[Excerpts from Ramadan in the West Bank, 2007, Eva Bartlett]
It is 10 pm and the blistering desert-like heat has dissipated into an evening cool which sees the residents of Palestinian Susiya, in the South Hebron Hills, wrapped under heavy covers on their sleeping mats inside weathered tents. Most went to bed two hours ago, and only the stars and the bright spotlights of the illegal Jewish colony over the hills compete for attention.
Across a horizon of cacti silhouettes, larger forms are moving, creeping towards the tents. From the shadows, shapes take form: 8 fully-armed Israeli soldiers from the neighbouring military base, bee-lining across the land of the family I am sleeping with. I sleep there to document, and hopefully dissuade, attacks and aggressions by Israeli settlers and soldiers. The soldiers march straight on, ignoring attempts to question them: “Why have you come so late at night? What are you looking for? Why are you terrorizing these children?” In Hebrew the commander orders his subordinates not to speak with the international.
They poke their guns into a truck where two of the older children sit listening to the radio, unaware of the soldiers’ presence until the butt of a rifle appears at their face.
The soldiers, having stirred up fear yet again on this family’s patch of land, move down the hill and on towards the illegal colony, finished their arbitrary march.
It is just after 10 am in Susiya, an already-sweltering morning. The pre-dawn meal and water have long ago been had and the morning’s tasks of grazing sheep and cleaning have been completed. Most of the family members are near the tents, some are inside chatting with visiting medical aid workers.
The soldiers come tromping. Six this time, again fully-armed and heads swivelling in suspicion. Again, they ignore my questions. This time they are more invasive: tents are entered, probing with rifles into corners. The troop heads in convoy down the thorny hillside and up to the neighbouring tents. Snooping more thoroughly, more intrusively, the soldiers perform their staged search, and a young mother gathers her toddlers around her protectively.
The soldiers continue to ignore me following behind them as they head down this hill and onto the next, repeating their performance. The road running from military base to illegal settlement lies to the side, off-limits to Palestinians, and un-used by the soldiers this day.
It is the 3rd day of Ramadan, and while I have been in these tents for the months leading up to the holy month, I have not seen this type of invasion, only the daily harassment on roads and in fields. I ask the soldiers why they’ve chosen to invade these days in particular. No reply.
Also during the last few days, Palestinians have had to contend with settlers’ taunts and threats from their hillside colony. Eventually, settlers do come onto the young mother’s land, terrifying her and her children, yelling obscenities at her. The soldiers have disappeared from their watch-post atop a neighbouring knoll.
Like most Palestinians, the families here never know where soldiers or settlers might appear. The psychological stress of uncertainty reveals itself in all aspects of Palestinians’ daily lives, and seems more acute and unjust during Ramadan, when all should be celebrating.
Setter and soldier harassment subsided for the day, we return to the main tent, the sun readying to set, to break fast and sit down to a meal together. The meal –home-made sheep’s cheese, olives, pickles, eggs, rice, and hobbez taboon flatbread, followed by grapes and figs from their land –tastes especially wonderful after the stress induced by our visitors. I’m again grateful for Palestinians’ resilience and generosity.
Inside a small Nablus grocery store, hours after Iftar, the store-owner stands smiling and chatting with neighbours.
Zafer is maybe in his fifties, and is wearing the more traditional jalabiya, the robe that many don during Ramadan. Another older man smiles in the background and seizes the chance to speak when Zafer pauses. “Sport?” he asks, pointing at my track pants. I explain they are comfortable and were given to me. He asks my pants’ size and beckons me to the back of the store where he has a pile of jeans, new. He wants me to take one, two pairs.
Zafer joins us at the back and begins pointing at, then opening, the freezers and boxes at the back. “This one is fish, this is chicken.” He takes me into a store room a bit further back, opening more boxes which fill the room: “This is sugar, olive oil, tea, coffee, rice, salt…”
As he lists off the essential food ingredients, he pulls out a piece of paper, in Arabic, and explains: “every year, one rich man gives all this to the poor people of the area. Each box is worth about 180 shekels. Every year he asks me, ‘How many poor families are there this year?’ and writes me a check for the families. This year there are 30 in our neighbourhood, and 200 overall in areas around Nablus. We have food here for 200 families.”
Each family receives 5 kilos of sugar, 5 kilos of rice, 1 kilo of tea, a 450g container of tahini, 2 large packages of dates…The list goes on: halwa, chickpeas, 1 kilo of meats, 2 kilos of fish…
My host explains that at Ramadan, every person becomes equal. Looking at a Ramadan for Dummies sort of website later, I read that the month of Ramadan is a time of self-reflection, to, among other things, focus on one’s spirituality but also on one’s relation to others. I leave with a trial pair of jeans, wondering what, if anything, I can give in return.
Iman welcomed me. It had been a few weeks since I’d been to his internet cafe.
“Eid mubarek,” I wished him, this, the third and last day of Eid. I asked if it had been a good one.
“Good, yes, but not like in other countries. There’s nothing for kids to do here. They can play computer games, but they can’t go anywhere… even getting to Al Aqsa Mosque to pray is difficult-to-impossible for many. We have West Bank IDs; we can’t go to Jerusalem.”
I thought of Christmases as a child, of going on mini-vacations, going across the country to see relatives.
I saw the lines at checkpoints, particularly Qalendia, separating Jerusalem from Ramallah and leading away from most West Bank destinations.
I am wary of being trite when wishing a happy Ramadan, happy Eid, nice day, to Palestinians who would be most happy if they were allowed to move freely in their own land.