Syrians struggle to find festive mood this Ramadan
By Albert Aji and Diaa Hadid, AP, Jul 10, 2013
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP)—As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began Wednesday, many Syrians who observe the daily dawn-to-dusk fast that is broken with lavish family meals are struggling to find the usually festive mood and holiday warmth as the country’s bloody conflict rages for a third year.
In one rebel-held city, residents have resorted to begging for crumbs at a local soup kitchen, while in a refugee camp on the Jordanian border, Syrians hounded by the desert heat and dust break their fast separated from relatives back home.
Reflecting the deprivation brought on by the war, the U.N food agency said that 7 million people were now reliant on food aid simply to eat. The fighting that has destroyed much of the country, combined with prices that have soared in recent months, have left many Syrians struggling to get by.
"People come by the kitchen just begging for scraps, it tears the heart," said an activist in the rebel-held northern Syrian city of Maarat al-Numan.
He said activists were using a communal kitchen to distribute a simple Ramadan evening meal of rice, vegetable stew and soup to some 400 of the city’s neediest families. He identified himself only by his nickname, Abu Anas, fearing for his safety.
In the Zaatari refugee camp in the Jordanian desert, many of the 120,000 Syrians that live in the sprawling tent city home were homesick and miserable.
"Carrying out the Ramadan fast in this refugee camp is extremely difficult in every way imaginable," said Abu Qusai, a 32-year-old construction worker from the restive southern province of Daraa, where the Syrian uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011. "It is as dry as a bone and the dust is kicking up … we’re thirsty, dirty and very uncomfortable. We’re fed up."
Ramadan is traditionally a time of reflection and prayer, and Muslims are expected to abstain during daylight hours from food, drink, smoking and sex to focus on spirituality, good deeds and charity. The fast presents a physical and spiritual challenge every year, but particularly when the holiday falls during harsh Mideast summer when the days are longest and temperatures soar in some places to 50 degrees Celsius (120 Fahrenheit).
The Muslim lunar calendar moves back through the seasons, so Ramadan starts 11 days earlier each year under the Western calendar.
Despite its apparent harshness, many Muslims eagerly anticipate Ramadan, the month when they believe God revealed the first verses of the Muslim holy book, the Quran, to the Prophet Muhammad. Streets are decorated with colorful lanterns, families gather at dusk to break their fasts with sumptuous feasts of meat and rice and sweets, the devout pray even more and regional cooking shows obsess over new takes on classic dishes for the Ramadan evening meal.
But the hardships in Syria, where the civil war is now in its third year, have eroded much of the Ramadan joy.
Even those considered lucky enough to have stayed in their homes found themselves cutting back on traditional Ramadan delights like sweets and meats as they awoke to their fragile currency falling once again, this time to 270 pounds to the U.S. dollar.
It was likely to set off another rise in food prices that residents say has already increased five-fold.
Still, residents in Damascus said the mood was better than last year, when rebels tried to overrun the capital. In the past few months, the military has gone on the offensive and has succeeded in clearing rebels from many areas on the edge of the capital as well as in the country’s center. Encouraged, many Syrians abroad returned to visit relatives this Ramadan.
On Wednesday, the World Food Program said it needed $27 million every month to deal with the growing ranks of Syrians made hungry because of the war and refugees crisis abroad.
The food crisis is partly caused by the rising price of fuel, a lack of imports and farmers abandoning their fields because it’s unsafe to work.
The Syrian currency fell further, to 280 pounds to the U.S. dollar on Wednesday, after recovering from a record low of 310 pounds to the dollar on Tuesday. The falling pound is likely to further push up prices.
It made an average teacher’s salary equivalent to some $70, a resident explained.
"Yesterday, I bought 2 kilograms of potatoes, one kilogram of beans and two kilograms of tomatoes with 1,000 pounds," said Qassem al-Zamel, a 37-year-old employee, ticking off once-cheap produce. "I stopped buying meat."
Supermarket owner Adib Mardini, 62, said he was changing food prices by the hour on some days but there were few shoppers. “People have run out of money,” he said.