Ramadan begins in much of the Middle East amid rising prices

CAIRO (AP) – The Muslim holy month of Ramadan – when believers fast from dawn to dusk – began with sunrise on Saturday in much of the Middle East, where Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to rising energy and food prices.

The conflict was stopped by Ramadan, when large gatherings for meals and family celebrations became a tradition. Many residents of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, planned to start celebrating Sunday, and some Shiites in Lebanon, Iran and Iraq also celebrated the start of Ramadan a day later.

Muslims follow the lunar calendar, and the methodology of observing the moon can lead to different countries declaring the beginning of Ramadan at intervals of a day or two.

Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates, have announced that the month will begin on Saturday morning.

A Saudi statement on Friday was broadcast on the state’s Saudi television, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates, congratulated Muslims on the arrival of Ramadan.

Jordan, a predominantly Sunni country, also said the first day of Ramadan would be Sunday, a break from Saudi Arabia. The kingdom said Islamic religious authorities could not notice the crescent marking the beginning of the month.

Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic group, Muhammad, with more than 60 million members, said it had astronomically estimated that Ramadan would begin on Saturday. But the country’s religion minister announced on Friday that Ramadan would begin on Sunday, after Islamic astronomers in the country failed to notice the new moon.

This is not the first time Muhammad has offered differing views on the issue, but most Indonesians – Muslims make up almost 90% of the country’s 270 million people – must follow the official date of the government.

Many were hoping for a happier Ramadan after a coronavirus pandemic has blocked 2 billion Muslims worldwide from numerous rituals over the past two years.

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However, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, millions of people in the Middle East are now wondering where their next dishes will come from. The rapid rise in prices is affecting people whose lives have already been disrupted by conflict, displacement and poverty from Lebanon, Iraq and Syria to Sudan and Yemen.

Ukraine and Russia account for a third of the world’s wheat and barley exports, which the Middle East counts on to feed millions of people living on subsidized bread and good noodles. They are also leading exporters of other grains and sunflower oils used for cooking.

Egypt, the world’s largest importer of wheat, in recent years has received most of the wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Its currency has now also plunged, which has added to other pressures that are fueling prices.

Buyers in the Cairo capital appeared earlier this week to stock up on groceries and holiday decorations, but many had to buy less than last year, due to rising prices.

The tradition of Ramadan requires that the narrow alleys of Cairo and around mosques have colorful lanterns and lights. Some people who have the means to do so open tables on the streets to prepare free meals for the poor after a quick iftar. The practice is known in the Islamic world as the “Tables of the Merciful”.

“It could help in this situation,” said Rabei Hassan, muezzin of the Giza mosque, buying vegetables and other food at a nearby market. “People are tired of prices.”

Believers visited the mosque for several hours of evening prayer, or “tarawih.” On Friday night, thousands of people filled the al-Azhar mosque after visits were banned for the past two years to stop the pandemic.

“They were difficult (times) … Ramadan without tarawih in the mosque is not Ramadan,” said Saeed Abdel-Rahman, a 64-year-old retired teacher when he entered Al-Azhar for prayer.

Rising prices have also exacerbated the problems of Lebanese, who are already facing a severe economic crisis. Over the past two years, the currency has collapsed and the country’s middle class has plunged into poverty. The collapse also caused severe shortages of electricity, fuel and medicine.

In the Gaza Strip, few people went shopping on Fridays at markets usually filled at this time of year. Traders said Russia’s war against Ukraine had led to dangerous price increases along with the usual problems, exacerbating the festive atmosphere that Ramadan usually creates.

The living conditions of 2.3 million Palestinians in the impoverished coastal area are difficult, complicated by the Israeli-Egyptian blockade since 2007.

Towards the end of Ramadan last year, a deadly 11-day war between Hamas rulers in Gaza and Israel fell ill with celebrations, including Eid al-Fitr, which follows the holy month. It was the fourth brutal war with Israel in just over ten years.

In Iraq, the beginning of Ramadan revealed widespread frustration over the rapid rise in food prices, which was exacerbated last month by the war in Ukraine.

Suhaila Assam, a 62-year-old retired teacher and women’s rights activist, said she and her retired husband are struggling to survive on their joint $ 1,000-a-month pension, and prices for butter, flour and other items first needs have more than doubled.

“We Iraqis use a lot of butter and flour. In almost every meal. So how do a family of five survive? ” She asked.

Akil Sabah, 38, is a distributor of flour at the Jamila Wholesale Market, which supplies food to the entire Rasafa district of Baghdad on the east bank of the Tigris River. He said flour and almost all other foodstuffs are imported, which means distributors have to pay for their dollars. Previously, a ton of flour cost $ 390. “Today I bought a ton for $ 625,” he said.

“The devaluation of the currency a year ago has led to rising prices, but in a long (Ukrainian) crisis, prices are rising rapidly. Distributors have lost millions, ”he said.

In Istanbul, Muslims held the first Ramadan prayers in 88 years at St. Sophia Cathedral, almost two years after the iconic former cathedral was converted into a mosque.

Believers filled the 6th-century building and square around Friday night for the Tarawi prayer led by Ali Herbas, the head of the government for religious affairs. Although in July 2020 it was converted for use in Islam and renamed the Hagia Sophia, the restrictions associated with COVID-19 had a limited number of services at the site.

“After 88 years of separation, the Hagia Sophia has resumed the Tarawi prayer,” Airbus said, according to the state news agency Anadolu.

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Associated Press Writers Niniek Carmini in Jakarta, Indonesia; Andrew Wilkes in Istanbul; and Abdulrahman Zeyad in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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