Gaza, fasting, feasting and faith: The lessons I’m taking with me into Ramadan

I no longer say I'm 'freezing' when the AC is at 21ºC, or 'starving' if I have to skip lunch

The National's Nada AlTaher at Al Arish military airport in Egypt. She was on board the flight that took Gazan cancer patients to the UAE Pawan Singh / The National
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The devastation in Gaza has grounded me in gratitude.

Gaza, Palestine, the Middle East, me. Nothing will ever be the same.

Since October 7, the Israel-Gaza war has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians and left 8,000 under rubble, isolated, cold and suffering slowly, or dead.

Covering the war for The National – as well as being aboard the Etihad plane that ferried cancer patients from Rafah to Abu Dhabi and forming close relationships with the people there – has shifted my perspective on everything I say, do and think.

I no longer use the word “freezing” to describe how I feel when the air conditioning is set at 21ºC. I no longer say I’m “starving” if I have to skip lunch.

The burden of not replying immediately to my mother’s voice notes on WhatsApp weighs more heavily because I am acutely aware that I still have a mum who cares about me – always telling me to eat, asking when she will see me, telling me to stay warm. It reminds me I still have family.

Gaza's injured and cancer patients arrive in Abu Dhabi on UAE flight

Gaza's injured and cancer patients arrive in Abu Dhabi on UAE flight

Before October 7, I was a picky eater. Seeing Gazans live on one meal, if you can even call bread made from animal fodder a meal, has made me more grateful for and comfortable with whatever is on my plate.

After isha, when men and women walk to the mosque, bellies full and children clutching an extended adult hand, Gazans will walk towards destroyed mosques and demolished homes

If the chicken is slightly overcooked, I stop myself mid-complaint and say alhamdulillah. At least I can have chicken. At least I can order food on my phone and it will arrive 30 minutes later. At least I have internet to stay in touch with my loved ones.

This Ramadan, too, will be different, in every single way.

It won’t be difficult in any way. The certainty that when the sun sets I’ll be able to eat, will help me breeze through the day.

Gazans won’t have that option. They will fast, even though many of them will not have much, if anything, to look forward to at the end of each day. They will not have the liberty of deciding which rice to cook or which type of protein to make the centre of their feast.

Ramadan is all about congregation, too – Islam is a social religion.

In Gaza, many families will have empty seats around makeshift tables, where mama once sat, where baba ate with his hands, where a little brother played with his food.

What about prayers? Will the sound of the athan, or call to prayer, be replaced by the sound of quadcopters and bombs?

After isha – the night prayer when men and women walk to the mosque with their bellies full and their children clutching an extended adult hand – what will Gazans walk towards? Destroyed mosques? Or demolished homes, where living rooms that once doubled as prayer halls have crumbled into themselves?

That walk won’t be difficult for me any more. At least I have both legs to carry me to mosques, near and far. At least I have a car that can cruise down the smooth tarmac in neighbourhoods where trees, not decimated dreams, line the streets.

I don’t see myself being able to attend lavish iftars, though. I won’t be able to look at the assortment of food without guilt. Yes, it’s survivor's guilt. But it’s what Gazans who fled the war feel, too.

One Gazan told me he has been feeding his children the herbs that had sprouted near their tent. They cried for real food.

Others will spend their fast sitting in the corridors of overcrowded hospitals, stepping over the thousands of displaced people who are making beds out of individual stairs.

The remnants of what Gazans are going through and the horrors they have witnessed became all too clear to me when I was aboard the flight evacuating cancer patients, and I noticed those patients rationing airline food.

“There will be more coming,” I tried to tell one of the women who was accompanying her husband, a prostate cancer patient.

“I’m not hungry. I ate,” she said.

“When did you last eat?”

“This morning,” she replied.

This conversation was taking place at least 12 hours after the woman's last meal – a simple sandwich her daughter made – and that she shared with her husband while waiting for a bus to take them from Rafah to Al Arish, where the plane was waiting to take them to the UAE.

If they could not shake off that feeling of imminent hunger, even while knowing full well they were now in safe hands, how can I let myself feast on all-you-can-eat iftar buffets? Or enjoy so many other hitherto trivial pleasures?

Sometimes, it’s unavoidable. And I know many would tell me that what I’m doing isn’t healthy. I can’t live the trauma of others.

But at least this Ramadan – when the lesson to be learnt is about minimalism, acceptance and charity – I will be most grateful that I can even make the choice to forgo something.

Updated: March 09, 2024, 7:41 AM