'Empty Iftar tables': Muslims brace for a difficult Ramadan as inflation soars
The month of Ramadan is a time of fasting, introspection, and prayer for Muslims. Large gatherings over meals and family celebrations are a tradition when households usually make various kinds of food for Iftar, the fast-breaking meal.
This year, as a result of global inflation, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and economic collapse across the region, many Middle Eastern families find themselves with fewer options this year.
Across Lebanon, Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia, the skyrocketing prices have affected people whose lives have already been upended by conflict, displacement, and poverty.
Now, inflation, food shortages and import disruptions on staples including wheat, oil, and fuel promise a difficult Ramadan for that The New Arab spoke to.
"As the economy continues to deteriorate and food prices rise, a very simple Ramadan table will be beyond the means of many Lebanese families"
Ramadan this year is being observed in the midst of the worst economic crisis Lebanon has ever seen, meaning residents are not able to buy basic food items as the Lebanese citizens’ ability to survive on their salaries has diminished dramatically.
As the economy continues to deteriorate and food prices rise, a very simple Ramadan table will be beyond the means of many Lebanese families, as the economic crisis is crushing Lebanon's poorest, and affecting middle-class families.
Fatima Ghandour, a 34-year-old teacher, told The New Arab that she and her husband, who works as an accountant, are struggling to survive on their combined salary of less than $300 a month with three children.
“Everything is just priced ridiculously high - cooking oil, flour, dairy products, dates, vegetables, fruits, meat and chicken - so basically all Ramadan essentials,” Ghandour said.
Due to the country's reliance on imported food, the deterioration in currency value has triggered waves of price inflation, including for basic goods. Markets are witnessing a decline in the purchasing power of residents. Following the decision of the Ministry of Economy, supermarkets and other shops in Lebanon began displaying their prices in dollars on March 1st.
After two years of pandemic disruptions, the Beirut blast, and the current economic crisis, households in Lebanon are entering this Ramadan facing food insecurity, with NGOs struggling to cope with surging demand for people needing food assistance.
“The poor are simply unable to afford the food they need to survive as their purchasing power dwindles by the day, some days more than others, especially those whose incomes are given in Lebanese Pounds,” Maya Terro, co-founder and executive director of the charity FoodBlessed, told The New Arab.
Every Ramadan, FoodBlessed raises funds to ensure those most in need across Lebanon’s impoverished and hard-to-reach areas have access to a wholesome Iftar meal.
“This week, the dollar has surpassed 100,000 Lebanese Pounds. By the time it’s Ramadan, I think matters will be much worse since already it is customary for suppliers to increase their prices as Ramadan approaches due to the high demand for food commodities in this fasting season,” said Terro.
This year’s campaign comprises Ramadan food assistance parcels, cooked meals, and public Iftar events to ensure that families across the region can still enjoy this special time of year despite their difficult circumstances.
Lebanon’s national currency has dived to a historic low of 100,000 lira against the US dollar, marking the latest grim milestone in the country's economic meltdown that has been ongoing since 2019 ⬇— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) March 14, 2023
🎥: @alexander_durie pic.twitter.com/zce5HhetGj
In January, Egypt’s annual inflation surged to a new high amid price hikes and currency depreciation. According to official statistics, nearly 30% of Egyptians live in poverty.
A combination of government austerity, the pandemic, and the war in Ukraine have hit the Egyptian economy hard. Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat, and most of Egypt's wheat imports come from Ukraine and Russia, meaning they have been severely disrupted.
The price hikes have disproportionately impacted lower-income households in Egypt since most rely on government subsidies for essentials like bread, a staple food that is usually consumed with every meal in Egypt.
Many observers and international financial institutions have recently warned that Egypt may be heading for an unprecedented economic crisis, or even collapse.
The Egyptian regime spent billions on Egypt's military economy instead of growing the private sector or investing in education, healthcare, and affordable housing.
According to interviews conducted by The New Arab with experts and ordinary citizens, cash-starved households are cutting back on their eating and expenditures and Ramadan this year will likely be marked by poverty and families struggling to make ends meet.
“The Egyptian currency has lost around 50 percent of its value and the country is facing a foreign currency shortage as many banks have placed limits on foreign cash withdrawals, and this is having devastating consequences on the population with basic commodities in Egypt rising steadily,” Nermeen Mostafa, an economic researcher in Egypt told The New Arab.
