to play with. Rawan said she wished for a Barbie doll, but knew that her father couldn’t afford it. Little Ahmad had been sorely disappointed at the last Eid that he wasn’t able to have a football to play with his friends.
Ahmad estimates that new clothes for each of his children would cost over 200 shekels ($55), so buying new ones for Eid is out of the question. So his next destination was to take old clothes to a local tailor for repair and adjustment instead of buying new ones.
Ahmad handed a pair of his daughter Rawan’s trousers over to Muhammad al-Rifai, who runs a small tailor shop in al-Maghazi refugee camp. “More than a hundred households have brought clothes for repair to my shop, just before Eid,” al-Rifai said, “and of course mine is not the only shop in town.” According to al-Rifai, who used to own a larger clothing factory before the Israeli siege, this number is sharply up from previous years.
All over the Gaza Strip, families like that of Daoud Suleiman Ahmad will be unable to mark Eid in the traditional way. According to local and international estimates, the poverty rate in the Gaza Strip has hit a high of more than 70 percent of the territory’s 1.5 million residents, and the vast majority of households — like Ahmad’s — receive UNRWA food aid.
“I saw in my dreams flowers, peace and safety.” Those are the lyrics of a song that Rawan sang. Those wishes — as well as dignity — for hundreds of thousands of refugees in Gaza, are likely to remain dreams for some time to come.
All images by Rami Almeghari.
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.