My Family’s Daily Struggle to Find Food in Gaza

Recently, my wife’s distant aunt, Leila, invited me, my wife, and our three children to her home in the Faisal neighborhood of Cairo. She promised to cook us maftoul, a Palestinian dish that we had not eaten since we fled Gaza in December. Back home, making maftoul was often a family affair. One person cooks a rich stew from pumpkin, onions, tomatoes, and chickpeas. Someone else mixes wheat flour into a dough. A third person rubs the dough through the holes of a sieve, creating tiny balls that are similar to pearl couscous. Finally, the balls are steamed and served with a hot ladleful of the stew. We looked forward to tasting it again.

Leila speaks with the same warmth as my mother, and she cooks the same familiar foods. When we arrived at her sixth-floor apartment, I felt the comfort that comes from shared history. Only months ago, my family survived Israel’s bombardment of northern Gaza, and I was detained by Israeli forces. Leila’s husband, who was deaf, was killed during Israel’s 2014 offensive in Gaza. The moment I sat down, their eleven-year-old son, who lost his father as a toddler, took out a box of dominoes and taught me to play. I thought about how none of us meant to live in Egypt. Leila and her brother came here for her son’s medical treatment, and they can no longer go home.

While the maftoul was cooking, sending a delicious smell through the apartment, I got a video call from my brother Hamza, a father of three with a fourth on the way. He was in northern Gaza, picking through the rubble of the house that we once shared. In the background was the recognizable sound of military drones, and I urged him to get to safety. Instead, Hamza passed the phone to my mother, who was there, too. She looked pale and tired, and she told me that they were running out of food, but she still thanked God for what they had. She was scouring the area for edible plants such as cheeseweed.

It is difficult to find maftoul in Egypt, and Leila’s was good. I felt lucky to taste it with my wife and kids. But, lately, hearing about unprecedented starvation in Gaza, I have felt a sort of hatred for the food in front of me. As I eat simple meals of chicken, rice, salad, and olives with my family, I think of the hunger in my homeland, and of all the people with whom I want to share my meals. I yearn to return to Gaza, sit at the kitchen table with my mother and father, and make tea for my sisters. I do not need to eat. I only want to look at them again.

When I was growing up in northern Gaza, food marked our saddest and happiest occasions. You could tell that someone had died when you saw people walking in a line with trays of food balanced on their heads: bread, boiled eggs, fried potatoes and eggplant, pickles, falafel. The neighborhood came together to feed grieving families and their guests. People also delivered refreshments before and after weddings: coffee and tea in winter; soda, juice, and ice cream in summer. During the month of Ramadan, we fasted while the sun was up, so we knew how hunger felt. But, after the evening prayer, we gathered as a family for iftar, the meal that breaks the fast.

Until recently, Gaza had enough flour. Before the war, about five hundred supply trucks arrived each day, and every three months the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) gave rations to most of the families in my neighborhood: flour, rice, sugar, milk powder, lentils, sunflower oil, and canned food. I started buying flour only after the agency hired me as a teacher, because I could no longer receive aid. As recently as last year, I could purchase twenty-five kilograms of flour for about ten U.S. dollars. I helped my mother bake it into sfiha, a flatbread baked with minced meat. I loved to tear a warm piece of bread and scoop up a bite of falafel, avocado, or cheese.

Even when Israeli forces began their 2023 offensive, in the wake of Hamas’s October 7th attack, I could buy a kilogram of bread for about a dollar. UNRWA helped keep the price down by taking sacks of flour out of storage and distributing them to bakeries. After Israel invaded, however, the lines for food began to grow; nothing could come through Gaza’s northern borders. I often waited for hours to buy a few loaves, and when bakeries ran low on fuel I sometimes returned with nothing. And, when I read about air strikes that destroyed bakeries in Gaza City and central Gaza, I became scared to stand in line.

In the final weeks before my wife, my kids, and I fled south, my neighbors grew desperate. One day, in the Jabalia refugee camp, I heard police sirens and came upon a crowd of people in the street. They were so hungry, I learned, that they had broken into a bakery. I saw three people hide sacks of flour on a donkey cart, under a blanket. I also recognized a young man, one of my former students, in the custody of two policemen. They were holding him by the neck. “I want to feed my family,” he cried. “You cannot do this to me.”

In December, a U.N. report said that ninety-three per cent of Gaza residents—more than two million people—were experiencing crisis levels of food insecurity, or worse. “In Gaza, pretty much everybody is hungry,” Arif Husain, the chief economist at the U.N. World Food Program (W.F.P.), told The New Yorker in January. To meet the need, aid groups would need to triple or quadruple the flow of supplies into Gaza, he said—something that seemed possible only with a humanitarian ceasefire. “In my life, I’ve never seen anything like this,” Husain said. After that, Hamza sent me a video of our parents, who are staying in the Jabalia refugee camp with some relatives. My mother was sorting out clean grains from a dirty pile of rice. Apparently, someone had salvaged it and sold it to my family at the market.

