Thanksgiving! Of all of the many holidays celebrated in my adopted country, I have come to be fond of this holiday more than any other. Thanksgiving is a holiday to be celebrated by all people, regardless of their religious or cultural heritage. Offering a time for reflection and to appreciate the bounty we have, this wonderful holiday has a universal message. As Muslims, we are taught to give thanks to God for everything in life, however great or small. The words; ‘Al-Hamd Ullah’ (thank God) are on our lips constantly no matter what befalls us for thus do we offer our appreciation and thanks to God.
This year, as I sit with my family and guests for Thanksgiving dinner, the holiday has deep meanings for me. For one, it falls during the holy month of Ramadan and we break our fast with thanksgiving dinner. The table will be overloaded with the traditional American turkey and all the trimmings, plus a touch of Arabic foods. The humus, quba, fatoush, and grape leaves will compete with the turkey, yams, and cranberry sauce to make our very own Palestinian/American Thanksgiving.
As I look at our cornucopia of blessing, I will give God His due and also say a prayer for those less fortunate than I. Even as we fast in Ramadan, abstaining from food and water, we know that at the appointed time, we will eat and drink to our fill. We are also painfully aware that is not the case with the less fortunate people of Palestine and other parts of the world, where hunger and thirst is a part of their daily life. They do not have the luxury of being certain that their hunger and parched mouths are only temporary: their lives, homes, and families have been torn and shattered by man’s continued inhumanity to his fellows. How can one eat his fill in good conscience when he knows that his neighbor suffers hunger? How can one drink his fill and even waste water while his neighbor is thirsty? The Native Americans knew the spirit of giving and sharing when they saved the Pilgrims from certain starvation and death on that first Thanksgiving so long ago. Now it seems that much of that Native American spirit has disappeared: acts of human kindness are not ‘in’; having given way to the new mantra of acquiring material wealth and power at all cost.
There is not a day that goes by that I do not thank God for what I have, and I am mindful that I have much to be thankful for in my life. I know all too well that but for not the grace of God, I could be in those dire straits that I see others enduring. Humbled by those less fortunate than I, I have learned to appreciate them and the lesson of their humanity.
In 1979, I traveled back to my homeland of Palestine for the first time since leaving at the age of 8 in 1969. I had just graduated from high school, a pampered star athlete and had my choice of colleges and a wide-open, bright future ahead of me. While in Palestine that summer, I visited my childhood village, our ancestral home: the common birthplace of my great grandfather, my grandfather, my father, and me. I also visited the mountains and caves to which, as a small child, I had fled with my family, seeking refuge from the invading Israeli army.
As I walked in and around the caves, waves of memory rushed over me: feelings and recollections long dormant awakened with a new passion. My heart raced as I retraced our footsteps in the moonlit night and recalled the narrow escape from being blown to bits by an Israeli jets as it fired a missile direct to ground zero: the cave we had just departed. As I walked along the dirt paths that had been our escape routes, my memory played back pictures of the dead neighbors and friends, bloated by the hot June sun and these images crystallized in my mind as though real. Far too long I had ‘forgotten’ such things, living the life of an ‘American’ teenager, oblivious to the woes of the outside world.
Making my way along the trail leading out of the village toward Jordan in the east, I remembered the endless lines of men, women, and children trudging through the hot sun towards their new life in exile as refugees. The images returned: young men carrying the old, mothers pulling their small children and desperately carrying what few possessions they could hold on to. Like an old, black and white film, flickering images of Israeli soldiers ‘helping’ Palestinians cross the destroyed bridge into Jordan came into focus: no one realized that they were being ‘helped’ out of their homes and their country and would never to be allowed to return. What began that day continues to this day: life as refugees in exile and poverty. Snapping out of my reverie, I realize that, but for my mother and the grace of God, it could have been our fate as well.
It was with this backdrop that I decided to visit Gaza, where I saw poverty such as I had never ever seen before. I felt shock, a bewildered sense of shame, and finally rage at what had become of my people. Children playing in streets as sewage flowed beneath their feet; rubble, destruction and despair all around them. I accepted the invitation of a local family and stayed for 2 days in their home in the refugee camp: there I learned that however poor these people were materially, their generous spirit and human kindness made them richer than the wealthiest people on the planet. I was humbled by their gracious readiness to share the little they had. Even in miserable poverty, they were the ‘wealthy ones’!
The Palestinian refugees who languish in horrific living conditions in the refugee camps of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq still dream of their return to their homes, lands, and orchards. The poverty and misery that they live in, is a vast contrast to the life they left behind in Palestine before their expulsion at the hands of the Zionists. Historically, Palestinians have always been an agrarian society whose attachment to the land and soil of their native lands is unmatched!
To those who still remember the days when they weren’t refugees, it must be an agonizing and painful experience to have to live on the charity of others.
And so, today, as I sit in my comfortable home, surrounded by my wife and children, I am deeply thankful to God for all that I have. Yet, my heart and thoughts do not wander far from the less fortunate people in this world and I lift my prayer that God might ease their suffering and lift them from the despair and hopelessness that engulfs their lives. More importantly, I remember them with charity, knowing that each contribution, whatever it maybe, helps someone, somewhere by relieving their suffering: knowledge that enriches my own Thanksgiving and makes it just that much more pleasant.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.
May you always have an abundance of things to be thankful for!