Ramadan begins in many parts of Middle East amid rising prices

CAIRO — Ramadan, the holy month for Muslims — which sees the faithful fasting from dawn until dusk in Islam — started Saturday at sunrise in most of the Middle East. This is because Russia’s invasion in Ukraine caused food and energy prices to soar. The conflict cast an overshadowing shadow over Ramadan when family celebrations and large meals are common. The start of Ramadan was planned by many in Indonesia, a Southeast Asian country. Shiites from Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon also observed the day.

Muslims follow a lunar calendar and a moon-sighting methodology can lead to different countries declaring the start of Ramadan a day or two apart.

Muslim-majority nations including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates had declared the month would begin Saturday morning. A Saudi declaration Friday was broadcast by the Kingdom’s State-run Saudi TV. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and the de facto leader for the United Arab Emirates) congratulated Muslims upon Ramadan’s arrival.

Jordan – a Sunni country – also announced that Ramadan’s first day would fall on Sunday. This is a departure from Saudi Arabia. According to the kingdom, the Islamic religious authority could not spot the crescent moon that indicated the start of Ramadan.

Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic group, Muhammadiyah, which counts more than 60 million members, said that according to its astronomical calculations Ramadan begins Saturday. The country’s religious affairs minister announced that Ramadan will begin on Sunday after Islamic astronomers failed to see the new moon.

It wasn’t the first time the Muhammadiyah has offered a differing opinion on the matter, but most Indonesians — Muslims comprise nearly 90% of the country’s 270 million people — are expected to follow the government’s official date.

Many had hoped for a more cheerful Ramadan after the coronavirus pandemic blocked the world’s 2 billion Muslims from many rituals the past two years.

Millions of Middle Easterners are wondering about where they will eat their next meal after Russia invaded Ukraine. People whose lives have been ruined by war, poverty, and displacement from Syria, Iraq, and Syria, to Sudan, Yemen, and Syria, are now suffering the effects of skyrocketing food prices.

Ukraine and Russia account for a third of global wheat and barley exports, which Middle East countries rely on to feed millions of people who subsist on subsidized bread and bargain noodles. These countries are top exporters for other grains as well as sunflower oil, which is used in cooking.

Egypt is the largest importer of wheat in the world. In recent years, most of their wheat has come from Russia or Ukraine. The currency of Egypt has also fallen, further increasing the price pressures. Shoppers in Cairo went out this week to get groceries and decorations. However, prices have risen so much that many were forced to purchase less than they did last year.

Ramadan tradition calls for colorful lanterns and lights strung throughout Cairo’s narrow alleys and around mosques. People who have the resources to set up tables in the streets and offer free meals to the hungry after Iftar. The practice is known in the Islamic world as “Tables of the Compassionate.”

“This could help in this situation,” said Rabei Hassan, the muezzin of a mosque in Giza as he bought vegetables and other food from a nearby market. “People are tired of the prices.”

Worshippers attended mosque for hours of evening prayers, or “tarawih.” On Friday evening, thousands of people packed the al-Azhar mosque after attendance was banned for the past two years to stem the pandemic.

“They were difficult (times) … Ramadan without tarawih at the mosque is not Ramadan,” said Saeed Abdel-Rahman, a 64-year-old retired teacher as he entered al-Azhar for prayers. Soaring prices have also contributed to the economic woes experienced by Lebanese, who are already in a severe financial crisis. The country’s currency crashed and its middle class fell into poverty over the last two years. A severe shortage of electricity, fuel, and medicines has resulted from the meltdown. Friday was a quiet day in Gaza Strip. Markets are usually packed this time of the year. According to merchants, the war in Russia against Ukraine caused prices to skyrocket, along with the other challenges that come with it, which has impacted the joyous atmosphere Ramadan is known for.

The living conditions of the 2.3 million Palestinians in the impoverished coastal territory are tough, compounded by a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since 2007.

Toward the end of Ramadan last year, a deadly 11-day war between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Israel cast a cloud over festivities, including the Eid al-Fitr holiday that follows the holy month. This was Israel’s fourth bloody war in just over 10 years. In Iraq, Ramadan marked widespread dissatisfaction at the rapid rise in food costs, which was exacerbated by the conflict 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 combined pension of $1,000 a month, with prices of cooking oil, flour and other essentials having more than doubled.

“We, as Iraqis, use cooking oil and flour a lot. Nearly every meal is prepared with cooking oil and flour. She asked, “How can five family members live together?”

Akeel Sabah, 38, is a flour distributor in the Jamila wholesale market, which supplies all of Baghdad’s Rasafa district on the eastern side of the Tigris River with food. According to him, flour is imported and distributors must pay in dollars for it. A ton of flour used to cost $390. “Today I bought the ton for $625,” he said.

” While the currency devaluation of a year ago led to an increase, now prices are spiraling due to (Ukraine’s) ongoing crisis. He said that distributors had lost many millions.

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

Worshippers filled the 6th-century building and the square outside Friday night for tarawih prayers led by Ali Erbas, the government head of religious affairs. Although converted for Islamic use and renamed the Grand Hagia Sophia Mosque in July 2020, COVID-19 restrictions had limited worship at the site.

“After 88 years of separation, the Hagia Sophia Mosque has regained the tarawih prayer,” Erbas said, according to the state-run Anadolu Agency.

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Associated Press writers Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia; Andrew Wilks in Istanbul; and Abdulrahman Zeyad in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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