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This photo essay features the Lebanese marking Eid al-Fitr, shopping for pre-owned garments to cope with reduced spending capacity.
Photojournalist Marwan Tahtah
Ramadan, the Muslim world’s holiest month, comes to a close on Eid al-Fitr, which is customarily marked with a plethora of events culminating in bustling marketplaces and sizable family get-togethers.
Families traditionally flock to restaurants and cafes while children flaunt their new wear in a display of celebration.
However, this year, Eid celebrations in Lebanon are soured by endless economic difficulties that have hit vulnerable groups the most. Common rituals, like buying new clothes, have either been put on hold or changed in anticipation of Eid, which begins on April 21.
To cope with reduced spending capacity, many families are now shopping for pre-owned garments – a phenomenon that observers say has been gaining popularity since the start of the crisis four years ago.
Since 2019, people in Lebanon have grappled with a continuous financial crisis that leaders have yet to resolve. This has resulted in an extreme devaluation of the local currency, with each lira now worth just a fraction of one US dollar. Additionally, financial hardships and low incomes have caused numerous individuals to fall into poverty.
But on Eid, and rather than forego the joyous activity of purchasing new clothes for children, more families are turning to baleh souks, also known as open second-hand markets. These have been in great demand ever since the nation descended into an unending economic crisis.
Once a destination for low-income families, the balehs have become a destination for all, save for the affluent few.
Essentials take the lead
Tucked between the crowded neighborhoods of Beirut’s Chiah district is a popular market where vendors offer a variety of goods, including fruits and vegetables, secondhand clothing and shoes, handbags, and even toys.
These nameless shops typically employ one or two people who work from morning to sundown. During Ramadan, many reopen for a second shift, after iftar.
Nahla Chedid works at one thrift store in the busy market street, nestled alongside a dozen others.
Throughout her years working there, Chedid observed a change in her customers this year: fewer people came in for Eid clothes. She asserts that compared to previous years, this one has been by far the worst.
“Right now, it’s mostly mothers who buy clothes for their children, and other clients buy necessities such as undergarments, but they always gravitate toward the cheaper items,” Chedid told Fanack. “In the event that a family has multiple children, each child will generally receive no more than one item of clothing.”
Since the financial crisis began many people are flocking to thrift stores to buy goods, the majority of which are reasonably priced between 1$ (100,000 L.L.) and 3$ (300,000 L.L.), she says. But this year has been really rough.
“You can purchase around four thrifted items for the price of one new item,” she told Fanack, adding that women have been purchasing fewer items on Eid than at other times of the year due to the priority they place on essentials.
Dollarization wreaking havoc
Despite an observable growing customer base throughout the years, several thrift shops complain of a dwindling customer base around Eid this year more so than they did in previous years. Sheikho al-Nabhan, a Syrian employee, echoes the same sentiment.
Unlike Chedid, the shopkeeper claims that fewer people are visiting because they are choosing to buy new products for their families rather than prioritize essentials.
“Though customer traffic has somewhat improved, we are currently barely making ends meet,” al-Nabhan told Fanack.
Renting stalls has become an unaffordable $300 per month, which makes it one of the more expensive rentals in the area, thus reducing the profit margin.
In previous years, he says they were able to earn $300 per day in profits, but now they can barely generate $100, he says.
While the store offers children’s clothing for as little as 25,000 L.L. (0.25 cents at the time of writing), it is also a source for more expensive items.
“The decision to price in dollars has caused people to become more hesitant to purchase items exceeding $5 in price. Nevertheless, we offer a variety of higher quality used items that are either brand new or have been worn once or twice, which can cost upwards of $10,” he explained, noting that a complete Eid outfit can cost $15 and above.
The country recently implemented new pricing policies requiring all goods, especially imported goods, to be priced in U.S. dollars, have gravely impacted low-income families, he says.
But visitors, when they do come, typically from Syria compensate.
“The quality of the used clothing available here is superior to that of the items sold back home. For this reason, many families frequently travel across the border to purchase their Eid goods. However, we have not yet observed a similar movement this year.”
Em Ali and her grandchildren
Em Ali is no stranger to the Chiah thrift stores. In fact, she told Fanack that she is so familiar, she can tell which ones are of the highest quality and are most suitable for her taste.
