“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion;…..this includes freedom to manifest religion or belief through teaching, practice, worship and observance.” Article 18 – Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The most celebrated season for Muslims has passed. For me, the holiday is Ramadan-a whole month of hunger and thirst in a quest for God’s grace and gifts. While memory and joy and love resound for all those who follow Abrahamic religious traditions, it is awe of God that most characterizes our celebration.
Like those of any religion who find delight or meaning in a holy time of year, we Palestinians await the month of Ramadan with eager anticipation. When the moon’s crescent awakens us to the longed-for time of observance, we do not dance around an evergreen, cut and anchored in our living rooms, nor do we celebrate around candles that represent our past. Make no mistake, though, our holiday is not an austere time for us. Ramadan’s celebrations provide plenty of joy in rites similar to Jewish menorah lighting and family meals and Christians’ Christmas carols followed by hot chocolate or oyster stew. Here in the Middle East, our markets are filled with shoppers looking for special Ramadan treats. Families come together. Above all, we Muslims focus for a whole month on the goal of bolstering our year-long personal holy struggle. Using restraint as a means to an end, we wage a “Jihad” within ourselves to shun unworthy thinking ! and to widen a door of our souls so we can walk out into the world with a greater sense of inner grace, peace and happiness.
Our feasts come after sundown, following each day of fasting. For an entire month, those of us in good health neither eat nor drink from sun up to sun down. Ramadan is first and foremost a celebration of patience. We are asked to feel hunger and thirst like those less fortunate. Our sacrificial fast allows us the experience we need to possess God’s gift of empathy. Experience teaches us and renews for us a sense of mercy. When our fast is broken each sundown, then we share the joy of gratitude. We eat together in honour of the one God who is our provider. By coming together, we recognize God’s wisdom in gathering us into families and surrounding us with friends.
When we reach the end of our month of sacrifice-the Eid Al-Fitr-we feast grandly as we begin the rest of the year with a renewed sense of compassion and generosity toward others. To those of other Abrahamic religions, the purpose of our rites should sound familiar. Giving up daily bread so we can better understand what God would have us do, concentrating on giving to those more needy than we and bowing in prayer are the essentials, reinforcing childhood’s moral lessons we human beings seem to need regardless of which holiday we celebrate.
As a child, I experienced Ramadan first, but later was introduced to the meaning behind Hanukkah and Christmas. I thought we were all living in a nearly perfect world. I thought it was great that people were free to celebrate as they chose. It did not dawn on me that there were religious people living very near to me who did not want us around because we did not celebrate or live in the same way as they did.
Although I was unaware that people had or would put thoughts like mine into words, I imagined that we were all recipients of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the near-perfect world of childhood, the meaning of the holidays simply seemed to connect us.
Unfortunately, we Palestinians do not enjoy the freedom of practicing our religion anymore than the other basics rights of human life. Since the occupation of Palestine in 1948, the Zionists and their supporters have rejected a philosophy of universal human rights, for Palestinians, in favour of might-makes-right power politics. This year, perhaps, more vividly than any in my memory, I felt an awareness of power politics and how this blemished the meaning of Ramadan and the following holiday, Eid Al-Fitr. On television, I saw men dancing and celebrating amid hundreds of dead bodies in Kabul. I was shocked, but I shouldn’t have been. After all, before the end of our holy month, there were plenty of dead bodies to walk among right here in Palestine. I feel weighed down by thoughts of those now imprisoned without trial here in my own country, by thinking of friends who had their homes destroyed all over the West Bank while th! e world watched the military action that lead to the decline and defeat of the Taliban. I wondered about the Christian story of a manger offered in a gesture of charity as shelter. Would anyone offer my people a manger for homes lost in Israel’s latest rash of home demolitions? Would anyone in America speak out against the terror we faced this last December?
Ramadan is now over and few Palestinians could go to worship at Al-Aqsa Mosque and the beautiful Dome of the Rock. I am a Jerusalemite, and I have the proper papers for crossing the tight closure and for worshipping at our Islamic shrines. But, Palestinians a few blocks from me don’t have this “luxury”. They do not have the Israeli-required credentials to go to Jerusalem-worship and God aside. Billions around the world are moved with passion when Jerusalem is mentioned during the holidays or at any time, but Israel has closed the door to Muslims who wish to make the trek to a place valued third among Islam’s holy shrines. The door slams shut even for Muslims who live less than a quarter of a mile outside Israel’s definition of Jerusalem, let alone five miles away or ten-so much for Article l8.
Eid Al-Fitr holiday that celebrates our accomplishment during the month of Ramadan is very special among other Islamic holidays. We mark our holidays by reaching out to family and friends, getting together with our neighbours, visiting the cemeteries, the injured and the families who lost their dear ones. But, the security excuses of Israel demands the tearing apart of the Palestinian community during our most joyful times. My sister and her family in Bethlehem, just a few miles from Jerusalem, were not allowed to join the Eid dinner at my parents’ house. And in Bitunia, a suburb of Ramallah, my aunt spent the Eid holiday alone in her apartment, thanks to the tanks situated at her doorstep.
While our words may be prescribed by ritual, our ways of praying are as varied as the torments we suffer. To those who exhort Palestinians to practice passive resistance, I suggest they take note of our insistent praying. Come and see our people at prayer. When some of our people try to reach their mosques but are detained, they bow and pray at checkpoints, along muddy, wasted roads, in shells of ruined homes in Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus and Tulkarem. Our prayers reflect our dream of peace. If the world could see us at prayer, surely the peace ingrained in having awe of God would be visible.
I think of the walling-in and crushing of our people that Vladimir Jabotinsky said was necessary in order for a Jewish State to exist. I think of the price we have paid for his philosophy and for the establishment of the Jewish State whose intellectuals claim it to be “the only democracy in the region” and “the moon in the night of the Middle East.” Have the Jewish intellectuals gone far enough in their quest to outdo other human evils to finally begin to comprehend what human rights really mean?
Pondering on the international silence regarding the violation of our religious freedom in Palestine, I suspect that those who have set the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights failed to consider us “customers in their market.” They don’t see the worthiness of a belief in God that does not match theirs exactly. I wonder if this reflects our humanity? Do we seem to have a need to bring everyone into one fold, to do things one way, to find sanctity in sameness, even if it means killing each other to do it? How I wish we could celebrate our differences, nurturing each other through recognition that the sacred is manifest in as many ways as God is perceived and that such variety is part of God’s Greatness.
When they hear our complaints, the clergy in the West look the other way or support Israelis because they remain embarrassed by the Christian and Jewish traditions in which prejudice, hatred and power politics supercede love. History presents many examples in which God’s justice mattered much less than human power. Are the Western clergy still chagrined because they turned away from Jewish suffering until even an ocean could not separate them from the stench of death? Do they not realize that they are allowing hatred to replace love again by turning away from us and allowing injustice to reign supreme in their beloved Holy Land now? I marvel that history seems to be repeating itself faster and faster. The oppressed become the oppressors. Those who are afraid to acknowledge their willingness to be remiss once more, pull inside themselves, still unable to act on the message of love their liturgy teaches.
The secular governments of the world may be unable to broker peace because to do so may lead to their end. Could the moral establishment help them do better? Could the religious estate turn the keys of peace to open the door of justice for us, the Palestinians? This can only happen if the clergy and teachers in all our religions dare to face the truth about themselves. If they let go of the regrets of the past, I feel they have a forum from which they could lead the world to peace.
(Samah Jabr is a freelance writer and medical student in Jerusalem. This article was written with the assistance of Elizabeth Mayfield.)