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Ramadan has begun, and for Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa who observe this holy month, it means time for self-reflection, prayer, and Quran reading. Muslims fast from dawn to sunset and eat two meals per day, Iftar at sunset and Suhoor at pre-dawn, to commemorate the month when the angel Gabriel gave the first verses of the Qur’an to the Prophet Mohammad.
Ramadan is also a time for family members to get together and enjoy meals, a custom that has been severely curtailed in recent years due to continual Covid-19 lockdowns. Another feature of the holy month is charity work, in which Muslims fast in solidarity with the poor, and share food with underprivileged families.
Traditionally seen as a festive time, the holy month of 2022 has proven to be challenging for MENA countries affected by the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. Prices of basic items such as cooking oil, sugar, bread, and rice have surged, and the added damage from the war has squeezed people’s finances, especially in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria.
Ukraine and Russia account for a third of global wheat and barley exports, which Middle Eastern governments rely on to feed millions of people on subsidized bread. The countries at war are also major exporters of cooking sunflower seed oil.
Egypt is the world’s largest wheat importer, and in recent years has relied significantly on wheat supplies from Russia and Ukraine. It is also one of the top ten importers of sunflower oil in the world. The local currency has lost 17 percent of its value in the previous month alone.
Wheat imports have been hampered as a result of Moscow’s military assault, causing the price of unsubsidized bread to rise by about 50 percent per loaf. As a result, the Egyptian government has issued a decree to fix bread prices as part of an emergency response.
Wissam*, a Cairo resident, believes the situation, for now, is under control as a result of this measure. “Aysh (bread) is a staple food in Egypt. We eat it with spaghetti, with meat, even with salads,” the 30-year-old told Fanack.
Although bread prices have remained somewhat reassuring, the same cannot be said for the price of meat. According to Wissam, people who are financially struggling can no longer afford meat, and have to rely on charities and festivities where meat is given away for free instead.
“Egyptians have a strong preference for meat in their everyday diets, but this must change. I, for one, have had to scale down on my meat consumption, and now only have it once per week,” he said.
Apart from meat, people are struggling to buy fruits, according to Hisham Ali, a 63-year-old fruit trader in Cairo. “Folks are simply terrified of the prices, there is no money,” he said. “I only make around $6 a day.”
Previously, footage of ordinary people protesting rising food prices went popular online under the hashtag “revolution of the hungry,” prompting the authorities to take more measures to quell the uproar. As a result, more Egyptians have been added to the welfare rolls, interest rates have been raised, and government employee pensions and pay hikes have been accelerated.
Despite it all, Wissam claims that Egyptians are enjoying the festive season particularly as it makes a comeback post lockdown. Decorations, colored lanterns, food tables set up outside, family gatherings, and bustling markets; Egyptians have yet to fully realize the pain that comes with inflation, he added.
When it comes to the poor, Wissam notes there are several non-governmental organizations that either work with the government or independently to provide everyday assistance. Neighbors, private enterprises, mosques, charity organizations, and individuals all arrange Mawaid el-Rahman or charity meals.
“This year’s situation is made worse by a drop in donations and a significant increase in costs. But we cannot let families down during such a time,”Haitham El-Tabei, CEO of the Abwab El Kheir NGO in Cairo, said.
Linda, 45, mother of two and shop owner told Fanack that she now dreads having to anticipate rising food prices every single week, especially cooking oil prices. “We use it in all our cooked meals for Iftar so I can’t go without it,” she said.
Although Linda’s modifications to her four-course Iftar supper have been admittedly minimal, she has had to reduce her family’s meat consumption. “Everyone used to barbecue three times a week, now we do it every 15 days.” The less fortunate are having to reduce more dishes from their dinner spread, with some eating only one dish per meal, she said. Some are being forced to skip meals altogether.
Linda’s family survives on the income generated by both her and her husband, as well as a government assistance card, or “smart card,” which entitles registered families to state subsidies on basic products and services. In January, the Syrian government exempted roughly 600,000 families before reintroducing some who had been excluded by error.
The smart card makes basic commodities and services such as sugar, rice, and heating fuel more inexpensive. But for families who did not make the cut, the prices of essential commodities remain as expensive as ever.
In the northwestern province of Idlib, people have it much worse. A spike in commodity prices at the heels of Ramadan has made matters all the more challenging for families there. The situation is exacerbated by rising poverty levels, dwindling living conditions, lack of job opportunities and low wages.
According to the UNHCR, 2.7 million displaced persons out of a total population of four million people in Idlib require humanitarian assistance, with 94 percent of households unable to meet their basic needs.
But for people like Linda, who live in Damascus, changes have not been as dramatic. While Syrians’ are suffering, markets are bustling, and streets are decorated.
The government of Syria has responded to the public’s concerns regarding wheat supplies on March 1st, claiming that the country has “a supply timetable that will continue through the end of the year.”
Unlike Egypt and Syria, Lebanon’s cities are devoid of the festive decorations that once adorned them.
The financial crisis of 2019 that continues to this day, has seen the local currency lose more than 90 percent of its value. In addition, the country has been hit by a series of crises that have pushed many people into poverty. This Ramadan is more difficult than previous ones, due to high unemployment rates and the dollarization of most fundamental needs, such as the monthly price for generator electricity fees.
The government is yet to establish a recovery plan suitable for the International Monetary Fund to bail Lebanon out, leaving the needy in Lebanon reliant on charities and NGOs.
Due to tremendous demand, Food Blessed’s director Maya Terro told Fanack that the food relief organization has expanded its beneficiary list to include 12,000 additional families. They’ve also increased the amount of food boxes packed per week to 400, estimating that they’re now supporting 1,600 people per week.
This Ramadan has been the worst yet for Lana*, a 45-year-old mother of three. She told Fanack that not only was the celebration overshadowed by multiple issues, but that the atmosphere of a close family had vanished as well.
“We used to assemble as a large family for Iftar before the crisis, but now we can hardly afford to feed our children. It’s hard to comprehend that a plate of salad has become a luxury, ” she said.
Fattoush (salad), a staple at Lebanese Iftar, is missing from many tables, according to Lana, due to the exorbitant cost of vegetables. Arabic sweets, which were once consumed after dinner, are now sold in little quantities. Vendors of sweets have reportedly modified their formulations to incorporate more cost-effective components.
“People aren’t going out as often as they used to, feasts have been reduced to small dishes, and stress is a constant companion. It’s hard to believe we’ve gotten to this point,” Lana laments.