A coincidental meeting
Hearing “You’re Palestinian as well?!” was enough to spark an unbreakable friendship between us. My new best friends and I met at a wedding, in which we did not know either the bride or groom. They were stuck in Istanbul away from their families due to COVID-19 and didn’t have many acquaintances, so instead of celebrating alone, they posted an open invitation in a WhatsApp group and got us—this crazy group of five girls—hyping them up, as if we had all been kindergarten besties.
This event was only a few days before Eid, so we decided to spend Arafah, the day before Eid al-Adha, together at my dorm. I had told the others that I have three different embroidered Palestinian thoubs, traditional dresses with tatreez (embroidery), in which every stitched shape has a meaning. So why not wear them to the Eid prayer instead of wearing regular clothes? We agreed.
We woke up at 4:30 a.m. to prepare ourselves and leave for the prayer in Hagia Sophia Mosque almost an hour away. It was breathtaking. It was estimated that 5,000-10,000 people gathered to celebrate Eid al-Adha there. People from different backgrounds and cultures were all in sync and united when the prayer was called; you could actually feel the harmony in the air with every word the imam said.
My friends and I were not expecting people around us to react to our appearance with such excitement. We were asked to be photographed and were admired wherever we walked. “Where did you get your thoubs from? Are you three sisters? You look beautiful!” It felt like we were followed by paparazzi, living in a moment of fame and appreciation. Everyone deserves to feel so special once in a while—feel the thrill of being noticed.
There, we also met Hosam Salem, a photographer from Gaza, who is now finally in Turkey after being denied the freedom to leave Gaza for professional opportunities and awards nearly 30 times. He was documenting the happiness of Muslims and everyone else celebrating on this day. We also met Belal Khaled, a Gazan photojournalist and calligrapher working for TRT, who is famous for taking pictures using his drone and drawing beautiful murals across cities.
They took our pictures, and we loved the way they came out. We were a symbol for Palestinian women embracing and hanging onto Palestinian culture, even though we were thousands of miles away.
Our pictures were published everywhere and were circulated amongst Palestinians, especially in the diaspora. Palestinian families everywhere loved the idea of us wearing traditional clothing on the day of Eid in a foreign country and rocking it.
The big feast
What’s Eid without a feast?
Since we are all students studying in Istanbul, most of us are alone, without our families. So, we planned to eat together in one of the parks on the second day of the celebration. We invited everyone we knew from university, and about 10 came. I cooked for the group along with a few of my friends.
The lamb and rice dish that you see in this picture, kabsa, was made from a Gaza recipe one of my friends learned from her sister. The food literally smelled like homesickness. This was her first Eid away from her family and she used spices she brought from home. While we cooked, our tiny dorm kitchen smelled like home too. Our tummies were full and our hearts even fuller.
“What do you think about the onion-and-tomatoes dish?” I asked proudly.
“Why would you ask such a question?” they laughed.
“Because it’s the only thing I helped prepare, and I’m sure that without it, the meal wouldn’t be this tasty!”
I was glad that on this special day, I wasn’t forced to eat just Indomie or Ramen noodles. Thank you, Ghada and Baya.
I never fail to be astonished at how Palestinians manage to turn tragedies into happy and funny moments. Around this time, I helped Momen Faiz, an injured Palestinian photographer, translate a few articles. As soon as he learned I am a student who spends most of her time alone, he introduced me to his aunt and cousin. We were all in Istanbul, willing to meet new people and socialize! They had come to Istanbul from al-Shejaiya in Gaza to visit their son/brother after eight years of separation. And suddenly, they found themselves stranded for six months because of COVID-19.
They invited me over for waraq enab, stuffed grape leaves, because else what mends broken hearts like this hearty meal? I could sense that every grape leaf was wrapped with love. The smell wafted from their house, distinguishing it from the other buildings.
I was not allowed to get up from the table until I finished three plates because, according to auntie, I was not eating well enough. Finally, we finished. But just moments later, a huge tray filled with watermelon, cherries, peaches and cake appeared in front of me. Auntie did not believe I was full, but I felt like a stuffed turkey on Thanksgiving.
She forgot about the fact that she was stranded here and has an entire family to take care of when she returns. All she cared about in that moment was filling my tummy until I felt happy, because I lived away from my family. She treated me as one of her own.
I listened to every word she said about her love-hate relationship with Gaza—the common affliction of transplanted Palestinians from the Strip. No matter how hard life can be there, they are still homesick.
There was sadness in her voice when she spoke of the unpredictability of life there, the unemployment and sameness. But…there is also the backyard garden, her neighbors, and her 12 children and 30 grandchildren. “You know what, Noor? I wouldn’t trade a day in Gaza for the world,” she concluded.
The journey to Gaza’s border with Egypt is a heart-wrenching one, but that is the only way in and out for most residents; the crossing with Israel is open to only a very few. She and her daughter waited patiently for the border to open, while the rest of the world forgot about them. Fortunately, today, they are back home—after the dangerous trek across the Sinai peninsula and a wait at the Rafah border that seemed endless.
Freedom of travel and movement is a universal right, and yet Palestinians must risk their lives and spend their life savings just to get just a taste of freedom for a little while.
“We teach life, sir.” – Rafeef Ziadah, Palestinian poet
It is fascinating that the moment we gather with people we love and respect, everything else in the world seems irrelevant.
The will to live and love for life are always present in everything we Gazans do, from the moment we treat a bride as our sister without knowing who she is, to sitting around a kabsa dish with new faces and ensuring no student is left behind, to consuming the grape leaves stuffed with love and longing for home.
Palestinians are so resilient that we are able to put behind us all of our pain to make sure the person in front of us is happy. Our dishes are made with love and passion for life, with each bite nurturing a generation who will carry on the legacy.