Hunger in Gaza haunts London iftars

London's Middle Eastern communities are coming together to raise funds for Palestine this Ramadan

Chef Tamara Al Saadi hosts London iftar to raise funds for Gaza

Chef Tamara Al Saadi hosts London iftar to raise funds for Gaza
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The Gazan maftoul is a pumpkin, onion and lamb stew served on rolled semolina. Made by the Nakba refugees who fled to Gaza, it evolved out of a more traditional dish made of pearl-sized semolina balls and chicken.

It was one of the dishes served at a fundraising iftar for Gaza, at a small London restaurant specialising in Levantine food. Dozens of people had gathered at the restaurant to break their fast to eat Palestinian food and raise money.

Ramadan this year has been different, said Tamara Alsaadi, a Jordanian chef of Palestinian origin and founder of the Marylebone restaurant, T by Tamara.

“Every single bit you have, you just feel so bad because you know that there’s someone there in Gaza that cannot even have that. They cannot have the water, they cannot have the dates, they cannot have the basics that we are blessed and lucky to have,” she told The National.

Ms Alsaadi’s parents grew up in Jerusalem and many of the Palestinian dishes that she cooks she learnt from her mother.

The sold-out event raised money for Al Quds Foundation for Medical Education in Palestine, a British-charity supporting the education and training of doctors in Gaza.

Ramadan in London has been marked by an awareness of the war and looming famine in Gaza.

A visit by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to the London Central Mosque on the first day of Ramadan sparked online anger owing to his recent position in support of Israel and the racism rows that the Conservative party has faced in recent weeks.

Mr Sunak visited the mosque for an iftar on the first evening of Ramadan where he announced an increase in funding for mosques and Muslim faith schools to £29 million ($37 million) every year for the next four years.

The funding increase is owing to an exponential rise in anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents in the UK since the recent war began in October.

Ms Alsaadi was moved by the support she has seen in London in recent weeks, with many coming to her restaurant seeking out Palestinian food and fundraisers for Palestine.

“I've seen a lot of people who are interested to learn more and to educate themselves. People specifically Google 'Palestinian places' to come to, they speak to me,” she said.

The iftar was jointly hosted by Suzan Zomlot, wife of the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, who is herself from Gaza.

“Because of what’s happening, you feel a sadness everywhere. Everyone wants to be happy and wants to get together but there is always this feeling that something is not right,” she told The National.

Dr Omar Chehab, a Lebanese cardiologist, came seeking out the warmth and hospitality he knows of the restaurant.

“This Ramadan has been quite sombre, on the whole. It’s a time for reflection, as always, but more so this year. It’s a time for solidarity, collectiveness and reflection on how difficult things can be,” he said.

Fundraising efforts

Many of those present have been actively involved in British efforts to support Gaza during the war.

Yosra El Gonaid, a British-Egyptian independent fundraiser, said this Ramadan in London had been “active” with iftars fundraising for Palestine.

“It’s a bittersweet feeling where we wish we didn’t need to but we’re thankful that we can,” she said.

She hoped to see a more vocal stance in the UK about the looming famine in Gaza.

“It’s atrocious that there’s no acknowledgement of this, despite the tangible observations of children and patients who are showing signs of malnutrition,” she said.

She was critical of steps taken by the British government to put an end to the suffering in Gaza.

“Funding and aid is being cut rather than accelerated, rather than looking at the root cause of the problem which is the bombardment and stopping weapons exports,” she said.

Dr Omar Abdel-Mannan, a British-Egyptian paediatric neurosurgeon who has worked in Gaza and trained doctors there, said it was important to start thinking forward about Gaza’s medical institutions.

“This event is an opportunity to support the medical education of Palestinian students, who have lost members of their family and lost access to education for the last six months,” he said.

“What comes next is really important. And we have to be cognisant there is a rebuilding process that involves rebuilding universities and rebuilding medical schools,” he said.

He has found it difficult to enjoy Ramadan this year.

“It’s a time when we should be celebrating but we can’t, because we’re thinking of our brothers and sisters in Gaza who are forced to fast and are scavenging for food. Children are dying of malnutrition,” he said.

These sentiments were shared across Muslim communities in the city.

Sombre times

Aicha Less, deputy leader of the council for Westminster City, said Muslim communities in the Central London borough were thinking of the crisis in the Middle East as they prepared their iftars.

“Ramadan this year is very sombre. People are very aware of what is going on in the world. There isn’t that big rush for food shopping, that hustle and bustle of Ramadan,” she said.

Ms Less’s ward, Church Street, is home to many residents and business owners of Middle Eastern origin, including Lebanese, Iraqis, Moroccans and Kurds.

“People are just having simple meals and reflecting and thinking about people in Gaza and all over the world. They are mindful of having no waste, using the time to reflect and pray.”

The UK's cost-of-living crisis has meant that many families in her ward cannot afford the same meals that they traditionally prepared.

“It’s a challenge. They don’t have the budget, they’re not able to purchase or prepare foods they once prepared or enjoyed,” she said.

This week, the council organised an iftar to coincide with Nowruz, the Persian New Year festival that is also celebrated by the borough’s Kurdish community.

The festival has roots in ancient Zoroastrianism, which predates Islam, and is an important part of Kurdish identity.

Khalil Karda, an Iraqi-Kurdish resident of Soho, said Nowruz was a national holiday for Kurds.

“The people are celebrating the New Year. This year the festival falls into Ramadan, and I am fasting. Tonight there will be music and dancing,” he said.

“Kurds have often sided with our Palestinian brothers. We support them as much as we can because of our fates are linked forever,” he said.

Community celebrations

Yet against a backdrop of rising hate crime, there has also been more support for public iftars this year than ever before, said Omar Salha, founder of the Ramadan Tent Project, which hosts iftars in UK landmarks and football clubs.

London’s Tate Modern gallery hosted its first open iftar and British companies set up a fasting day at their offices, all organised by RTP.

“It encourages offices to fast for a day in solidarity with their Muslim colleagues,” Mr Salha said.

“More than ever before, we’ve had caterers and restaurants donate food and show interest in supporting us,” he said.

Seventy per cent of guests who attended their open iftars this year had never been to one before, he added, citing data gathered from ticket requests.

It is also the first time that the events will be held in all four nations of the UK, with iftars planned in Cardiff, Dundee and Belfast.

Families come together for iftar at Brentford's Gtech Stadium

Families come together for iftar at Brentford's Gtech Stadium

Mr Salha hopes the open iftars can create “spaces of love” in which communities can come together and feel welcomed.

“Its quite clear, for sure, that Islamophobic and anti-Semitic hate crimes have reached record highs. We create spaces of belonging among communities. We host spaces of love. Now more than ever its important to create safe spaces,” he said.

This year, RTP is fundraising for Islamic Relief to provide hot meals for people fasting in Gaza.

At a lively open iftar at Brentford City Football Club, west London, hundreds had gathered to share a meal.

Sondos Arafa, who attended the event with her husband and two children, came to meet other people and have her children experience iftars in a similar way to Egypt.

“It's important to me as a Londoner to have this kind of event, to meet other Muslims and meet other people, to gather like we do back home,” she said.

“I'm excited to just share some food with new people,” she added.

Updated: March 23, 2024, 2:37 PM