Gifts for women a duty for men

Despite economic pain, Palestinians follow a costly annual custom

By Raja Abdulrahim

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A store in Gaza City offers special envelopes to put money in for gifts to women on Eid Al Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan. Palestinian Muslims give the eidiya, a gift of money, to female relatives and children on Eid Al Fitr, but the revered tradition can come with a heavy price. (Samar Abu Elouf/The New York Times)
A store in Gaza City offers special envelopes to put money in for gifts to women on Eid Al Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan. Palestinian Muslims give the eidiya, a gift of money, to female relatives and children on Eid Al Fitr, but the revered tradition can come with a heavy price. (Samar Abu Elouf/The New York Times)

Published: Sat 22 Apr 2023, 3:46 PM

Last updated: Sat 22 Apr 2023, 3:47 PM

On the morning of Eid Al Fitr, Arafat Helles will start the day with a special prayer at the mosque to mark the end of Ramadan, and eat a breakfast of salty cheeses to line his stomach for what is to come. Then, he will set out with his three brothers and father across the Gaza Strip.

They will begin with their mother but eventually visit some 15 sisters, aunts and nieces, doling out dinars and shekels as part of a Palestinian custom of men marking the Muslim holiday by giving an eidiya, a gift of money, to female relatives.

The visits will follow an almost choreographed routine. At each home, the men will be plied with coffee and sweets. After little more than 15 minutes, the social calls will end — a rarity in a society where such visits may last for hours, and often end in an invitation to stay for dinner.

“This is the eidiya visit,” said Helles, 48, a professor of social services at Al Quds Open University, in Gaza. “It’s one of our important traditions.”

Giving an eidiya has long been a practice among Muslims — though it has no religious basis — and is believed by some to date back 1,000 years to the Fatimid dynasty and the practice of emirs giving gold coins or gifts during festivities.

But in most Muslim cultures, adults give an eidiya to children, sometimes in small, token amounts. Palestinians give the money to both children and adult female relatives, making the tradition far more expensive, with the kind of financial burden and expectations that Christmas gift giving has in the West. The amounts can range from 20 shekels, about $6, to 365 shekels, about $100.

Arafat Helles, center, with his father, center right, and other family members discuss the money they will give as gifts on Eid Al Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, at the family home in the Shujaiyya neighborhood, east of Gaza City on April 15, 2023.  (Samar Abu Elouf/The New York Times)
Arafat Helles, center, with his father, center right, and other family members discuss the money they will give as gifts on Eid Al Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, at the family home in the Shujaiyya neighborhood, east of Gaza City on April 15, 2023. (Samar Abu Elouf/The New York Times)

These days, coming up with the money for the eidiya is especially onerous.

The 16-year blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt has undermined the living conditions of more than 2 million Palestinians, and led to a nearly 50 per cent unemployment rate that is among the highest in the world.

To give the eidiya, some men will go into debt. Others will wait until their wives get their eidiya from relatives before turning around and using that money to give the gift to their other female relatives.

“However bad one’s financial situation is, we have to go and give,” said Helles’ father, Hamid Al Abid Helles, 74. “This is a tradition we won’t abandon.”

The practice comes at the end of a month of already added expenses for Ramadan, with the elaborate dinners after daily fasts, and decoration of homes and purchase of new clothes to be worn on Eid. In the weeks leading up to the holiday — which this year begins on Friday — shopping districts in Gaza were packed, with seasonal religious music just audible over the din of shoppers and honking horns.

At each relative’s house, Arafat Helles, his brothers and father will be served strong Turkish coffee, Eid date cookies and chocolates — part of the Eid diyafah, or hospitality. They will eat just enough to be polite but remain conscious that at the next stop they will be offered the same spread and encouraged to indulge.

“By the end we have a stomachache,” said Helles, a father of six. “We put all the chocolate in our pockets and tell them we’ll eat it later.”

“He comes back home and his pocket is bulging with chocolates,” said his wife, Basima Helles, 44.

A card made of wood bearing a 100-shekel note (about $30), as a gift for Eid Al Fitr.  (Samar Abu Elouf/The New York Times)
A card made of wood bearing a 100-shekel note (about $30), as a gift for Eid Al Fitr. (Samar Abu Elouf/The New York Times)

During each visit, the men will keep an eye on their watches. After 15 minutes, they’ll begin making moves to leave, and call to the women of the house to accept the eidiya. The women, in turn, will protest out of politeness. “Really, there’s no need,” they’ll say. Some will put their hands behind their backs to avoid being handed the money.

To lessen the embarrassment of bills being pressed into palms, shops across Gaza are now offering eidiya cards and small boxes to put the money in, to make the custom feel more like gift giving and less transactional. Some cards mention every female relation that could be on the receiving end of an eidiya: my granddaughter, my wife, my mother-in-law.

Every year Basima Helles tells her own brother not to give her an eidiya, because she knows that his financial situation is precarious, and that she is one of six sisters.

“We say, ‘we forgive you, we excuse you,’ but he’s not willing to come empty-handed,” she said. “He considers this a social obligation.”

The next day, when women go to visit their families for Eid, she will return the money by giving it as an eidiya to his children.

As the economic situation in Gaza has worsened in recent years, men unable to afford the gift giving have stopped visiting relatives altogether during Eid to avoid embarrassment.

But religious leaders urge men not to abandon a religious obligation — visiting family — for the sake of a cultural one — the eidiya.

That message hasn’t always been heeded.

“If you don’t have an eidiya, it’s better not to go,” said Abdulmutee Matar, 31. “Because they are accustomed to when you greet them and shake hands, you have money in your hand. If your hand is empty .…” he trailed off, waving his empty hand in the air for emphasis.

He used to give 50 shekels each to his wife, mother, four sisters and eight aunts when he ran his family’s third-generation clothing store. But three years ago, he had to close the shop.

Since then, he has only had occasional work but is still unwilling to give up the tradition. His mother, a teacher, gives him money so he can at least go see his sisters to give the eidiya. He no longer visits his aunts on Eid.

For women, the eidiya can be an extra financial boost.

Last year, Hanadi Tawaahena’s father gave an eidiya to her three sisters and mother but not to her. He told her that was because she had a home baking business and was making her own money.

“The eidiya is important, even if I work,” Tawaahena, 34, said last week as she made Eid cookies in a house smelling of ghee and semolina flour. The sweets will be part of the diyafah in homes across Gaza. She said it was not just a matter of money, but a matter of principle and being part of a long-standing tradition.

She added with a laugh, “I told him, ‘Don’t do that again.’ ”

For other women, it is about the money, and they plan well in advance what to do with their haul, including buying a needed household item or clothes for their children.

Tawaahena’s sister, Shoroq, 28, was rolling out ground dates to stuff the cookies. She had already made plans with her friends to take their eidiya money and spend it at Gaza City’s boardwalk and restaurants.

“Women on Eid become rich,” Hanadi Tawaahena said, with another laugh.

Sitting on the other end of the table, rolling out dough, the sisters’ mother, 50-year-old Ashjan, agreed.

“But,” she added, “they make the men poor.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times


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