Frugal fare for Ramadan in Damascus as war saps spending
Abu Anas al-Hijazi scanned the stalls in the Syrian capital's Bab Srija market but bought nothing. For the cash-strapped 45-year-old wedding singer, this Ramadan is a frugal one.
"We used to lay out a large spread and invite relatives and friends for a feast around six or seven times at least" during the Muslim holy month, he told journalists.
"But now, I invite them once or twice at most."
Throughout Ramadan, Muslims abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours and sit down to a feast – known as iftar – once the sun goes down.
But for many in Syria, where eight years of war have devastated the economy and unemployment is rife, sumptuous Ramadan feasts are no longer an option.
"We have swapped meat for chicken this year and we have started to offer small meals, rather than large spreads," said the performer who earns less during Ramadan – an unpopular month for weddings. "Nothing is the same."
Abu Anas is among the many Syrians whose standard of living has plummeted since the conflict started in 2011.
Ramadan: Enlightenment and commerce
Muslims all over the world are currently observing Ramadan. The month of fasting is supposed to be all about reflection, meditation and abstention - but Ramadan is becoming increasingly commercialised.
According to the Koran, the Prophet Muhammad received the Book's holy words in the month of Ramadan. During this month, Muslims are supposed to practice abstinence. Daily prayer is compulsory – even for travellers. Islamic prayer rooms have been set up in many international airports, like the one here in Amman. In Germany, you can find these rooms in the airports at Frankfurt, Munich and Dusseldorf
Sunset is the time for "iftar", the breaking of the fast. In Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Muslims are not supposed to eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. Here, men in Bahrain are looking out for the crescent moon. When it appears, they sit down on the beach to eat, drink and pray
This Bosnian Muslim family celebrate the iftar meal together each evening during Ramadan, often joined by friends and relatives. Strengthening the communal spirit is an essential aspect of Ramadan. Young children don't have to fast. Exceptions are also made for older people, pregnant women, and those who are sick or travelling. Anyone who is able to do so can catch up on their fast later on
During Ramadan, stallholders at the bazaar in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, sell meat and other food. Because special significance is attached to the nightly iftar meal, prices in the markets of this huge metropolis rise by up to 60 percent during the month-long fast
During Ramadan, there is generally a marked increase in spending among the faithful. A lot of people buy not just food but also Ramadan lanterns or prayer rugs. During the fast, traders like this one in Cairo tempt people in with special offers. Restaurants offer iftar menus of several courses for the whole family
Giving to the poor is part of Ramadan too: sharing food with them and donating money. The giving of alms, as seen here during Eid ul-Fitr in Morocco, is one of the five pillars of Islam - along with profession of the faith, daily prayers, making a pilgrimage to Mecca and fasting during Ramadan
The search for enlightenment: garlands of lights and lanterns adorn many cities and streets during Ramadan, but also private houses like the one here in Bahrain. They symbolise the search for enlightenment along the path of prayer that leads to Allah. People decorate shop windows, and expensive Ramadan adverts are broadcast on television. A lot of Islamic religious leaders disapprove of this
During Ramadan hardly any cafes and restaurants are open during the day. Most towns only come to life after sunset. In Iran, even the cinemas are closed during the day, though this means they are allowed to stay open for longer at night
At the end of Ramadan comes the three-day-long "Sugar Feast" of Eid ul-Fitr. Children receive sweets, toys and magnificent costumes. Culinary delicacies are lovingly prepared, like the ones seen here in Ramallah. Prices also fall back to pre-Ramadan levels, and dates and figs are suddenly offered at knockdown prices
Tattooed artworks: before Eid ul-Fitr, Pakistani girls decorate their hands with artistic designs. They use henna for this body art, which remains visible on their skin for two to three weeks. The colours vary in intensity according to how long the henna is left to work on the skin
"Almost 80 percent of the households across the country are struggling to cope with the lack of food or money to buy it," according to the World Food Programme.
For Rabbah Ammar, the economic slowdown means she must take measures to rein in the family's Ramadan's expenses.
The 52-year-old said she set aside some savings months ago to spend on food during the fasting month. She said she buys most of her produce from the Bab Srija market because "prices here are lower than in others".
She also chooses which dishes to prepare based on the price of the ingredients.
"When the price of green peas spiked, we replaced it with fava beans, which were cheaper," said the resident of the Sayyida Zeinab neighbourhood outside Damascus.
"Today, since meat is expensive, we stuff courgettes with rice instead," she said, clutching a bag of fruits and vegetables under her arm.
Nearby, Abu Imad sprayed water on the plump tomatoes he had put on display, hoping to attract customers.
He said vegetable prices had dropped sharply this year. "The price of one kilo of cucumbers last year was 700 Syria pounds... and today it is about 200."
Sitting near boxes of fresh vegetables, Talal Shawkal's eyes flit back and forth, as potential customers walk past.
He said prices had fallen because of an increase in supply, with produce now available from the farms of Eastern Ghouta, just outside Damascus, after the government took the area from rebels last year.
Demand had not kept up, he said. "People don't have enough money to buy."
Mohammad Imad Kobeissi, a frail 60-year-old man, has for years earned a living carrying people's shopping from the market to the taxi rank on the main road.
But "today, I have to wait for a long time before a customer requests my help," he said.
With fewer sales, most people now only "fill one or two bags at most, which they can easily carry without my help."
Arranging cucumbers and courgettes on a large wooden cart, Abu Ammar places the smaller pieces at the front and the larger ones at the back.
He says demand is higher for the former, mainly because they are cheaper.
The 60-year-old, who has been working in the market for half a century, says the financial slowdown has altered people's purchasing habits.
"This year is the first time I have customers asking to buy a single vegetable," he said. "This is not something we were used to in Syria," he added.
The man, whose home in Eastern Ghouta was destroyed in the war, said he understands that times are difficult.
"I had to sell my car so I could afford everyday expenses. When I have customers who ask for three courgettes, I give it to them and ask for their prayers instead of money." (AFP)