Fasting for Ramadan While Gaza Goes Hungry

How do you celebrate the holy month when you fear the suffering may not end?

Zaina Arafat in The New Yorker: I believed in God and loved Islam, but my fasting was less about religion than about ritual. In the diaspora, with its handed-down stories and its longing to be elsewhere, Ramadan helped us connect with our heritage. It offered belonging. The act of sacrifice taught me to appreciate whatever I had—itself a Palestinian tradition, given how much the vagaries of history had shaped our lives. So much depended on when and where you were born: were you Forty-eighters or Sixty-seveners? Displaced or occupied? I could endure the hunger because I was part of something, and we were together.

One aspect of Ramadan, for my parents, is remembering better days. Even as a child, my mother wished that she could have celebrated like her mother did before the occupation. My father misses Ramadan during his college days, in Egypt, when the Nile glowed with lights and theatres played movies from the fifties, Cairo’s golden age of cinema. Too often, these stories are followed by talk of how much has changed. Two years ago, my mother and her brother drove through a town near Nablus on their way to an iftar. Israeli soldiers seemed to be everywhere, carrying guns. “I’m scared,” she told him.

“Why?” he said. “It’s always like this now.”

In 2019, Palestinians broke their Ramadan fast near the rubble of a building destroyed by Israeli air strikes, in Gaza City.Photograph by Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters / Redux

It’s difficult to imagine Ramadan in Gaza this year. I want to imagine that, even at a time of devastation and deprivation, a personal act of sacrifice can still lend purpose to senselessness. Maybe it can give powerless people a small sense of control. When you fast, you can think, I chose this hunger; it was not forced on me. But maybe that’s wishful thinking. Hunger is painful. It is one of our most primal desires, and the most human; inflicting it on someone else can seem inhuman. The only antidote is to eat. And in the same way that food brings people together I wonder whether its absence keeps us apart. Hunger makes us weak, and not only physically. It cuts us off from the strength that comes from being together.

In Islam, Ramadan is the month during which the Quran was revealed as a guide for humanity. God prescribes fasting as a means of self-discipline, a way to show Muslims what they’re capable of and to protect themselves from hellfire. But He is merciful; not everyone is called on to fast, especially if doing so causes harm. The Quran grants exceptions to those who are pregnant, breast-feeding, or menstruating, and to people who are travelling, elderly, or ill. Starvation or P.T.S.D. would count as illnesses; fleeing your home would count as travel. These exemptions seem almost absurd, and maybe they won’t matter. Some will choose to fast regardless. Sometimes the best way to forget one pain is to focus on another.

I stopped fasting in college, mostly because I was away from home, but I went to iftars hosted by my classmates, and I often returned to D.C. for Eid. My uncle, the one who hated Eid clothes, always brings his five kids to brunch at the Silver Diner, in Tysons, Virginia, and we order pancakes for dessert. In the afternoon, we visit my mother’s cousin and his wife, where we eat more. My uncle plays the piano, and my mother’s cousin sings on the guitar. More here.