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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

Racing the Sun, Waiting for the Moon
January 12, 2000

Thursday, January 6

Pushing my way through the crowded streets of the Arab quarter of Jerusalem is no easy feat! The end of Ramadan (the Muslim holy month of fasting is almost here) and everyone is out buying food and gifts and new clothes. The barber shops are full, the sweets shops are emptying. For people who have been fasting every day during the daylight hours for almost a month, they sure are cheery.

I elbow my way through the Damascus Gate and out of the old city into Arab East Jerusalem. Pears and balloons seem like good gifts, so I buy some on my way to the minibus.

"Ramallah! Wahedi Ramallah!" the driver calls out that there is one wahedi (seat) left going to Ramallah (the capital of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank). I squeeze in, suddenly realizing that balloons weren't the best idea, and the minibus enters the bumper-to-bumper traffic out of town.

Ramallah is just as busy and chaotic as East Jerusalem! I get out and walk through the traffic jam to the taxi stand where people are crowding into extra-long seven-seater shared taxis to the next big town, Nablus. Now that I'm in Palestinian territory, I can call my friend Rabeha on her Palestinian cellular phone and let her know I'm on my way!

It's a race against time, because everyone wants to be home for Iftar (breakfast) at sunset. As you know, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, or smoking anything during the daylight hours in the month of Ramadan. Once we are out of the city, the taxi makes good time, winding through the rugged, olive-covered hills towards Nablus.

In the back seat, two men strike up a conversation with me. Abdul and his friend Suhair were students of English and French together at a university in Nablus and now Abdul is studying in England. "Will we become characters in your story?" Abdul asks me with a sly grin. "If you'd like!" I tell him.

We just made it! As the taxi driver zips home for Iftar, Suhair offers me his cell phone to call Rabeha. But it can't reach her, because his phone is from the Israeli company that existed before Palestine had its own phone company, and Israel's telephone company has yet to recognize Palestine's company! What absurd politics! I just want my friend.

We walk through the bustling city in search of a Palestinian telephone card and Palestinian telephone while the muezzin's call to prayer echoes out between the two mountains of Nablus. All the shops immediately close as everyone stops to eat. Suhair pulls a block of peanut candy from his pocket and offers me some with a smile. "I guess you will share Iftar with me!" he laughs. "Inshallah (God willing) this is the last Iftar of this year! Hopefully Eid will be tomorrow."
Diaspora - people living in countries outside their homeland
Eid - feast
habibi - sweetheart (male)
habibti - sweetheart (female)
muezzin - the crier who, from a mosque, at stated hours five times daily, intones aloud the call summoning the faithful to prayer

He leads me into a mall where a clothing shop still has its doors open. Suhair is warmly greeted by the two men inside, and soon another arrives with a steaming tray of food. The store becomes a restaurant, and I become the special guest. Rabeha must be worried about me, but I can't buy a calling card until after Iftar, and the coin phone outside doesn't work, so I might as well enjoy!

For them breakfast is a traditional Palestinian dish known as msahan, layers of bread and chicken, covered in spices, onions, and olive oil. We follow it up with cups of yogurt. Even though I usually don't eat meat, I find it delicious! I am constantly amazed at the hospitality I am shown by the Palestinians I meet!

Yes, Rabeha was worried. When I finally get in touch with her, I say a quick good-bye to my new friends, and she whisks me off to the house of another friend, where she and her sister Rania ate Iftar. Again, I am welcomed, this time with yummy home-made sweets and a small cup of strong, thick Turkish coffee. The conversation around me is lively and animated and children are playing all around. It feels like Christmas, only in Arabic!

Suddenly, all eyes are glued on the Television, and a cry of joy goes up! "It is Eid!" They told me. "It is time for Eid al-Fitr (the Feast of the Sweets that comes at the end of Ramadan). In Saudi Arabia, they saw the new moon!" The kids go even more crazy!
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Aya, Maysa and Rania

Muslims follow a lunar calendar, where each month goes from new moon to new moon. They did not know if the moon would return tonight or tomorrow, but everyone was hopeful that Ramadan would end tonight, including me. I didn't want to have to fast tomorrow, and I'm tired of not being able to eat or drink water in public!

We go with the little girls, Aya and Maysa, into town to buy sweets. The streets are so packed we have to double park. Traffic is at a standstill and fireworks are exploding overhead. People rush all around wishing each other a happy Eid and carrying home huge bags and platters of sweets.

After visiting Rania and Rabeha's aunts, we drive to the top of Mt. Gerizim (the highest point in all of Palestine). There is a fancy resort with a restaurant that has been serving Iftar along with live music throughout Ramadan. Kavitha and I came here with Rabeha when we broke the fast with her once before; but tonight is even more special, the last Iftar of the year!
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Kavitha is kept well fed

The place is decorated with bright cloth and festive lanterns, the waiters are dressed in spiffy Palestinian costume. The adults (me included) eat soup and puff on the nargilas (water-pipes with fruit flavored tobacco), while the two little girls run around dancing and stuffing popcorn into their mouths. (I can't get away with that sort of behavior anymore.)

We clap along to the tabla (drum) and the oud (stringed instrument like a guitar). Every song that the singer belts out seems to be about his "habibti", or "sweetheart." That's one word you learn quickly in Arab countries! Many of the men get up and dance, but the women all stay in their seats and just clap or wave their arms to the beat. Oh well, I had fun anyway.
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Enjoying the restaurant

The city of Nablus sparkles below, the stars sparkle above, and we descend to Rabeha's house to sleep.

Friday, January 7

Rabeha's alarm goes off. It's time to get up and go to the mosque. We both roll over, for just one more quick minute of sleep. It's so cold out there!

We wake up again. Embarrassed, Rabeha rushes off to the graveyard where everyone is visiting their deceased loved ones. It's still really cold! I go back to sleep, failing in my Odyssey assignment to document this holiday... sorry!
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Sweets and more sweets

Rabeha returns and we all have breakfast, Iftar, in the morning. This is the first time they've eaten during daylight hours in 28 days, but certainly not the last.

The pattern is becoming clear to me now. Eat, eat, and then, when you're totally full, eat more. It is impossible to turn down Rabeha and Rania's sweet aunts and all their tasty food. After a lunch of grilled meat and veggies at the aunts' house, and more sweets than you can possibly imagine, we head off to visit friends. Visiting friends and family is what Eid is all about!

All afternoon and evening
We visit Rabeha's friends and family in Nablus. Imagine more delicious sweets and chocolates and fruits than you could ever eat, followed by Turkish coffee strong enough to get the tarnish off my old brass bracelet, and then some tea and maybe a Nargila. Over and over we eat, until nausea sets in - literally.
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It's feast or famine

Family members who live elsewhere, in Diaspora, are remembered fondly during this time. It is very difficult for Palestinians to travel. Most are not permitted to visit family in Israel or Gaza, and even neighboring Jordan is difficult. Traveling to other countries on a Palestinian passport can be almost impossible.

Eid al-Fitr will continue for four whole days. During that time, all the schools and businesses are closed and everyone celebrates with family and friends. After all this food, you would think they need to fast again!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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