Ramadan 2020: the Gazan man serving up free food for the poor

Walid Al Hattab is making a dish called ‘gresha’ for hungry families who live in dire economic conditions

57-year-old Walid Al Hattab makes groats for the poor of Gaza. Fady Hossam for The National
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In Gaza’s Al Shujaiya neighborhood, a place that was completely destroyed in the 2014 war, 57-year-old Walid Al Hattab found his passion.

Pointing to a busy corner in the middle of the public market where people come to buy cheap vegetables, Walid remembers how the idea hit him four years ago.

"I was sitting there looking at my neighbours, both poor and rich and I decided to cook some Gresha (wheat groats) and distribute it to whoever walks by," he tells The National.

Walid noticed how many people came with empty pots to get free portions of what he had cooked.

Gaza has witnessed a severe worsening of the economic and humanitarian conditions for its 2 million people in recent years. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees reported that nearly 1.3 million in Gaza rely on food aid, and it is now subject to the coronavirus outbreak, albeit on a smaller scale because of severe Israeli travel restrictions.

Just like most people in Gaza, Walid seems to notice how the dire living conditions in the enclave affect the daily lives of its residents, especially during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

He says this is why he decided to make a habit of cooking Gresha for the poor families in his neighbourhood.

57-year-old Walid Al Hattab is feeding the poor of Gaza during Ramadan. Fady Hossam for The National
57-year-old Walid Al Hattab is feeding the poor of Gaza during Ramadan. Fady Hossam for The National

With an untrimmed beard and a jacket that barely protects him from the fire he lights up, Walid describes the traditional meal.

“It is very simple and I can make it at a low cost. The Gresha is basically dry grated wheat cooked with lamb meat and some spices.”

Walid realizes it may not be a fancy meal for some people, but it certainly fulfils the needs of those who can’t make ends meet in a coastal strip that has the highest levels of unemployment in the world.

“This pot I’m using contains enough Gresha to feed nearly 130 families,” Walid says, looking kindly at tens of people, children mostly, who have lined up with their empty pots waiting for the meal.

"It doesn't cost much; I mean it nearly costs 400-500 shekels (Dh420-520) to buy the ingredients for this meal," he continues. He pays for the food from donations known as zakat from within Gaza.

Large numbers of families in Gaza have been pushed deeper into poverty during the past 13 years due to Israel's crippling blockade, three wars between Hamas and Israel and, most recently, a new hidden enemy called Covid-19.

Life has become strenuous and mostly unbearable for the majority of the 2 million Palestinians locked into the tiny, impoverished territory.

“The situation was much better last year in Gaza; I can say that more people are coming here this year especially with this new coronavirus situation because of the economic implications,” Walid says.

The meal that Walid Al Hattab makes is known as 'gresha'. Fady Hossam for The National.
The meal that Walid Al Hattab makes is known as 'gresha'. Fady Hossam for The National.

“I’m also glad there are other people who do the same now,” he adds.

Walid also believes Gaza is still relatively safe compared to other countries as all of the confirmed cases of coronavirus are still quarantined, and therefore people can still come to grab a bowl of his hearty dish.

In the occupied West Bank and Gaza, just 353 cases have been announced, with two deaths.

Gaza cannot afford to leave these places open all year round, which is why the end of Ramadan in May will also be the end to these food handouts and the end to Walid’s Gresha.

But Walid remains upbeat that he can bring some relief to those in need during Ramadan.

“We thank God the virus has not spread in Gaza yet,” he says, a serious yet relieved smile drawn across his face.