Tue, Oct 28, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Economic woes overshadow Ramadan

HOLY MONTH Financial and political concerns have taken their toll on this year's celebrations as Muslims throughout the Middle East observed their first day of fasting

AP , CAIRO

The holy month of Ramadan has began throughout the Middle East, with Muslims observing their first day of weeks of dawn-to-dusk fasting, followed by sumptuous meals at family homes, five star restaurants or free-to-eat-at tables lining city streets.

Millions of Muslims in Egypt, Jordan and Yemen began fasting Sunday. Fellow Muslims in other Middle Eastern states and elsewhere around the world were expected to begin marking Ramadan yesterday. Muslims believe it was during Ramadan about 1,400 years ago that the Koran, the Islamic holy book, was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Abdel Hakem Abaed, a Yemeni university student, said he will be "praying to God during Ramadan for the sake of Muslims everywhere in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan. This is our [Muslims'] task."

In Egypt, Ramadan is usually a festive affair, where strings of colored lights and illuminated lanterns light up night time streets throughout the capital, Cairo, and in most other centers.

For more than two hours after the first daily fast-breaking meal -- iftar on Sunday, Cairo's normally traffic-choked streets were virtually empty as Egyptians sat down around dining tables at home, in hotels or at street-side tables to feast on an array of meats, salads, rice dishes and desserts.

But Egypt's deteriorating economy, marked by its weak currency and a bread crisis that hit just weeks before Ramadan began, has cast a pall over the holy month, forcing some Muslims to give up some culinary staples because of high prices.

"The country is now like a fatigued old man," said Salem el-Khateeb, a 64-year-old spice shop owner in Khan al-Khalili, a famous market district in the capital's teeming Islamic Cairo area.

"Prices of all kinds of nuts and dried apricots have doubled compared to last year. Most people I know are replacing apricots with oranges to make juice for their children. And now I am selling nothing," he said.

Nasser Lashen, the owner of a shop selling Ramadan lanterns -- known as fanous -- said that prices for the mostly Chinese-made lamps are higher, but "there are various types, so I think people don't have a major problem" to buy one.

Throughout the city, tables known as Mawaid el-Rahman, or banquets of mercy, lined streets, offering passers-by -- from the rich to poor and tourists -- free meals. But the recent bread crisis has even impacted upon this Ramadan icon, with one banquet supervisor, who only gave his name as Khalifa, saying there was no bread available for the meal.

In Jordan, where Muslims also completed their first day of fasting on Sunday, people said the crises in neighboring Iraq and the Palestinian territories have taken the gloss of this year's Ramadan, which is seen by many as a reflective, festive period.

"The only thing people do now while celebrating Ramadan is listen to the news. None are affected [any more] by the misery of those two peoples [Iraqis and Palestinians]," Mansoor said.

Popular opposition to the US-led war and occupation in Iraq and the Israeli attacks against Palestinians is high in Jordan, a country whose government is a close American ally and has signed a 1994 peace treaty with Israel -- one of only three Arab states to do so.

Amal Salah, a writer of children's stories, said "Ramadan should be a month of austerity, not a month of lavishness ... [where] instead of spending money on food as if they had never the opportunity to eat, they should think of helping their brothers in Iraq and Palestine."

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