The ‘Ramadan Economy’: struggling Gazans seek financial respite during holy month 

Tareq S. Hajjaj

Mondoweiss  /  April 20, 2023

Many in Gaza participate in the “Ramadan economy” – a once-a-year opportunity offering Palestinians suffering from poverty, war, and the Israeli siege, a chance to secure a much-needed income.

Mariam Salha, 59, a widow and mother of five, appears as if she is standing in the kitchen of her own home, moving effortlessly between the griddle stove and countertop, surrounded by her three sons. But Salha isn’t at home. She is standing in the middle of the bustling entrance to the Deir Al-Balah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip. 

She and her three adult sons are making and selling qatayef, a syrupy sweet pancake stuffed with nuts or cheese – a Ramadan delicacy in Palestine, sold almost exclusively during the holy month. Salha sells to fasting customers as they pass by on their way home, enticed by the smells of the pancakes cooking on the griddle. 

Ramadan is a season of bounty for Salha and her sons, who are among the many Gazans who anxiously await Ramadan, not only for its holy promises of forgiveness and mercy from God but because of the financial opportunities it creates. 

“Ramadan is a blessed month that brings lots of good with it,” Salha told Mondoweiss as she plucked the mini pancakes off the hot griddle, laying them out on the cloth-covered counter for customers to see.  

Many Gazans like Salha and her sons are part of the “Ramadan economy” in Gaza – a particular economy that pops up once a year during the holy month, offering Gazans suffering from poverty, war, and the effects of more than 15 years of Israeli siege, the chance to make some much-needed income for their families. 

There are the musaharati, or the groups of men with drums who go around neighborhoods waking people up for the pre-dawn suhoor meal.  It’s a beloved Ramadan tradition in Palestine and across the Arab world as people wait by their doors and windows to listen to the calls of the singing drummers. At the end of the month, each neighborhood pools some money to give to their local musaharati. 

In the first week of Ramadan, dozens of kids and teenagers line the streets of Gaza’s busy markets, selling fresh watercress, pickles, juices, specialty kinds of falafel, and desserts exclusive to Ramadan. Once the month ends, these specialty goods are no longer in demand by the local population, so sellers try to make the most of the 30 days.

The streets in and out of the neighborhoods and refugee camps in Gaza turn into large markets, getting bigger and bigger each day. In the last week of Ramadan, as the Eid al-Fitr holiday approached, Gazan families swarm the markets. Those who can afford it buy new clothes for the holiday.  

A chance that comes once a year 

Mariam Salha and her sons wait for Ramadan all year long. For 30 years, selling qatayef during this holy month has been the family’s primary source of income.  

During the month, Salha stands on her feet from 9 am to 6 pm, right up until Iftar, the time at sunset when Muslims break their fast. Salha says she can’t waste a single minute or opportunity to sell the sweets, even if it means she might be late to break her own fast. 

After all, these 30 days are the only chance she has to secure a small but decent income for her family of six. Once the month is over, the demand for qatayef drops, and the family must pack up their things in search of another source of income. 

“These times are good, but it’s also a lot of work,” Salha said.  

It’s a challenging job and requires the help of her children to make and sell the sweets. But even as she gets older, she continues to do it because the family has no other options.  

“I have no choice but to stand here with my family and work in order to help each other,” she continued, with a weak smile on her face. “I wish that one of them could find a permanent job, so we wouldn’t have to stand here doing this difficult work.”

In another part of Gaza City, 33-year-old Ahmed Hussam stands on the main intersection of Omar Al-Mokhtar Street selling children’s clothes. On an average day in Gaza, the busy street would be inaccessible to vendors like Hussam. But during Ramadan, it’s taken over by Gazans like him, trying to sell what they can. 

Hussam, a father of three himself, hopes to take advantage of the fact that Eid al-Fitr holidays are one of the few times a year when Gazans are shopping in mass, buying new clothes for their children. 

“I’m selling new clothes for children, but I myself can’t afford the same for my three kids,” Hussam laments. “I would need to work for two days just to afford a piece of new clothing for one child,” he continued.

“But I accept that. This [month] gives me an opportunity for a persistent job.“These clothes are expensive compared with our income,” Ahmed said. “It needs more than two days of work to get new clothes for one child, I accept that but give me a persistent job.” 

Once Ramadan ends and the Eid holiday comes around, people like Salha and Hussam will be out of a job – a bittersweet moment for thousands of Gazans who celebrate the coming of the holiday but mourn the opportunities that leave along with Ramadan. 

War & siege create mass poverty 

Like many Gazan families, the Salhas have struggled financially for many decades. They’ve lived through four devastating Israeli wars and a 15-year siege. In 2021, during Israel’s 11-day offensive on Gaza, the family faced indescribable devastation. 

Israeli airstrikes bombed their home. Her eldest son, his pregnant wife, and their 3-year-old daughter were all killed. Since the bombings in 2021, the family has struggled to get back on their feet. Her sons rely mostly on odd jobs they may find throughout the year. But no income is as steady as selling qatayef during Ramadan. 

Salha and her sons learned the craft of making qatayef from her late husband, who passed away in 2014. Before he passed, he was the “master,” standing on the street during Ramadan, selling the sweets so he could provide for his family. 

Though Salha has now taken on her husband’s role, she says the money they make during Ramadan is still not enough to sustain her family. “Most of our work goes towards paying our debts,” the mother said. 

 On top of that, she said that with every passing year, her customers aren’t buying like they used to. “People are coming to the markets, but a few are buying,” she said, pointing to Gaza’s worsening economic crisis.

Gaza-based economist Hamed Jadd told Mondoweiss that more than 80% of Palestinians in Gaza depend on foreign aid. With a population increasingly dependent on aid, ordinary Gazans aren’t purchasing as much, even during a special month like Ramadan. 

“With inflation on one side and the decrease of families’ income in Gaza on another, traders’ expectations in the markets haven’t been met because of lowered purchasing capacity,” Jadd explained. 

“Most people in Gaza prioritize meeting their basic needs and, most importantly, feeding themselves and their families,” he continued. 

“Their harsh [economic] conditions may force them not to participate in such events [like Ramadan].” 

Jadd expects that the economy in Gaza might experience a slight boost in the final days of the month, as more than 80,000 families in Gaza received one of their quarterly payments of financial aid on Monday, April 17. Thousands of other families who have members working in the public sector were anxiously awaiting salaries from the Palestinian Authority to come through before Eid, but those didn’t happen. 

As the Eid holidays approach, the markets in Gaza become more and more crowded with people. Even the main roads, like the one where Ahmed Hussam works, overflow with peddlers selling everything from fast food, clothes, accessories, makeup, perfumes, and other products.  

The streets are crowded, but Hussam says the reality is that not everyone is buying. 

After standing for a full day on the street, he couldn’t get the earnings he was looking for.  Ahmed’s daily average income reaches around 15 Shekels ($4 USD). That’s one-sixth of the amount he would need to buy one of the children’s outfits he is selling. 

“I wish that I were anyone else from those passersby,” he said, pointing to people in the market. “I wish I could come to the market like any of those people and find new clothes for my kids for  Eid rather than selling the things I can’t afford.”

Packing up his stall, leaving a bit disheartened as the end of the month draws nearer, Hussam says he’ll likely have to cut his losses, sell the goods he bought to another trader, and take whatever profit he can get. 

Until the next Ramadan rolls around, he, along with Mariam Salha and so many others, will have to search for other odd jobs to make ends meet. 

Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent and a member of the Palestinian Writers Union`