PHILADELPHIA — Hunger pangs churn unapologetically in my belly this Ramadan, for the first time in nearly 18 years. It has been that long since I've observed this holiest of the months.
Before I was 10 years old, my teta, or grandmother, told me that hunger during Ramadan is meant to provoke charity and empathy toward the less fortunate. In her house, Ramadan was a time of reflection, repentance, prayer, and big family gatherings.
At sundown, the Adan - the Muslim call to prayer - could be heard echoing across all of Kuwait, where we were Palestinian refugees. Some 30 people, all family and close friends, would cram into my teta's little apartment, bow their heads, and break the fast in "the name of Allah, the Most Merciful and Compassionate." Everyone would eat on the floor around a feast that stretched on old newspapers laid from one end of the four-room apartment to the other.
Because of family circumstances, I observed Ramadan in a girls' home in East Jerusalem during sixth and seventh grades. In many ways, we were the ones for whom other Muslims were feeling empathy. We didn't realize that - even though we had little food, scarce bathing water, and no heat in the winter.
All of us girls, aged 8 to 18, fasted. During the day, relatives and some strangers would bring pots of home-cooked meals for us. We'd hide out with one or two of those pots, about 10 of us in a classroom. When the Adan filled the air over Jerusalem, we would feast on whatever the day brought to us.
When our bellies were full, we'd play games that we had invented, such as the "balloon game." To play, you had to hop on one foot in a straight line and say "ballooooon" in one breath until you ran out of air. The girl who hopped the farthest won. There were no balloons.
Ramadan was fun. It was framed with the richest friendships I have ever known. We were the kind of friends who doubled as mothers, sisters, teachers, providers, and sometimes, on cold winter nights, as blankets. We shared everything from clothes to heartaches. We laughed together and carved our names in the ancient stones of Jerusalem.
The next Ramadan I spent in the United States, again having moved because of family circumstances. The following Ramadan, I was still in the United States, but without family or a Muslim support network. I was barely 13, inside the foster-care system, and desperate to learn English, be American, and fit in. That I did.
Eventually, I came back to my roots and joined the Palestinian struggle for a history usurped and justice denied. Palestine, I think, is a living call inside the hearts of all of us who belong to that land, wherever we are. It is so in the same way that Jerusalem lives in the hearts of Jews, wherever they are. It is the dignity that ends the indignity of starting over and over with whatever you can carry. It is simply home.
As I rediscover the grace of Ramadan this year, it also comes with a Christmas tree in my house. Catholicism is the other half of my 4-year-old daughter. She knows she is Palestinian and is very good at the balloon game, but love and tolerance are the things I most want her to know.
In my fasts, I find pockets of meditative silence from my body's protests for food. There, Ramadan provokes not only empathy and charity, as my teta said, but also frustration and thankfulness.
In that space I see the image of desperate souls in the tower, making the final choice to jump; Afghans living in profound misery; Palestinians caged lie cattle in ghettos and marching in a funeral procession that has no end in sight; Israeli teens blown apart at a nightclub; a half-billion tax dollars per month spent on war, while inner-city American schools don't have enough books or teachers; and children everywhere, who pay a heartbreaking price for our ignorance and inability to recognize each other's humanity.
This Ramadan, the faces of terrified children without childhoods haunt me.
My impotence to make a difference, despite much effort, is an ongoing frustration. But every evening, before I quiet the hunger pangs, I give thanks to God, Allah, the Most Merciful and Compassionate, for having the ability to protect and nurture my daughter.
Susan Abulhawa is a freelance writer and founder of www.playgroundsforpalestine.org.