The cost of bread and cereal increased on average by 6.6 percent while the price of meat and poultry climbed by 20.6 percent, according to Mostafa. Despite markets having enough fruits, vegetables, and bread, the majority of people cannot afford to buy essential grocery items.
"Prices are changing every day, and as numbers rise, buyers skimp. The problem is that we have no control over the markets since every merchant sells goods at different prices," Nasser Amin, owner of a fruit and vegetable shop in Cairo, told The New Arab.
As people have very little income, regulars who used to buy a kilogram of fruit now settle for half and people have to think twice before purchasing items that are not absolute necessities, according to Amin.
"Despite markets having enough fruits, vegetables, and bread, the majority of people cannot afford to buy essential grocery items"
In recent years, Tunisia's economy has been battered by heavy debt and depressed output while political chaos has led to financial ruin and institutional corruption.
"Financial mismanagement has drained government coffers for over a decade, and salaries have stagnated, but commodities have kept up with international prices," explained Ihab Mohamed, an economist in Tunisia, to The New Arab.
Food prices have been surging and shortages of basic essentials have grown in recent weeks, threatening to exacerbate Ramadan and simmering discontent in the country.
“We cannot do Ramadan without basic ingredients, we don’t know if suppliers are hoarding products because of the growing greed or if there is a true shortage,” a shopper in central Tunis told The New Arab in frustration.
Items like sugar, vegetable oil, and rice periodically disappear from supermarkets. People have been forced to stand in line for hours for basic food items, which are essential in Ramadan’s Iftar tables, that have long been subsidised and are now increasingly available in rations only.
Karem Mansouri, a private insurance employee in Tunisia, told The New Arab that he will be depending on his Ramadan bonus to buy the extra “luxury” provisions for his family, like meat and poultry.
Mansouri, a former supporter of President Kais Saied, said the president had “betrayed” Tunisians and even took part in a recent protest against Saied, whom they accuse of seeking to install a new dictatorship amid a worsening economic crisis.
Food inflation has reached a record rate of 15.6 percent, the highest in three decades.
War, siege and widespread food insecurity make each Ramadan harder than the last in Yemen, where gathering around the Iftar table has become a far-fetched dream for many.
In Yemen, acute food insecurity and malnutrition are mainly caused by conflict and economic crisis, further exacerbated by the instability of humanitarian assistance during the Ukraine war. After Russia’s invasion, global food and fuel prices rose to new highs, and the world mobilised to help Ukrainian refugees, compounding the already dire humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
The World Food Program has been forced to reduce its support to Yemen due to funding shortages.
“The situation is heartbreaking and beyond what people can imagine in terms of poverty and suffering, many families can only afford one meal a day and in Ramadan, matters are expected to be worse,” Mosaed Ahmed, a communications officer at the charity Takatuf Shabab, told The New Arab.
"'Traditional Ramadan meals will only be a dream, I remember the days when Ramadan was not just about fasting, it was also about feasting and celebrating. Now we pray for survival'"
Ahmed and other volunteers run monthly initiatives to help the most vulnerable with basic essentials. In addition to food baskets, blankets and water tanks are also provided.
Although international aid organisations provide financial support, local groups are responsible for water, sanitation, healthcare and education.
“Traditional Ramadan meals will only be a dream, I remember the days when Ramadan was not just about fasting, it was also about feasting and celebrating. Now we pray for survival,” said Omar Ismail, who lives in a refugee camp in Sanaa with his 4 children and wife and relies on donations from organisations to live.
22.2 million Yemenis are now in need of urgent humanitarian assistance after a ruthless civil war disrupted the majority of Yemen. 85,000 children have already died and millions more are at risk of death due to malnutrition, according to a UK-based charity.
“The living conditions for displaced people in camps are extremely dire but they have no other choice as the little assistance that they do receive does not go far enough,” Ahmed explained.
From Lebanon to Egypt and Tunisia to Yemen, across the MENA region, where more than 90 percent of food is imported, the continuing war in Ukraine is compounding the impacts of two years of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crises to make for another sombre Ramadan.
Rodayna Raydan is a Lebanese British journalism graduate from Kingston University in London covering Lebanon.
Follow her on Twitter: @Rodayna_462