Bittersweet Ramadan in Palestinian refugee camp

JALAZONE REFUGEE CAMP, West Bank — As the sun begins to set, men run to pick up last-minute desserts and crowds of children playing with plastic guns start to get antsy — it’s almost time to break the Ramadan fast at the Jalazone refugee camp, north of Ramallah in the West Bank.

There is little business in the refugee camp during the Ramadan fast, and all day men have been sitting outside the empty shops waiting for the Iftar, the moment when family and friends will gather to break the fast.

It is hot and dusty in Jalazone, yet despite this — and the fact that they haven’t eaten or drunk water since three that morning — residents of the camp say they love Ramadan.

"I wait and long for Ramadan," said Mohamad Zbeide, a 34-year-old office worker. "In the camp, these days are different than other days — life is brighter when you gather friends and family."

Family gatherings are often difficult for those living in the refugee camps. “We invited our grandparents and uncle to come and eat with us, but they couldn’t come because they were stopped at the checkpoints coming from Jericho," Muatasm, 12, said. "It's difficult — the last time I could see them was months ago."

Nasser Subarene, 39, an office worker at the Palestinian Ministry of Education, has not seen most of his family for a year. "This Ramadan, my family came to visit me and stayed with me for 30 days. I am blessed," he said. "When I see my nephews and nieces playing with my children, I feel happy and renewed."

The sun sets, and the men gather on Zbeide’s rooftop, where tables are set with plastic plates of spiced chicken and rice, with cups of fresh yogurt, dates and cans of cherry cola. Afterwards, the men form lines for prayer, and begin to kneel and rise in unison on the roof deck.

“Never in my life did I think that I would pray on the roof of somebody’s house,” Nazeeh Ramaha said. “That was the first time I prayed on a roof — when I stood, I could see the whole neighborhood. I was able to connect with the simplicity of life.”

Across the narrow street, other people are on their rooftops. “The houses are so close together, we can speak to each other,” said Ramaha, an officer serving in the Palestinian Preventive Security Force.

Rooftop dinners often have an extra purpose in a refugee camp, he said: “If we had a siege, we could see when they [the Israelis] are coming.”

He said that in recent years, Ramadan had become easier than it had been during the first and second Intifadas, or Palestinian uprisings, from 1987 to '93, and in 2000 respectively. “During the second Intifada, no one was allowed to work inside Israel," he said. "People were not allowed to travel, and there was much sadness when family members were separated.”

Zbeide said that during the Intifadas, Ramadan brought people closer together. “So many people were killed that there was not so much joy in our hearts, yet Ramadan cleansed our souls,” he said. This same sentiment remains, even without such extreme political times. “If you knock on any door in the camp, every family will have someone who has been to prison, who has been injured, kicked out of the country, or their house demolished,” Ramaha said. “Me personally, I have a bullet in my chest.

“This shared experience creates a family unit in the camp that’s only enhanced in Ramadan. We have all suffered from the same suffering,” Ramaha said. “We share meals at the Iftar, but we have all eaten from the same dish of occupation. We all know each other’s pain, and it fuels our own.”

The global economic crisis has also reached the camp, which was already in financial trouble. According to the U.N, before the crisis, the average monthly income was only $290 dollars per month for a family of 4.7.

For a holy month of abstinence, Ramadan is very expensive. “One hundred shekels (about 25 dollars) brings your family one meal,” said Freal Sheikh Kassam, a 37-year-old housewife with seven children.

Her husband, a handyman,  can only find work one day out of 10, which is not enough to feed their large family the traditional decadent Iftar meals.

“With seven children, one says, ‘I want to eat this,’ and another says, ‘Cook me that!’” Kassam said. “They fast the whole day, and what I put on the table is the only exciting thing in their day.”

Kassam's  sister-in-law, Atidal, is 35 years old with five children. Her days during Ramadan are filled with cooking — according to her economic situation.

When there is money, Atidal says she will cook mansaf, made of lamb meat over rice with yogurt, or uzi, made from ground beef, chicken, some beans and corn. A cheaper dish is msalkhan, bread baked with olive oil and chicken. “When there is no money, we buy vegetables and hummus, and fry potatoes and eggplants,” she said.

“Hummus is the shish kebob of the poor,” said Obaide Nadi, the 22-year-old owner of a hummus restaurant. “I have no business until nearly five in the evening. Then in the hour before we eat, I make more than a whole day when it’s not Ramadan.” However, Nadi said that while hummus is the cheapest dish available, many still cannot afford it.

Although they have trouble feeding their own families, people in the Jalazone refugee camp are also concerned about the meals of their neighbors. Charity is an absolute commandment for Muslims, especially before the Eid al-Fitr (literally, “festival of charity”) that marks the end of Ramadan.

Abu Muhammed, a blacksmith, said it is easy to know who needs help in the camp. “Life in a city is different. In Jalazone, we are more in touch with each other,” he said. “We know every day what our neighbors are cooking, and we can share if we know that our neighbor doesn’t have food. And if one night, we don’t have food — we might find something on our doorstep before it’s time to eat.”

“In Ramallah, you might not know if your neighbor is going hungry,” Abu Muhammed said. “You might not know your neighbors at all.” After the last evening prayer, the men gather in the center of the square, around a monument for Yasser Arafat. After a day of going without, these heavy smokers seem to be making up for lost time. They play cards and watch European soccer or Syrian soap operas. In better times, they would be drinking the traditional fresh fruit drinks of Ramadan, like al-harub, made from carobs and sugar, or tamar hindi, made from dried dates.

“Instead of five shekel drinks (just over one dollar) we drink tea or coffee for two shekels,” said Ashraf Annati, 28. “We’re saving our money for tomorrow.”

Around two in the morning, before the first prayer, young men go out in the streets beating drums or cans and reciting verses from the Quran. “They shout: ‘Wake up, sleepy person, prepare yourself for the feast,’ ” Annati said. “Blessed is he who gets up before sunrise!’”

“When I hear these calls, I wake up knowing it’s Ramadan and something special is going on,” Annati said. “I am sad it’s almost over.”