West Bank Charity Continues Ancient Duty to Feed the Hungry*
Starting 10 a.m. on June 21, thousands of women, men, children and elderly line up in front of the Abraham almshouse building in the old town of Hebron, each carrying an empty container and passing it through a small window to the almshouse kitchen. There it will be filled with a meal of meat, soup, rice and bread.
It is Sunday, and today’s meal consists of meat and yoghurt. Today, the almshouse workers will cook more than 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of lamb and distribute it with bread and rice. It is a popular meal.
In the almshouse, food is cooked and distributed to the needy, the poor and whoever comes asking for food, including passers-by and visitors to the city of Hebron. This almshouse is one of the oldest in Palestine and makes its offerings all year round, shielding the city against hunger for hundreds of years now. During Ramadhan, the almshouse has even more work to do.
The waqf director in Hebron, Ismail Abu Halawa, said that the establishment dates back to the pre-Mamluk era and was known as “Prophet Abraham’s Bread.” During the 1250-1516 Mamluk period, the almshouse’s work flourished and the current building was built. The generosity of the Mamluk rulers helped make the almshouse famous and its name has become associated with these rulers.
Abu Halawa told Al-Monitor that the word “tekiyye” (Turkish for “almshouse”) means giving without receiving anything in return, which is the essence of the almshouse’s work, but the word literally means the “house of the needy.” Both meanings accurately describe its work.
The almshouse day starts at dawn, as workers begin preparing food in large pots, each of which can contain dozens of kilograms of meat or chicken cooked in broth, according to director Jamal Salhab.
“Although the almshouse does not suspend its work throughout the year, work in Ramadhan has its peculiarities. We start working at dawn to finish preparing the food before 10 a.m. and finish distributing it before the midday prayer in order for all of the beneficiaries to return to their homes in time for iftar.”
For this reason, in addition to the eight workers who serve there normally, eight additional staff members join during Ramadhan. These are allocated by the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs in Gaza — under whose purview the almshouse falls — along with 10 members of the city police to organize the food distribution.
“Between 2,000 and 3,000 people gather in the almshouse square during the month of Ramadhan, thus requiring additional staff to assist in the fast distribution of food.”
Overcrowding is an issue in the limited space as the number of patrons grows by the year, stirring chaos one Ramadhan after the other, Salhab told Al-Monitor. The frenzy, though, dissipates in less than two hours, the time required to distribute food. Work then goes back to normal.
In the square, long lines form as men stand separately from women and children. In one stands Umm Jamal al-Kurdi, who lost her husband and provides for five children. For Kurdi, the almshouse is a blessing to her and her children.
Kurdi told Al-Monitor,
“I used to come to the almshouse once a week, but given the skyrocketing prices of meat and poultry, I am now fully dependent on the almshouse when it comes to the Ramadhan iftar.”
Kurdi, 45, along with her children, live on the allocations of the Ministry of Social Affairs, which do not exceed 1,000 shekels per month (about $250) for an entire family and barely suffice. She said that with the offerings of the almshouse, she does not need to spend any of this money on food, so she is able to allocate it entirely to her family’s other needs.
Abu Halawa said that the almshouse
“works year-round and only stops preparing meals on Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, when it only offers ‘Abraham soup,’ a meal that consists of cooked cracked wheat without any additives, known in the city as ‘Dashisha with bread.’”
According to figures from the Awqaf, during the first four days of the month of Ramadhan, nearly 10,000 families benefited from the almshouse, at an average of 2,500 families a day. The number increases on some days and decreases on others, depending on the quantity and quality of the cooked food.
Abu Halawa said that during Ramadhan, the almshouse depends entirely on the support and donations of traders and philanthropists of the city of Hebron itself. He added,
“Every year, a philanthropist covers the cooking costs, and each day of Ramadhan is dedicated to one of these philanthropists who cover the almshouse cooking costs of the meal to be served that day.”
The almshouse’s management is working to expand its activities to bringing food to needy families and the elderly at home, but its highest priority for the time being is expanding the almshouse itself so that it can accommodate more visitors. Salhab told Al-Monitor,
“We currently have all the architectural plans and money has already been earmarked, but we are waiting for the approval of the Israeli side, which prohibits construction work close to an Israeli military position.”