On February 9th, Hamza sent me a WhatsApp voice message. He had succeeded in buying three kilograms, or six and a half pounds, of wheat flour on the black market. It had cost him a staggering forty U.S. dollars, he said, and would probably run out quickly. Still, there was a note of triumph in his voice.

Three days later, on social media, Hamza posted a photograph of what he was eating that day: a ragged brown morsel, seared black on one side and flecked with grainy bits. “This is the wondrous thing we call ‘bread’—a mixture of rabbit, donkey, and pigeon feed,” Hamza wrote in Arabic. “There is nothing good about it except that it fills our bellies. It is impossible to stuff it with other foods, or even break it except by biting down hard with one’s teeth.”

“This is the wondrous thing we call ‘bread’—a mixture of rabbit, donkey, and pigeon feed,” Hamza writes, of this image, on social media.Photograph courtesy Hamza Abu Toha

In his post, Hamza wrote about how his kids were faring. “When I hold the new bread that you are bringing me, I want to hide it so that I don’t run out of it,” his youngest daughter, Awatef, told him. “Dad, God willing, today we will eat bread like the bread of the past,” his eldest daughter, Razan, added. His two-and-a-half-year-old son, Hayyan, simply placed a hand over his rumbling stomach. Hamza’s wife, Kawthar, was now nine months pregnant.

The baby arrived on the evening of February 16th. Hamza walked with Kawthar and her mother from his in-laws’ home to Kamal Adwan Hospital, in our home town, Beit Lahia. They were terrified, Hamza told me, because they could hear drones and warplanes and see the distant lights of air strikes. Only two months earlier, Israeli forces had raided the hospital and the World Health Organization had deemed it no longer functional.

They reached the hospital at about 9 P.M., but they couldn’t find a doctor. Instead, a nurse joined them in a windowless room that was running low on blankets. “Kawthar gave birth while bombs were falling all around us,” Hamza told me. After ten tense minutes, their new son, Ali, was born.

Hamza told me that the hospital had no food to offer Kawthar, and no diapers for Ali. A woman gave them one syringe of milk. Then hospital staff asked them to go home. “Ali continued to cough and vomit for hours after his birth,” Hamza said.

Our brother Mohammad sent his congratulations from a tent in Rafah, the city in southern Gaza that is currently home to more than a million Palestinians. Most of them are, like him, refugees from elsewhere in Gaza. In a voice note, Mohammad told me about his “gift” for his newborn nephew. “I have told Hamza about two sacks of wheat flour in my bombed apartment,” Mohammad said. “I had the feeling that they survived the air strike.”

On February 18th, Hamza shared some good news. “The baby has brought luck to us,” he told me. He had gone back to our destroyed home and found one of the sacks in the rubble. “I have split the sack between me and my parents and sisters, although part of it was spoiled by rainwater,” he said. In the background of our video call, I could see one of our teen-aged cousins digging through stones and glass with his bare hands, looking for the second sack. A few days later, Hamza wrote on social media that he’d bought his wife a small gift of rice and beef. One plateful of uncooked white rice cost him twenty-five U.S. dollars, he said, and a fist-size heap of raw beef cost a shocking seventy dollars.

U.N. agencies no longer dare to send aid trucks north. In early February, CNN reported that Israeli forces had fired on an UNRWA food truck in central Gaza, prompting the agency to halt deliveries to the north. Last weekend, the W.F.P. resumed its own deliveries, but desperate people crowded its trucks; later, people took food and beat one of its drivers. Its convoys have now been halted again for safety reasons. “The decision to pause deliveries to the north of the Gaza Strip has not been taken lightly, as we know it means the situation there will deteriorate further and more people risk dying of hunger,” the W.F.P. said. “Gaza is hanging by a thread.”

A plate of rice and beef that Hamza bought as a gift to his wife cost him about ninety-five U.S. dollars.Photograph courtesy Hamza Abu Toha

A few days ago, I sat with my wife, Maram, in the back yard of our apartment in Cairo, watching sprinklers water the grass. Our youngest child, Mostafa, was playing on a swing while his siblings were at school. “The sprinklers remind me of my family’s farm,” Maram told me. “My dad and uncles and cousins used to water the strawberry plants and cornstalks.”

I thought of times when I picked strawberries and corn from her family’s fields. We barbecued the corn under a grapevine at night. I still have photographs of the harvest. But, this year, there may not be any strawberries or corn to pick. When Maram and I look into each other’s eyes, we both see sadness.

This past Monday, an ear doctor who treated me in Gaza, Bahaa al-Ashqar, managed to cross into Egypt through the Rafah border. I woke up to a call from him at one o’clock in the morning, and two hours later a taxi dropped him off at our apartment.

I was overjoyed that Dr. Bahaa was still alive. We hugged. But, as I stared at him, I saw how thin and weak he looked. This is not the doctor I used to know, I thought. He had lost thirty-seven pounds since the start of the war. In Rafah, he’d survived on canned food.

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