Ramadan in Aida Camp
What is Ramadan like for the inhabitants of the Palestinian refugee camps? Rich Wiles finds out
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Living conditions in Aida Camp, Bethlehem, are deplorable. Poverty and destitution are captured on camera and poignantly project the hopelessness of the hapless Palestinians
From the barred windows of a four-storey house, strings run across the narrow main street of Aida Camp, well above head height, to the caged fence atop the walls of the Aida Camp Basic Boys School. Small plastic Palestinian flags hang down limply from the string. The outside walls of the school are adorned with political graffiti, and its two white metal doors are scarred by bullet holes.
Two towers dominate this stretch of the street. One is tall and thin, and green lights glow from its minaret. The second tower, at the end of the street, looks much sturdier and is without damage from gunfire, unlike Aida Camp's mosque. No lights glow from this tower, and it is impossible to tell if anyone is inside or not. The small windows in the bulletproof glass at the top of the tower are covered by thick caging with just a small purpose-built rectangular hole in the metal, its width sufficient to accommodate the barrel of a US-funded M-16 when the Israeli occupying forces, who use this watchtower in the Apartheid Wall, decide it is time to shoot at the camp. The facing wall of the four-storey house provides testimony to the effectiveness of this practice.
Stars glisten in the clear night skies overhead, but the air is still and stuffy. The heat is stifling, even though the sun set several hours ago, breaking the Ramadan fast. Placed with their backs against the school wall are a range of battered chairs and broken sofas, on which various residents of the house and assorted friends sit on every conceivable seat and broken arm. Half-empty coffee cups rest alongside everyone's feet. This open-air living room is completed by a small crackling portable TV, powered thanks to a makeshift series of cables that lead down from the upper floors of the house via the narrow stairway. The evenings' TV viewing is disturbed every few minutes or so, as cars drive down the unaccommodating street, passing between the TV set and its audience.
The family has set up this unconventional new "room" to escape the stifling temperatures inside their overcrowded house. With around 30 people currently living inside the four apartments in this tall, yet cramped building, and with air-conditioning nothing more than a dream, this house, as with most in Aida Camp, is uncomfortably hot at this time of year.
Palestine is always hot in August, and inside the camp the tall buildings and overcrowding only increase this feeling of suffocation: a summer breeze is never felt inside the camp due to the overpopulated and vertical nature of the construction. Current temperatures are soaring, with predictions of peaks reaching the mid-40s. These temperatures, combined with the daily Ramadan fasting, present serious challenges.
One of the cars that momentarily interrupt the evening's television viewing is a taxi driven by Abu Majd. He began to work as a taxi driver due to the unavailability of other work, and his rented taxi is shared with other family members. Due to the fasting and soaring temperatures, many workers involved in manual work are currently working only after sunset and continuing into the night, but for Abu Majd this is not an option.
"I have worked 15 hours today," he says, "and I cannot eat or drink during the day as I'm fasting. But the work is bad: there are no people outside. In 15 hours I have earned 70 shekels (about $18). Every day has been like this recently: 70 shekels, and I need to pay rent for the car and buy fuel from that money."
Having four children and a wife to feed, Abu Majd works long hours, but what little is left of his daily earnings doesn't stretch far, as prices for fresh food such as fruit and vegetables always rise noticeably during the Holy Month. The cheapest fresh meat is chicken, which at 20-25 shekels per kilo cannot figure in his family's daily diet as they scrape together such a meagre existence. Abu Majd also has other concerns.
"Two hours after I started working this morning my shirt was wet through, as it's so hot. I needed a shower, but what can I do? I have had no water in my house for ten days now."
Although water is not drunk during daylight hours because of Ramadan, the search for it takes up much of the daytime activity for many of the camp's residents. This summer, much like every summer, has seen a severe drought in Aida, although "drought" is maybe not a suitable term given its possible implications of a natural phenomenon.
The water shortages in Aida, and in all of Palestine, are entirely man-made and intentionally enforced. A report published by the Maan News Agency on 11 August claimed that the Israeli Civil Administration had decided to "furnish the Bethlehem municipality with an additional 2,000 cubic metres of water per day for the month of Ramadan" to address the shortages. The same report, however, made no admission of the fact that the reason for the water shortage is that Palestine's water supply is taken by Israel and that Palestine has no control over its own natural resources.
In effect, Israel is making a tiny extra amount of the water that it steals from within Palestine (in this case specifically from the West Bank) available to the people from whom it is stolen. In Aida, people have yet to see such extra water in the camp's supply. Over recent months, long queues have gathered at the one tap linked to the invariably almost empty main water tank alongside the camp, armed with empty juice bottles and large plastic containers in a desperate attempt to ensure that at least a gallon or two of water may be available for daily needs.
They are forced to do this as the system that is meant to provide water directly to the houses fails to achieve this goal day after day and week after week in many cases. Bidna mayyah is one of the most oft-heard phrases during daily conversation -- "we want water."
Water shortages are nothing new in Occupied Palestine, but for those people who have yet to accept the true Apartheid nature of the Israeli regime these practices must be understood clearly. The houses in the Israeli colony of Gilo, clearly visible from rooftops in Aida Camp when looking past and over the Apartheid Wall, have no water tanks on their roofs. They have no need of them, given the constant supply of clean water provided to the settlers by their government.
On many occasions when passing these Israeli colonies, settlers can be seen watering their gardens to retain deep greens and reds in the summer flora, whilst Palestinians living in disjointed Bantustans cannot wash their children.
Ramadan is also a time of year when traditionally more people would be visiting Jerusalem, and particularly the Al-Aqsa Mosque, than at other times of the year. Such trips are impossible for most Palestinians these days, given the Apartheid Wall, the checkpoints, the closures, and the need to acquire papers from the Israeli occupying authorities that are unattainable for the vast majority of people. Those few people locally who do secure these "luxuries" are forced to queue for long periods to pass through the border- style terminal that is the Bethlehem checkpoint. Earlier this week, one family attempting to reach the Al-Aqsa Mosque instead ended up in an ambulance on the way to the Al-Maqasaad Hospital after a ten-month-old child has his arm mangled inside one of the rotating turnstiles that control passage through that particular checkpoint.
Most of Aida's refugees cannot get close enough to the checkpoint to see those turnstiles. Jerusalem, although it is only seven km from Aida Camp, may as well be on another planet.
Life today in Aida is not filled with the often daily sound of Israeli gunfire, as it was up until about three years ago. Incursions by the Israeli army are less frequent than they were, although they do still happen, and no one is sure how long things will remain this way. These peaks and lulls of violence have been the norm over the long history of this refugee camp.
The Israeli occupation is not responsible for the stifling summer heat, or the decisions to fast that are made by most, although not all, people in Aida. But Aida Camp exists today as it has done since 1950. It exists as a refugee camp because today, like for the last 60 years, there are Palestinian refugees and because Palestinians are still denied their rights.
Today in Aida Refugee Camp, people wait for the sun to set so that they can quench their thirst and hunger, even if only in a small way. People are waiting for the opportunity to find decent work. People are waiting to see when they will find some water. People are waiting for a chance to see Jerusalem again. People are waiting today, as they have done since the Nakba, to return to their homes.
The writer's latest book is Behind the Wall: Life, Love, and Struggle in Palestine.