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The Genocide in Gaza Is Filling Our Beautiful Month of Ramadan With Dread

As Muslims worldwide fast for the holy month of Ramadan, newborns in Gaza are dying of starvation.

Palestinians are taking refuge in Deir al-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip, and are decorating their tents with Ramadan lanterns and illuminating lights ahead of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, on March 10, 2024.

Ramadan, which starts in earnest today, is a beautiful month of fasting and prayer focused on humility and kindness, but in Palestine this holy month has been repeatedly weaponized against us — the Israeli military has shown a pattern of targeting Palestinians, and especially Palestinian Muslims, during this month.

This year, the terrifying scale of violence exceeds all that came before. As we enter Ramadan, newborns in Gaza are dying of starvation, and their surviving parents and relatives are reporting helplessness as other children are showing severe signs of dehydration, malnutrition and slow death. This is targeted and strategically orchestrated by the Israeli forces that are using all available means to hasten the death toll in Gaza and bring it further to complete degradation.

Amid this genocide, this year’s Ramadan will be heart-wrenching for Palestinians around the world who are overwhelmingly occupied by the thought of our people’s hunger as we prepare for the fast. It will not be the month we grew up anticipating and filling with celebration and limitless excitement.

I remember the first Ramadan my friends, cousins and I fasted as children. Our mothers would wake us before dawn, rushing us into the kitchen where a meal of labaneh (creamy yogurt spread), za’atar w zeit (olive oil with fragrant spices), and warm bread would be ready for us to eat. I remember that it was during Ramadan that I had my first cup of mint tea. “Tea is not for children to drink” were words that would get yelled at us whenever we tried to sneak a few sips from the ornamented glass cups we used for guests. Our carefree laughter as we ran away from reprimand further aggravated our parents and older siblings. “Children, they never behave,” our parents would say to understanding guests who would nod in agreement. To my child self, that first cup of sweet mint tea felt like real joy filling my insides.

As children we first learned to practice Ramadan through what we called the “bird’s fast” — a shorter fast that did not last all the way until sundown. We would fast until noon and then eat our first meal. It was an exercise in adaptation and how to acclimate small bodies to the harshness of hunger. Those first few hours of fasting were glorious. We would huddle in school yards and recount what we ate before dawn, laugh at those who missed their meals (“How could you skip the chance to drink tea?”), and share our fantasies about Iftar, our sundown meal, and what our mothers would cook for us.

My Islamic studies teachers would explain to us how Ramadan is a ritual of solidarity, a rehearsal in being human, and a test: What are we doing for those who are systematically hungry?

In the evening, we would find each other in the mosque, wearing prayer clothes that were too long for us, and tripping joyfully while the adults shushed us and asked us to stand still and pray. I remember those prayers too. I remember the muffled ameens, and how choked the adults got when the imam would pray for a liberated Palestine, for deliverance, for an end to violence, for victory, for peace, for health, for heaven. It was a cluster of words that even as a child I realized were repetitions meant to break through the many skies above us, to be heard and to be answered. The more the prayers extended, the more the adults cried. In that space of standing figures, including the tiny and bouncing ones, we all felt the seriousness of the situation. We were all there to plead and protest, and grieve and hope, in unity.

It was later as a young adult that I discovered the connotations and purposes of fasting. My Islamic studies teachers would explain to us how Ramadan is a ritual of solidarity, a rehearsal in being human, and a test: What are we doing for those who are systematically hungry? How are we using this month to take action against poverty? Are we feeding those who were robbed of the means to feed themselves and their families? Are we committing to a long-term vision where hunger no longer exists? Are we doing zakat work, giving what we can starting at home, and expanding these circles until it encompasses the world?

To fast all day, every day, for 30 days establishes grounds for empathy and awareness. It is the month of generosity and giving. We have the duty to give all that we have — financially, spiritually, physically and emotionally — for the aid of others all across the world, but especially in war-torn and oppressed Muslim communities. We begin with our relatives, then our neighborhoods, then our villages and cities, then countries and continents, until everyone who needs us can find care and nourishment.

To fast all day, every day, for 30 days establishes grounds for empathy and awareness. It is the month of generosity and giving.