Despite not coming specifically for Eid, she frequents the market to find affordable alternatives to high-end, comfortable clothing for her grandchildren.
“Thrift stores are my preferred destination because you can find really good quality clothes at a reasonable price, but you must have the patience and hours to sift through countless piles,” Em Ali said.
The mother of three —two of whom are married and have children of their own—said that her children bought used designer knock-off brands off of Facebook groups for their children for the Eid festivities but still continue to buy other necessities from thrift shops, such as everyday wear.
“Eid changed as a result of people’s focus on the financial crisis. The family still comes together to make sure the kids are amused and given extra attention during this time of year, even though outings have become opulent avenues needing large sums of dollars – which many simply cannot afford.”
Everything for less than $1
Jihad Chamas and his wife, Lina, run a stall where everything sells for less than a dollar. Although their items are affordable, the couple is barely turning a profit. Despite their best efforts, they persist in their ramshackle business because they simply do not have another alternative.
“This is not the kind of traffic we are used to on Eid … food and drink have become a higher priority for people,” Lina told Fanack.
T-shirts, pants, dresses, undergarments, and children’s apparel are all stacked and priced at 50 cents each.
“Since some people are used to last year’s prices when everything was priced at 0.20 cents, they consider the current prices excessive and refrain from shopping,” she said. “Customers are continuing to dip.”
Lina, who has seen the family business grow over the course of 30 years, silently observes the clients sorting through mountains of clothing, most of which are white in color, and laments that the mood is lacking and generally feels dreary.
“I don’t sense the celebrations. She said, “It all seems lifeless.”
Saving up for the kids
Afaf al-Ahmad is one of Chamas’ regular clients and frequently visits their stall to purchase clothing for her four children. This year, however, the married Syrian refugee who works as a domestic helper, wanted to make the celebrations particularly memorable for her children.
“The kids asked for new clothes rather than second-hand ones, so I made sure to save money in order to purchase discounted items at low prices, which amounted to $6 per outfit for each child,” she told Fanack.
Cham, her four-year-old daughter, silently watches her mother sorting through stacks of clothing.
Al-Ahmad, who has lived in Lebanon for five years and frequented these markets for four, claims that thrift stores offer higher quality at a reduced cost.
“It is possible to find high-quality cotton and linen clothing that can be handed down from the oldest to the youngest. Since my children won’t be receiving any new clothing for other occasions this year, I can save money for special occasions like Eid,” she told Fanack.
“I try to make my kids as happy as possible despite the challenges that surround them,” she said.
While some of her children’s wishes have been granted, others have not, she adds, including new shoes and accessories.
Higher quality, higher prices
On the opposite end of the market are stalls that are more expensive.
Salah’s seems to be more organized compared to other stalls, with its meticulously prepared side-by-side displays of clothing. His items sell for upwards of $3, reaching $20.
“People come to me in search of new and trendy items, which are more expensive, so I make sure I provide what they are looking for,” he told Fanack.
Although his customers have increased in the days leading up to Eid, he still observes that people purchase only a limited number of items, mostly active wear, and t-shirts, without splurging on expensive brands.
This may be due to the state of the economy, but unusual weather has also played a role, with swings between extreme cold and intense heat over the previous few weeks, he says.
A mother’s love
Najah Baydoun, 22, heads to one of the more affordable shops during the midday bustle at the market to buy Eid attire for her 1-year-old daughter.
Her husband, who serves in the military and has seen his salary’s value slashed to only $84 per month, has been a particular victim of the situation. In fact, public servants in Lebanon are among the most vulnerable and exposed to the spiraling dollar rate.
A smile slowly appears on her face as she manages to find a white frock and a tiny swimsuit for her daughter.
“I know happy memories will endure in her mind, as her happiness is always more important than mine.”
While Baydoun’s upbringing was full of Eid joy, family get-togethers, and new outfits, she claims she won’t buy anything new for herself this year.
“I wish I had the means to buy her the highest quality items, but for now, I have to make do with what I have,” she said.
“If I could, I would shield my daughter from it all, but there is so much one can do. Eid this year, seem nonexistent… We try, but people no longer look forward to the holiday, and some of us even wish it would be over quickly,” she lamented.