The meals that go cold in Gaza

Late on Friday evening, a mother waited tensely for her son who had promised to meet with her in less than an hour. He had been on the frontline, defending the Gaza Strip against Israel’s ground incursion. She waited. He never made it home.

Earlier in the day, Ismail Muhammad Al-Aklouk found time to contact his mother. It was a very simple ritual most people would take for granted. But for between him and his mother, it worked both ways. He called to make sure she was still alive and that the house was still standing. Israeli air strikes do not discriminate, and despite his physical distance from his family, the Israeli air force shows no qualms in striking the homes of Palestinian fighters, even if the only people in the house are relatives and loved ones.

She made sure to answer. He was her blood. She needed to know that he was safe, or at least that he was alive. He was.

The conversation was short by necessity. Ismail couldn’t afford to give up his location, be it by an accidental slip of the tongue or by some kind of exposure, and every moment spent on the phone meant one fewer moment defending his land and its people. His mother also had to return to work. She was preparing a meal for the family. The month of Ramadan was drawing to a close but not before the family gathered for a few final iftar meals.

“What are you making for iftar?”, the young man asked his mother. He was fierce in combat but spoke with the softest tongue.

“Biryani, my love. Your favorite dish.”

He had not eaten with his mother for days now, maybe longer. Physically and mentally exhausted from weeks of fighting, sheltering, and saving, the thought of a hot and flavorful meal shared with his mother gave him a burst of energy that he could not contain.

“I’m coming over.”

His mother refused. She was afraid something would happen. Motherly instincts never make sense at first.

Ismail insisted. He needed this.

“Please, mom. I need this.”

It is unclear how long this exchange lasted, but eventually she caved. She promised that a plate would be ready for him. He promised to be home in an hour.

The minutes ticked by as his mother stared up at the clock with anticipation. She was ready to welcome her hero home. It would almost certainly be a short visit. He would come on by and reassure his mother that he is safe, that everything will be okay, as his fork scrapes his plate clean. He would pray if he hadn’t already. Then out the door he would go, into the dark street where a car would be waiting for him to scoop him up and deliver him to a hidden location. There he would unpause, and after every blast he would rub his tongue along the ridged roof of his mouth, reminding himself of his mother’s flavorful creation and the other meals he will return to soon enough.

The minutes turned to hours. Still he hadn’t arrived. His son was awake. His wife, eight months pregnant, was anxious. His mother paced the room. Any one of the previous blasts could have been his final farewell.

It was in front of Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City where Ismail’s journey home was cut short. An air strike hit a car just outside of the hospital’s gates. He was inside, along with three others. The four defenders died together.

His plate of biryani went cold. His mother’s plate went untouched.

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