Frugal fare for Ramadan in Damascus as war saps spending

Business is slow this Ramadan in the markets of the Syrian capital Damascus. Eight years of war have sapped spending power and even those once well off are scraping by. (AFP)
Updated 21 May 2019
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Frugal fare for Ramadan in Damascus as war saps spending

  • For many in Syria sumptuous Ramadan feasts are no longer an option
  • Eight years of war have devastated the economy and unemployment is rife

DAMASCUS: 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 AFP.
“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.
“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 neighborhood outside Damascus.
“Today, since meat is expensive, we stuff courgettes with rice instead,” she clutching a bag of fruits and vegetables under 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.

The produce is available and some is cheaper than in recent years but the price is still beyond the reach of many Syrians impoverished by the long years of war. (AFP)

He said prices had fallen because of an increase in supply, with produce now available from the farms of Eastern Ghouta, just oustide 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.”


Libyan commander marching on capital dismisses negotiations

Updated 20 June 2019
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Libyan commander marching on capital dismisses negotiations

  • Khalifa Haftar vows that his fighters will get rid of ‘terrorist militias’

CAIRO: A Libyan commander, whose forces are fighting to take the country’s capital of Tripoli from militias allied with a UN-backed government based there, has dismissed an initiative by its prime minister for negotiations to end the crisis.

Instead, Khalifa Haftar vowed in comments to a news website on Wednesday that his fighters would press on with the weeks-long offensive until Tripoli is rid of what he described as “terrorist militias.”

“Our military operations will not stop” until Tripoli is taken, Haftar told almarsad.co.

“The situation is excellent and I call on the Libyans to ignore rumors about our withdrawal,” Haftar said in interviews with Libyan news websites The Address and The Observer published overnight Wednesday to Thursday.

The offensive to seize the capital “will not stop before all its objectives are reached,” he said.

The campaign by Haftar’s Liberation National Army has raised fears of another bout of violence after the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime ruler Muammar Qaddafi. Since then, the country has sunk into chaos, with rival administrations in the east and the west, and an array of forces and militias allied with either side.

On Monday, the World Health Organization reported the latest casualty tolls for the fighting in and around Tripoli, saying 691 people have been killed so far, including 41 civilians, and 4,012 wounded, 135 of them civilians.

The head of the Tripoli-based government, Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj, told a news conference on Sunday he is proposing a “Libyan forum,” aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the conflict.

The talks would draw up a roadmap for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held before the end of 2019, Al-Sarraj said. 

In his remarks to the news website, Haftar dismissed Al-Sarraj’s initiative and criticized him as an ineffective leader.

“Initiatives have no meaning unless they are brave and carry clear clauses that address the causes of the crisis and its very roots,” Haftar said.

Haftar has presented himself as someone able to restore stability. In recent years, his campaign against militants across Libya won him growing international support from world leaders who say they are concerned the North African country has turned into a haven for armed groups, and a major conduit for migrants bound for Europe.