Palestinians in Malaysia mark this year’s Eid celebration with heartbreak

Expatriates from Gaza say they lost loved ones in the war between Israel and Hamas.
Ahmad Mustakim Zulkifli
Kuala Lumpur
Palestinians in Malaysia mark this year’s Eid celebration with heartbreak Abdalrahim Shehab (second from right), a Palestinian expatriate from Gaza, sits with his children during an interview at their home in Putrajaya, Malaysia, April 7, 2024.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

Palestinians living in Malaysia are celebrating Eid al-Fitr with heavy hearts this year as the war in Gaza looms over the holiday marking the end of Ramadan. 

A handful of Palestinian expatriates interviewed by BenarNews said they had lost dozens of relatives and members of their extended families in the conflict raging in the Gaza Strip. 

The fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas militants has entered its seventh month with no end in sight. The warring sides also failed to reach a Ramadan-time truce amid reports that Gazans were desperately in need of food aid during the fasting month.  

Abdalrahim Shehab, a Palestinian expat and postdoctoral researcher who hails from Jabalia in the northern Gaza Strip, said he and his wife had lost about 90 members of their combined extended families during Israel’s military airstrikes and ground invasion in the territory.

During the final days of Ramadan, he and his family usually bake maamoul cookies and ka’ak bread in preparation for a feast to celebrate Eid al-Fitr.

These culinary delights along with rummaniyeh – a lentil and eggplant stew – are a “must-have” on the family’s dinner table to mark the special occasion “and reminds us of the Eid atmosphere in Gaza,” Shehab told BenarNews.

“But this year, no one in the family requested it. We, however, are still going to perform the salat Eid al-Fitr [prayers] on the day itself and we will see the Palestinian community at the campus. It is just that this year we are all filled with sadness,” he said.

The 46-year-old emigrated to Malaysia in 2003. He and his wife, Jehad Mohammed Abdul Hadi, and their five children live in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital.

A plate of maamoul biscuits is seen at Abdalrahim Shehab’s home in Putrajaya, April 18, 2023. [Photo courtesy of Abdalrahim Shehab]

Health authorities in Gaza said that at least 33,000 Palestinians have been killed in the enclave since Israel launched devastating military strikes in retaliation for a wave of attacks by Hamas militants that killed at least 1,100 Israelis on Oct. 7, 2023

Included in that toll are more than 13,000 children in Gaza who have been killed since this chapter of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict began, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). 

In Malaysia, the Palestinian immigrant community traditionally gathers for the Eid prayers at the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) in Gombak, near Kuala Lumpur. The expats will bring a variety of traditional home-cooked Palestinian foods, including soups and pastries. 

“At the campus, we will wish each other well and spend a joyful time drinking and eating. After that, we go back home to rest and we will visit our loved ones in the evening,” said Shehab, who works at the Islamic Science University of Malaysia.

His family also enjoys eating Malaysian food during Eid.

“Now, all of my children are accustomed to Malaysian Eid dishes and celebrations. They love the rendang and lemang so much,” he said, referring to the traditional dishes of meat cooked in coconut milk and sticky rice in bamboo. 

Haya Abu Nasser, a Palestinian activist, speaks about her experience of the war in Gaza during an interview with BenarNews near her residence in Kuala Lumpur, April 7, 2024. [S. Mahfuz/ BenarNews]

Shehab has not returned to Gaza since he left 21 years ago. 

When he was living there, Shehab recalled, he and his family would spend entire nights praying at the mosque toward the end of Ramadan.

“[In Gaza], we also have decorations in the streets since the beginning of Ramadan. Me and my family used to clean the roads in front of our houses. I miss those vibes in Gaza,” he said during the interview conducted in English.

‘People are suffering from starvation’

Haya Abu Nasser, a Palestinian activist who arrived in Malaysia from Gaza on March 13, said she missed the atmosphere of Eid al-Fitr back home.

“In Gaza, we have extended families whom we spent the Eid holiday visiting. The children will collect money packets. There’s singing and celebration on the streets. We love life, we love being engaged in festivals and events.

“On Eid day, we wear new clothes and enjoy our traditional dishes,” said the 26-year-old who had been working as a fundraising officer for an NGO based in Gaza.

Parachutes drop supplies into the northern Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, April 9, 2024. [Leo Correa/AP]

The Gaza Strip is a 365 square-km (141 square-mile) Palestinian territory sandwiched between Israel and Egypt. Its population of about 2.1 million people makes it one of the world’s most densely populated spaces.

Last year, Nasser celebrated Eid with her family in Deir-Sneid. 

They, too, prepared maamoul to be served on the morning of Eid. They also enjoyed al-Fesikh – a dish of fermented and salted mullet.

This year, Nasser had no special plan for Eid because, she said, the safety and welfare of her family members who had fled to Rafah were foremost on her mind. Fourteen members of her extended family have been killed in the Gaza war.

Amid the fighting and destruction in Gaza, Nasser said that she and her family had to flee to the Al-Nuseirat Camp and then to Khan Younis. They stayed there for two months before having to go to Rafah, a two-hour walk from Khan Younis, on the orders of Israeli soldiers.

The war has left Gaza in ruins and destroyed this year’s Eid celebration, Nasser said.

“The people are suffering from starvation. Ramadan was already difficult. It’s disappointing that Eid comes in these circumstances,” said Haya, who is pursuing a master’s in international relations at Lincoln University College in Petaling Jaya

Anas Kamal Abuatta, a Palestinian student at the International Islamic International University Malaysia, shows a photo of his younger brothers in Gaza during an interview with BenarNews at the campus in Gombak, Selangor state, April 5, 2024. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

For another Palestinian student, Anas Kamal Abuatta, 23, who is pursuing a degree in economics at IIUM, this year’s Eid is bleak because of what happened to his hometown in northern Gaza.

“Every one of my friends has someone in their families who was killed in the war. We are all sad,” he told BenarNews. 

He said he had lost 20 members of his extended family in the destruction and devastation of Gaza.

Abuatta, who has been living in Malaysia since 2020, bought himself a pair of Baju Melayu – a traditional Malay outfit to wear for Eid.

Although he expressed sadness about the situation of his parents, siblings and close relatives in Gaza, Abuatta said he was determined not to be beaten by a sense of hopelessness. 

He also intends to earn his bachelor’s degree with flying colors.  


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