'All the Colors Have Been Washed Out of Our Celebrations': My Family's Eid in Gaza

My mother spent two days cleaning and baking maamoul on her own, then waited for a knock on our door. But none came. After years of the blockade and its privations, those who are left won't visit empty-handed - and they have nothing to bring

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A Palestinian woman cooks on a wood fire at her house during power cut in Beit Lahiya town in the northern Gaza Strip. July 6, 2017
A Palestinian woman cooks on a wood fire at her house during power cut in Beit Lahiya town in the northern Gaza Strip. July 6, 2017Credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS
Muhammad Shehada
Muhammad Shehada

"This Eid has been the most hollow, most colorless and most disappointing," my sister said. “The shops are almost empty, the streets are dead, people are frowning and most of my friends didn’t get new clothes."

"The kids are running down the street in their pyjamas, and their adult relatives are hiding to avoid paying the eidia [festive pocket-money]," my sister explained.

The exceptional circumstances that Gaza is undergoing affects every aspect of life, and Eid celebrations are no exception. The hardships have led to a sea change in social behavior, customs abandoned, and special occasions are turning into a burden on the impoverished population.

The romantic memories of Eid that I carried in my heart for long, seems to be close to extinction in Gaza. It all started to fade away after the blockade took hold.

Not so long ago, Eid was be the day for which everybody awaited, anxiously and expectantly; whether young or old, everyone was actively engaged in social visits with lots of hugs and handshakes. My parents would clean the house very carefully in advance and bake lots of maamoul for the guests, then they would dress us up in new clothes, and we then wait for the relatives and friends to visit one after the other and give us the eidia.

I remember my late father taking us into his car in the early morning, and visiting my uncles and cousins around town, then we had to rush back home to see the people who came to visit before we go out and play with our friends and compare how much money we got from our adult relatives. It was very dynamic...Everybody was dressed in new clothes...Everybody was so excited...

But each year since the blockade, the more Gaza's spirit buckles under pressure, more people have left, or died, and fewer hands knocked on our door. Eid was losing its colors and its vitality, not just for my family, but as a phenomenon encompassing all of Gaza's beleaguered society.

A Palestinian girl receives a piece of freshly slaughtered calf meat on the morning of Eid al-Adha, or the "Feast of Sacrifice", in Gaza City. September 1, 2017Credit: MOHAMMED ABED/AFP

For me it started with my oldest, kindest uncle who seemed to me to everywhere all the time, who had to leave to Egypt to get medical treatment and check on his children who were studying in Cairo. Being too old, and too sick, he never took the risk of returning and encountering the infamous Egyptian humiliation on their side of the border: Waiting 24 hours to cross the 20 meter distance between the Egyptian exit and the Gazan entrance halls.

He’s also too afraid of coming back and never being able to leave; when the queue to leave Gaza has climbed to 50,000 petitioners, and only few hundreds of them can pass, and that's when the  borders are open, which happens only irregularly - once every three months or so.

Then my aunts who live in the Emirates were no longer able to come and visit; they are not entitled to Palestinian citizenship since they left Palestine before the Oslo accords, so they still carry refugee-travel-documents that restrict their movements and stand between them and their wish to visit, to cross the doorstep of our house in Gaza.

We still had some people showing up; those still determined to stay in Gaza regardless of the dire atmosphere. For instance, a cousin who came back from Egypt, eager to bring his children up in their homeland, and a grandfather who always wished to be buried in Palestine.

As more time passed, more spirits snapped, fewer hands knocked on the door, more phone calls from relatives who cannot come back, or who are too afraid of committing such an irreversible mistake and never being able to leave again. All because of the separation walls that obliterate the horizon in Gaza. Yet, my mother maintained her Eid routine no matter what.

Rarely, a relative or two would decide to come back to Gaza, and plant their roots into the soil again. It usually didn’t take long before they failed to secure even basic means of living and discovered the ugly truth of the city’s futility, and then they would try with all their means to leave again, but once they managed to do so, they would be divided between their cravings for home and their fear of Gaza's doom.

Ahmed Abbas, who suffers from cystic fibrosis, on a hospital bed in Gaza City, where electricity is down to a few hours a day and medications are lacking due to the blockade. July 2, 2017Credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/REUTERS

Then my last remaining Gazan cousin traveled to Egypt with his family for a summer visit, then decided not to make the suicidal decision to come back as things are.

Eventually, as the situation hardened, we only expected my grandfather’s footsteps at our door, and we would overfeed him with all the sweets that my mother prepared for the guests who couldn't come.

My sweet grandfather died two months ago in al-Shifa hospital. The hospital didn’t have the basic medicines to treat his kidney problems. The last hand knocking on our door, bringing happiness to my young orphaned siblings was taken away thanks to a political dispute between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, for which the people always pay the price.

I couldn’t sleep last night after my younger sister told me how her Eid was. She said, "Mother spent the two days before Eid cleaning and baking maamoul on her own. She prepared everything and made the house look so nice and colorful. She asked us to leave the guests’ maamoul untouched. We sat and waited for a hand to knock on our door, but it was like if our house is cursed. Nobody drops by."

However, the desolate Eid was the worst of my sister’s concerns. She went on: "Most of my friends were too embarrassed to show up, some of them didn’t get money this Eid, most of them didn’t get any new clothes either." My sister continued, "We tried to go out to the mall, because it was too hot and humid everywhere else, but the entire population of Gaza was crowded in there, literally. They come because of the air-conditioning, and they don’t want to leave."

Demonstrators block vehicles carrying the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres arriving at the Palestinian side of the Erez checkpoint, northern Gaza Strip. Aug. 30, 2017Credit: Abed el Kareem Hana/AP

I talked to some friends, but their Eid seemed to be not that different. My friend Anas, who used to be very outgoing and energetic, chose to stay at home because "It was the first time in ages to have electricity for 12 hours a day, and that’s only for the Eid time; so I gotta use every single minute very wisely before the electricity drops down to three hours a day again."

My other friend Ibrahim simply said: "I can’t go out and visit relatives with completely empty hands. I haven’t received a full salary for the last three years, and going out means spending the last pennies I have saved for the rest of the month."

Other friends had similar thoughts: "I’m an adult now, I would be expected to give money to my young relatives, but I don’t have any income, so it would be too much of embarrassment everywhere I go."

On top of the day-to-day hardships that Gaza's people face there's other, painful losses born of that hardship threaten to become irreversible: the social and cultural ties between its people. There's only one clear and simple way to save Gaza from losing its social cohesion: Open the borders, rather than finding reasons to keep them closed. Those 'reasons' have no evident justification apart from punishing the entire population of Gaza.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was formerly the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2

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