What Valentine’s Day Means in Gaza, Palestine

Posted on Feb 12, 2020

Hani Almadhoun is UNRWA USA’s new Director of Philanthropy.

Though he now lives in Virginia with his wife and daughters, he grew up in the Gaza Strip. Hani’s father was an UNRWA teacher in Gaza and his family benefited from UNRWA services there, so he can speak firsthand from personal experience about the work UNRWA does and how the Gaza Strip has changed over the past few decades.

Below, Hani reflects on these changes through the lens of Valentine’s Day.

Image: Hani and his uncle and daughter in front of an UNRWA school in the Gaza Strip

Hani and his uncle and daughter in front of an UNRWA school in the Gaza Strip

If you grew up in Palestine like I did, you knew it was Valentine’s Day season when the best pop songs are released, when everyone on the streets was wearing red, and when all the locally grown roses were nearly sold out. As a little boy, I wasn’t concerned with buying romantic gifts, but I did enjoy the atmosphere and the energy on the streets of Gaza as people took the time to step away from the harsh reality of our surroundings to focus on romance, beauty, and gratitude.

Image: Candy shop

Candy shop

Image: Hani and his nieces in Gaza

Hani and his nieces in Gaza

I remember that the weeks around Valentine’s Day were also the time of year when my family’s store would get busier, wives would come by the shop to buy sweet gifts for their husbands, later that day you’d see the same woman’s husband come by to do the same for her. While there was a blockade keeping many goods from coming in, you could not stop international traditions from getting through the border.

Image: More treats

More treats

Made popular by the arrival of satellite TV in Gaza, Valentine’s Day quickly became a phenomenon. Back then, our family shop sold kitchenware and electronic appliances, and I was responsible for gift wrapping these items. I remember our next-door neighbor, who ran a tailoring shop, converted his business to a flower and chocolate shop when February came around. The bookstore two blocks away from our shops, found its place in the Gazan Valentine’s Day market selling plastic roses, teddy bears, and any other gifts a hopeless romantic in Gaza might wish for.

Fast forward to 2020, the situation in Gaza is quite different than my nostalgic childhood memories. How could a Gazan muster the cash to purchase a romantic gift these days when putting food on the table is a serious daily challenge for more than half the population there? How could that same person keep their family together when they are deep in the cycles of poverty and debt following years of crippling blockade, de-development and a worsening humanitarian crisis? It’s tragic but unsurprising to now see high divorce rates in Gaza with the most common reason for spouses splitting being the inability to support the family due to a lack of resources.

I say this with sadness and real pain, but the same boy in me that used to wrap presents at my family’s shop also believes that love is a powerful force and always finds a way, despite these terrible odds.

Though very difficult, people in Gaza still find creative ways to express their love. Those who can afford to buy small gifts, like roses, strawberries (famous in Gaza), socks, neckties, and any other red-colored items available in the local markets. Restaurants offer Valentine’s Day specials, serving creative dishes or hosting live music performances. Gazans abroad who cannot travel home due to the blockade can now purchase flowers and other gifts remotely and have them delivered by someone local to their loved ones still living there.

Image: Hani and his daughter at the beach in Gaza, one of the most beautiful yet most polluted Mediterranean coastlines

Hani and his daughter at the beach in Gaza, one of the most beautiful yet most polluted Mediterranean coastlines

The love expressed during this season isn’t solely romantic love between partners. You’ll see kids taking their parents out to a restaurant or cafe on Valentine’s Day and treating them to a small meal or coffee. Even Valentine’s Day “grinches” who look down on those wearing red concede at some point. Every year, without fail, the resilient people of Gaza find ways to recognize the holiday of love in a place that often doesn’t receive much love from the outside world.

Sales might be limited, but people in Palestine, including the Gaza Strip, always find a way to make life worth living. Because in the end, that’s all we can do. Even in the most hopeless of circumstances, I’ve seen love find a way. I’ve seen people attach hope to a holiday that may seem trivial around the world — but to us Palestinians, it’s an opportunity to create a sense of normalcy, to celebrate family, life, and love.

On this Valentine’s Day, I wish to remind you that all people are worthy of celebration and love, including those back home in Palestine, and I encourage you to send your love their way by making Palestine your Valentine. It’ll always be mine.