During Ramadan, Muslims are supposed to commit to serenity, humility and kindness; to focus on giving and fortifying our spiritual education and deeds. We were taught as children to respond to any harm we receive during our fasting with the phrase, “Allahumma inni sa’im” (“by Allah’s name I am fasting”), which indicates that we refuse to engage in a harmful response and are choosing instead to quietly part ways.

As a result, when we experience violence by our oppressors during Ramadan, we are denied the sanctity of the month. We are forced to cross the bounds of worship to engage in exasperating resistance; defense of land and life; and caring for the wounded, ill, and relatives of those who have been killed when our energy should be reserved for spiritual acts. In other words, we are robbed of our religious freedom and the commandment to take refuge in our homes, sacred spaces and prayers. We are coerced to act in unholy ways — because bodily survival is wholly dependent on it. Our bigger heartbreak in this suffocating chaos is Jerusalem. The Zionist regime decides who can go to Jerusalem and who cannot. Israeli soldiers stand at the walls of the Holy City of Jerusalem and engage in pitiful acts of surveillance and harassment, and, in past Ramadans, they have engaged in violent aggressions against worshippers inside Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. It is a clear message that speaks of colonial arrogance: You are not safe, your mosques are not safe, and with our heavy boots and guns aiming at your faces, we refuse to let you fast and pray in peace.

When we experience violence by our oppressors during Ramadan, we are denied the sanctity of the month.

This year, the scale of violence is exponentially higher as children die of starvation and the Israeli military kill Palestinians as they try to access food aid.

The recent “flour massacre” that occurred on February 29, where Israeli soldiers shot over 100 Palestinians and injured more than 900 who gathered around a truck carrying aid, shows a discrepancy in our relationship to hunger.

Soldiers reported feeling unsafe due to the sight of Palestinians rushing to the truck — a baffling statement with a very meaningful implication. How do Israelis expect people who have been starved for months to react to the sight of food? What does that say about their lack of awareness to the toils and humiliating pains of starvation? Do they not know that they are the cause of this chaos — this ritual of mayhem-causing and victim-blaming they manufacture and prolong?

Yazan al-Kafarna, a 10-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, died in a hospital in Rafah on March 4 after his soul surrendered to severe malnourishment.

The Zionist narrative found its way to ears that refuse to believe Palestinians, let alone their humanity and threshold for hunger. A hungry congregation of people that rushes, huddles and cries at the sight of a box of flour is refused humanity and respect. When Palestinians demand self-determination, we are refusing dehumanization. It is not a call for violence, but a demand for dignity.

And those of us who are Muslim simply want the right to preserve and enact our faith. We want the right to be Muslim, to be able to fast and hunger willingly, and to congregate only for family meals and in safe places where we pray repetitively, loudly and collectively for everyone’s freedom.

In Palestine, birds as a metaphor invoke more than fasting. For Palestinians, our children who die prematurely are portrayed in stories and visual art as children with wings.

I mention this here to tell the story of a child, among a few, who died last week of starvation. Yazan al-Kafarna, a 10-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, died in a hospital in Rafah on March 4 after his soul surrendered to severe malnourishment. The doctors are seen in a video wrapping his body, so small and so thin, in kafan, a white piece of fabric that traditionally wraps Muslims when they are prepared for burial. The doctor who held Yazan moved his hands so slowly and gently so as not to break his body. Yazan was filmed the day before, receiving humanitarian aid with a smile on his face — a tired smile, perhaps knowing that it was too late and not enough.

There are Palestinian children with wings congregating in the skies above us. Perhaps they too are unable to stay still, bouncing and talking about fantasies they have about joys to come. They will be in heaven in no time, if they are not already there.

Perhaps there is gullibility in that image of optimism and uncritical belief. But for a lot of Palestinian Muslims, it is what we have to believe to reject despair, to keep doing everything we can politically, materially and spiritually to bring liberation for ourselves and our people.

Ramadan is 30 days grouped together for a purpose. Everyone can join us, fast with us and partake in the ritual of starving and laboring for others — in selfless giving, in prayer and in willful action for liberation. Let the children above us know that we love them. We, too, are congregating, right below them, striving with everything we have for all of us to be finally free.

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