I chose that date, December 12, to bring them there because it followed hajj, one of the holiest days in the Islamic calendar; it was a time to reflect, to pray, to gather the family together. Hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca that takes place between the seventh and twelfth days of the month of Dhu al-Hijjah in the Islamic calendar. This is the largest annual pilgrimage in the world; every able-bodied Muslim is required to make the trip at least once in his or her lifetime. Whether you go to Mecca or not, Waqfat Arafat is the Islamic observance day during hajj in which pilgrims pray for forgiveness and mercy. It's the first of the three days of Eid al-Adha that mark the end of hajj. In Mecca, pilgrims stay awake all night to pray on the hill of Arafat, the site where the prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon. For the millions of Muslims, my family included, who do not go to Mecca each year, bowing to the Alkebla in the east, falling to your knees, and praying the prayers of the believer is sufficient. On the second day we mark the Feast of Sacrifice: the most important feast of Islam. It recalls Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God and commemorates God's forgiveness. Everyone observes the day by wearing their finest clothing and going to the mosque for Eid prayers. Those who can afford to do so sacrifice their best domestic animals, such as a sheep or a cow, as a symbol of Abraham's sacrifice. We observed the prayer day in Jabalia Camp with our relatives and went to the cemetery at the camp to pray for Nadia. I'd bought a sheep and had it sacrificed, donated two thirds of the animal to the poor and needy, as is the custom, and had some of the rest of the animal made into kebabs for a barbecue at the beach to mark the final day of Eid.
We got up early the next morning, made sandwiches, and packed a picnic, and at seven AM. we all climbed into my 1986 Subaru and set out.
Before we got to the beach, I had another treat for my children. In early December I'd bought a small olive grove, maybe a quarter of an acre in size and less than a third of a mile from the beach. It was like a little piece of Shangri-la, separated from the turmoil by a ten-foot-high fence, a place where we could be together, a place where maybe we could build a little house one day. I had kept it a secret until I could show them. As they tumbled out of the car, the kids were surprised and delighted with this unlikely piece of utopia on the outskirts of Gaza, with its olive trees, grapevines, fig and apricot trees. They explored every corner, marveled at the tidy rows of trees, and happily chased each other through the undergrowth until I reminded them that there was work to be done. We all dug into the task of tidying up this place, which was a little neglected and needed weeding. Even though they had known nothing but the crowded confines of the Gaza Strip for most of their lives, my children, the descendants of generations of farmers, seemed at home here.
After we had done enough work, we retreated to a small area of the grove bordered by a line of cinder blocks and shaded by an arbor of grapevines. We spread mats and made a small fire from the twigs and brush we had cleared from the olive trees, and sat in the shade of the vines eating our falafel sandwiches and talking about the events of our family life - the loss of my wife, their mother; a change so enormous we were still, three months later, reeling with grief while trying to come to terms with it.
I also needed to talk to them about another significant surprise. Recently I'd been offered a chance to work at the University of Toronto in Canada. Except for a brief stay in Saudi Arabia, where Bessan and Dalal were born, the family had never lived anywhere but Gaza. Moving to Toronto would be a monumental change, maybe even too overwhelming so soon after their mother died.
Excerpted from I Shall Not Hate by Izzeldin Abuelaish. Copyright © 2011 by Izzeldin Abuelaish. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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