Just before dawn, the days of Ramadan start with suhoor, a meal meant to sustain those who fast until sundown. Photographers Shorouk Azaizy and Oday Yaish set out to document it locally.
For Muslims around the world, Ramadan is the most important month of the year. It’s a time to reconnect with oneself, with one’s family and community, a time of purification and acknowledgement of the suffering of others. The fast begins at dawn and ends at sunset, but food is a central part of the holiday. Ramadan is a popular time for exchanging recipes, for joining friends and family for lengthy iftar meals to break the fast in the evening, and for delighting in the wonderful holiday sweets like qatayef.
This year, Asif asked two Palestinian photographers — Shorouk Azaizy in Nazareth and Oday Yaish in the occupied West Bank — to document families and individuals eating suhoor. They set out to take these photos when the streets were still quiet and empty and the sky was still dark.
For privacy, some of the sources asked to be identified only by their first names.
Two Young Brothers Eating Outside/ By Shorouk Azaizy
"The most beautiful time is a few minutes before dawn. We wait for the muezzin's call, which is when you stop eating, and you have two last minutes to enjoy a cigarette before a long day of fasting," describes Hadi, 27. The eldest of many siblings, his father left when he was 8-years old. And at 14, he started working in construction to help his mother make ends meet. Recently, his younger brother joined him. During Ramadan, they make sure to leave home before the sun rises and the fast begins.
"During Ramadan, it's good to start working early, this way you work before hunger and the heat set in," Hadi explains. On the way to the construction site, they stop to eat what their mother prepared, which is usually what Hadi calls simple food like labneh with olive oil, vegetables, some bread, and halva, which he says is a must for energy and helps keep thirst at bay. There’s also tamarind juice, which is only available during the holiday.
Neither brother complains about fasting while working — on the contrary. "We give thanks for the fact that we have work. We fast even while doing hard physical labor, to thank Allah for His help, thanks that we can make a living and support our family."
Husband and wife/ by Oday Yaish
Before Wafa Hlaihel leaves his apartment in Nablus to work in Israel as an upholsterer, he helps his pregnant wife make the suhoor meal. Wafa is excited about the baby, but he says it also means a lot of responsibility, so he must continue to work and save money during Ramadan, despite restrictions imposed by the Israeli army.
"We do not know for sure if the checkpoint will be open or not, and if we can get to work at all. It's hard, because we don't have a stable income, but Allah blesses the money of Ramadan, so no one remains hungry," he says, his voice resonating with faith and hope.
As he places eggs, cheese, fresh vegetables and hot tea on the table, Wafa tells us he leaves home even earlier; it takes time to get to the checkpoint and pass through it with all the security checks. But during Ramadan, it's important for him to eat suhoor with his wife. "We are religious people," he explains, "and the prophet said: 'rise for suhoor because there is a blessing in it', so it's important for us not to miss it.”
Before Wafa leaves, he says he hopes God hears his prayers: "Everyday I pray for my wife to go through labor safely, that our baby grows up in a better world, that he lives happily and in good health, in a world of peace and prosperity.”
Mother and Son/ by Shorouk Azaizy
During Ramadan, 50-years-old Suhair wakes up in the small hours of the morning to prepare breakfast for her son Ahmad, before he leaves for work as a construction worker. "He needs energy to endure the hard labor throughout the day, so I make a light meal from whatever we have around the house, like eggs, ejjeh [an Arabic omelet], labneh and vegetables, but not cooked food that will make him sleepy again," she laughs.
Suhair serves the meal with chilled watermelon, which has plenty of water and sugar to help keep her son hydrated, but she says she worries what she will do in a few years when Ramadan falls during the winter and watermelons aren’t in season. Since her divorce, Suhair has been the sole provider for her six children. To support them, she sells homemade food, so the humble kitchen where she and her children sit down to eat is also her workplace.
Shortly after suhoor, she starts cooking for customers who ordered food like fatayer and kibbeh, traditional fast-breaking delicacies which require a lengthy preparation. But before she begins, she takes a minute to enjoy the quiet. "The moment of the muezzin's call is the most beautiful moment during Ramadan, as if the entire world stops to listen to the adhan [call to prayer].”
A young guy at his father's workshop/ by Shorouk Azaizy
Before Abed begins his workday in his father's canvas workshop, he lights the kerosene stove to make a fried egg with plenty of olive oil for suhoor. He eats it with labneh, avocado, and other fresh vegetables from home. "And of course, you cannot have suhoor without mint tea," he says.
The 29-year-old started working with his father at an early age, helping to support the family and also saving money for a house. "I love this workshop, I love the fact that I know everything here, and that everything is in order. This is why I come here early and make suhoor for my father and me," Abed says.
He likes to start working immediately after the meal, so he can finish most of his tasks by noon and get some rest to distract himself from the hunger. "I love this time of day during Ramadan. Right after the morning prayer, people start arriving at the shops and workplaces. You hear them greeting each other with whispers of good morning and Ramadan kareem."
A young man at the market of Nablus/ by Oday Yaish
Everyday at 3 a.m., Mohamad Al-Ashkar leaves Nablus and heads to the checkpoint, on his way to work in construction in Israel. During Ramadan, he passes through the market in Nablus, where he buys freshly-baked bread from one of the bakeries, which open early for those who fast.
Mohamad, who works to support his mother and brothers, prefers to have his suhoor on the go, so as not to waste time: "I get something you can eat with your hands, without plates and things," he explains.
He will only find out if the checkpoint is open in the morning, when he is already on his way. "Today the people at the market told me that the checkpoints are closed, and you cannot enter Israel," he says with desperation. "It's hard when you don't have a regular income.”
Some of his earnings go towards paying for permits to cross the checkpoint. Together with the instability, it's hard to pay for school, build a house, or plan for the future. "If you ask people what they pray for during Ramadan, everyone will say they want quiet. Not money, not wealth — just peace and quiet, and that we can live as free people. That we can work, study and live the way we want to" he says in a voice full of hope.