Ramadan in Gaza: Life in a cemetery
A man readies water pipes as the sun sets over the Gaza Strip during Ramadan. (AFP / Mohammed Abed)
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By Sanaa Kamel
Gaza – People walk by the cemetery, where thousands of dead gather in one place. They begin praying for them out of fear of the torments of the grave. Some do not know that these cemeteries are not only inhabited by the dead but also by the living. Al-Mamadani Cemetery in the center of Gaza City, near Palestine Square, has been home to Palestinian families since the 1948 nakba.
Here, children play on top of graves, jumping over the rectangular obstacles and announcing the winner who cleared the most. Their innocence makes them oblivious of the tragedy of life. Their faces question those who find their lives strange. Who is the stranger here, them or those who visit the graves? They ask their parents why they have to stay in a place not made for the living.
"Our life is closer to death. The only difference between us and those in the grave is that we can hear those around us eat and drink. But those in the ground cannot hear us, nor can we hear them," Omar Hammouda Kheil, a man in his sixties, explains, describing the living situation of his family of 28, including his children and grandchildren.
Kheil has been living in Mamadani Cemetery since 1948. His poor family could not find refuge, except next to the graves where they built a small home. He waters the graves for a small amount of money paid by relatives of the dead, but it is not enough to feed his family. However, he knows all the graves by name and age at death, pointing them out to visitors. He is also the cemetery's watchful guard.
His family dreams of living in a normal home, no matter how small. It has to be far from the terror of the graveyard, with its lizards, snakes, scorpions, and stray dogs. But they have not yet found a way to achieve their goal.
Ramadan brings a different type of suffering to the family. At sunset, they watch people scurrying to their homes to enjoy a good meal. But they need to wait for charity and donations to set their own table over a grave that can fit them around it, just like one of those Ramadan series about slum dwellers.
Sohour, the last meal before dawn, is another problem. The mother of one of the children, 10-year-old Hamdan, explains the situation while covering her face with a veil. She is too embarrassed by the situation to reveal her name. "My heart is torn when my son comes up to me and asks for a sohour, just like our neighbors are having on the next street. I cry every night he asks me why can't we live like normal people away from the graves and dead," she laments.
"Our life is a big tragedy. We only have God's succor. My husband does not work. Despite his surgeries, he still looks for suitable work for daily bread," she continues.
"As you can see, our lives and the dead is the same," adds old man Kheil. "They could be better off than us. They know their destiny but we don't know where we are heading." He says he awaits death to join them in the ground, where he will feel better. He might be able to listen to his family praying for him, but they will not hear him, as with all his dead neighbors, as he puts it.
His old wife, Yousra, feels the same. She blames officials and decision-makers, who only look at poor families in front of the media.
"I call on all officials in Gaza and the West Bank, [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas, [head of Hamas government Ismail] Haniyeh, and anyone with a conscience to look at our tragic situation and give us a helping hand," she implores. "If the officials take care of us and our fellow humans who live in the graves, it will not cost them anything compared to what they spend on fading appearances. We are barely 100 families."
Kheil's sons inherited the graves. Their suffering is born of not merely of poverty but also of the poisonous snakes and scorpions. "We live under threat of the poisonous snakes and scorpions and the lizards, reptiles, and mice who share this awful place," he says.
The family still dreams of a better future and a change in their situation. All they want is a simple life in peace and security.
Government neglect of poor families prompted some Palestinian charities to intervene. The Islamic Society in Jabalia Camp, north of the Strip, provided charity during the first ten days of Ramadan for 1,026 families, worth $84,221.
Al-Islah Islamic Society in north Gaza also began to distribute aid at the beginning of Ramadan. It delivered 189 food kits, 1,016 coupons of 200 shekels ($55) each, and 1,016 orphan allowances at 500 ($139) shekels per family.