A difficult fast
Ramadan can be a trying month for Muslims, but it is especially so in Gaza, amid the Israeli siege, the threat of the occupation army, and constant power cuts, writes Saleh Al-Naami
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Palestinian worshippers pray outside the Dome of the Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan
Rehab was in disbelief when she found the meat she put in the freezer had spoiled Saturday afternoon because of a long power outage in Berket Al-Wez where she lives in the centre of the Gaza Strip. Rehab quickly called her husband Salah and asked him to buy more on his way home so she could cook for Iftar (the breaking the fast in Ramadan). Rehab and Salah agreed that they should avoid using the freezer because of frequent power cuts.
The power outages are affecting all aspects of life during the holy month. As a result of fuel shortages at the sole power station in the Gaza Strip, the electricity authority is using rotational eight-hour power cuts around the Gaza Strip followed by eight hours of power, and so on. This makes fasting a difficult endeavour because residents cannot rely on the usual methods to alleviate the heat, especially during an exceptionally severe heat wave there.
Locals cannot use the fans most of them have, or the air conditioners that wealthy families own; many families have taken to going to the beach for Iftar, mostly to escape the heat compounded by overcrowding.
Majed Abu Semha, 44, who also lives in Berket Al-Wez, told Al-Ahram Weekly that he takes his family by car to Al-Zwaida beach near his house after his wife prepares food for Iftar. They set up their meal on the sand and eat together. Abu Semha continued that when it's time for ishaa (night) prayers, he and his eldest son head to a nearby mosque to pray and stay for the taraweeh prayers while his wife stays with other women to socialise. The family returns home after power is restored to the area where they live.
Although most families in the Gaza Strip now rely on power generators to operate fans and lights, the high cost of fuel used in generators has prevented many families from using them. At the same time, the number of deaths and injuries caused by exploding generators or poisoning from generator exhaust fumes has caused many families to cut their use of generators.
As a result of blackouts and rising temperatures, some mosques -- especially in rural areas -- now hold taraweeh prayers in the open where it is cooler for worshippers. In Al-Qararah village in the centre of the Gaza Strip, the mosque has zoned off an outdoor space next to the mosque for prayers. Meanwhile, mosque imams abridge taraweeh prayers by reading fewer Quran verses and do no give sermons during these late night prayers if there is a power outage. The Ministry of Religious Endowments issued strict orders to mosque imams to keep prayers short to make it easier on the congregation, although taraweeh prayers are a mainstay ritual of Ramadan after fasting.
Palestinians living in the border zone with Israel have mostly given up on taraweeh prayers because they fear if they leave their homes late at night, they will be shot by occupation soldiers on the border or would become targets for reconnaissance jets that are constantly hovering in the skies. Yehia Barak, who lives in Wadi Al-Salqa in the centre of Gaza, which is considered a border zone, told the Weekly that he is heartbroken that he and his sons cannot pray at the local mosque, which is only 200 metres away from his home. Barak fears that they would be targeted by occupation soldiers who consider anyone moving at night in this area as a resistance fighter plotting a mission against Israel.
Nonetheless, in other areas on the border some are willing to risk their lives to perform the late night prayers. Adel Suleiman, who lives on the edge of Beit Hanoun in the northeast Gaza Strip and only a few hundred metres away from the border, insists on performing taraweeh prayers despite the high security risks. Suleiman uses the fact that his home is located in an orange grove to take cover amid the trees while travelling the long distance to the mosque located outside the border zone.
As well as difficult security conditions that restrict the ability of Palestinians to perform their religious rituals during Ramadan, economic factors also weigh them down during the month of fasting. This is not limited to poor families and the unemployed. Government employees are also suffering because the governments of Gaza and Ramallah are unable to pay full salaries or salaries on time because of a crippling financial crisis in both governments. Complicating matters further, the expenses of Gazans are climbing, not only because of Ramadan but also because Palestinian families will also need to buy new clothes for Eid Al-Fitr (the holiday after Ramadan) and the new school year that begins September.
Many Palestinian families have decided to cut spending on food during Ramadan in order to meet other expenses. Ghassan Abu Semha, who lives in Al-Maghazi Refugee Camp in the centre of Gaza, decided that he would cut food expenses during Ramadan by buying frozen meat and not the more expensive fresh meat. "I have one son going to college and five others going back to school," Abu Semha explained to the Weekly. "This means I have a lot of expenses for university and clothes, and so we have to cut spending."
Charities have become very active in collecting donations inside and outside the Gaza Strip to provide financial and material assistance to poor families. Researchers at Al-Saleh Charitable Society are working quickly to update their lists of poor families by adding new ones who meet the charity's definition of poverty. Anyone visiting the charity's headquarters in the central zone in the Gaza Strip will quickly notice the large number of women, men and elderly flocking to its doors either to receive assistance or ask the administration to add their families to the poverty list. There are also individual charity efforts by the wealthy that prepare Iftar meals to distribute among the poor.
Ramadan days in Gaza are long and hard in light of a six-year siege, but Gazans are ever determined to minimise the negative effects of harsh conditions on their religious obligations during this holy month.