Eid al-Fitr is here, and with it the end of the holy month of Ramadan and its fasting. I am reminded of the holidays and celebrations of my childhood in Palestine; of how eagerly we awaited the Eid, its festivities and rituals. The nights of Ramadan leading up to the Eid were spent at the mosque in prayer and reading from the Koran. Our small village of Beit Hanina, a suburb of Jerusalem, was still without electricity, and people carried lanterns to light their way in the darkness as they went first to the mosque and from there to visit friends and family: a special part of Ramadan.
Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, is of the most important days in the Muslim Year, and is celebrated worldwide by prayers and feasting.
Beit Hanina had a drummer, charged with the predawn task of awakening the village to sahoor, the light meal whose end marked the beginning of each day’s fast. Closing my eyes and thinking hard still brings back the sound of the drummer banging away, and the delightful memories of joining the other children, carrying our decorated fanoosia lanterns with candles inside, as we ran along behind the drummer, singing, laughing and shouting to help awaken the adults. How I admired the drummer; how I wanted his job.
As little children, we were filled with excitement at the approach of our holiday. We spent the night before Eid al-Fitr in the mosque at prayer. The morning of the Eid is a time for dressing in our holiday best and returning to the mosque for special prayers. After the prayers were finished, kisses, hugs, and handshakes peppered the joyful greetings of Kul sana wa intum bekheir ("May every year find you well") and Eid mubarak ("Happy Eid"). The women had spent the night making special Eid sweets, which they now brought to the mosque to share with the community. After prayers, everyone headed to the village cemetery to visit the graves of departed relatives. The women handed out their sweets as we recited Al-Fatiha, the opening verse from the Koran. This ritual is still practiced today, in overcrowded cemeteries filled with Palestinian men, women, and children who have died during the conflict with Israel. What Palestinians see as the Israeli occupation has claimed the thousands of Palestinian lives in the last three years.
After the visit to the cemetery, the men visit the homes of their female relatives, bringing gifts of money and lingering there to drink coffee or tea and eat more sweets before moving on to the next house. The village comes alive with people going from one house to the next, sharing greetings as they pass one another in the streets and on the hills. Every house extended an invitation to come in and have something to eat and drink. So it was in the small villages of Palestine. The first time I was allowed to tag along with my older brothers as they made the rounds, I was overjoyed to be one of the “men.”
For the children, the best part was the presents and small coins we received as gifts. We’d take our money and run to the centre of the village, where we’d buy balloons, candy, and sparklers. In the village square the children would play and brag about what they had received for Eid. Marbles and tops were the preferred gifts. We were children, enjoying the simple pleasures of the holidays as only children can. My most memorable present was a red bicycle I received on the Eid of 1968. That bike was the envy of every boy who gathered behind the mosque. That first day, I refused to ride it because I didn’t want to get it dirty.
These Palestinian mothers spent Eid holding photos of their children who, like 7,000 other Palestinians, are in illegal Israeli detention without prospect of legal redress.
In Ramadan 1979, my first visit back to Palestine since the 1967 expulsion, my cousin and I, both 18 and living in the United States, finally became the Ramadan drummers of Beit Hanina. The 1967 war and the subsequent occupation made the job very high-risk. Ramadan drummers were often stopped, even beaten. By 1979, the village had not enjoyed a drummer in five years, so my cousin and I delighted in our job of walking through the village each morning banging away on large tin cans. It must have been a very humorous sight: the elderly were happy to hear us; the younger people thought we were a great joke and made fun of the “bored Americans.” But everyone agreed that we had renewed something that had been lost.
Beit Hanina’s mosque was located squarely in the centre of the village. Our muezzin, Sheikh Yameen, called people to prayer from the lofty heights of the minaret. The Sheikh was blind and long past 50; still, he made his way from his home on the outskirts of the village, to the mosque independently. Climbing the snaking, narrow stairs to the top of the minaret, he sang the call to prayer five times a day.
Just before Ramadan 1968, the villagers had collected money from former residents now in exile and purchased a diesel generator to light the mosque and power loudspeakers that would ease the Sheik’s job. His voice boomed louder and more beautiful than ever.
For many thousands of Muslims in Palestine (and Iraq and elsewhere), life under an oppressive alien rule makes religious celebrations seem like part of another world.
One of the first things I did in 1979 was climb to the top of the minaret and walk around its circular balcony, taking in the awesome sight of my home, my village and the surrounding orchards and hills. I realized a long-held dream of getting a bird’s-eye view of my world - though now that view included Israeli settlements built on land taken from our village in 1977. Now, in spite of the pleas and angry protests of Beit Hanina’s residents, those settlements encircle and nearly strangle my ancestral home.
My last Eid at home was in 1969. Today, much of the joy of the Eid has been taken from my people, and worse, from their children. Brutal curfews, demolition of homes, and disruption of culture and tradition hedge in the celebration on all sides. The height of Eid, a visit to Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, is now forbidden to most Palestinians. This year, for Palestinians, at home and abroad, Eid will be a most sombre one.
May the next Eid we celebrate be in freedom and peace, Inshallah (God willing).
Article courtesy of Philadelphia Inquirer