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.”


Israel’s Arabs poised to gain new voice after tight election

Updated 16 sec ago

Israel’s Arabs poised to gain new voice after tight election

  • The Arab bloc appears to have met or fallen short of its performance in 2015, when it won 13 seats

JERUSALEM: Israel’s Arab coalition appears poised to emerge as the main opposition bloc following Tuesday’s election, a historic first that would grant a new platform to a long-marginalized minority.
Near-complete results Wednesday indicated the Joint List won about a dozen seats in the 120-member assembly, coming third after the Blue and White party of former military chief Benny Gantz and the right-wing Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In absolute terms, the Arab bloc appears to have met or fallen short of its performance in 2015, when it won 13 seats.
But this time around, due to the shifting constellation of Israeli politics, it would be well-placed to lead the opposition if a national unity government of the two largest parties is formed, as seems likely.
That would put a representative of Israel’s Arab citizens closer to the center of power than ever before and strengthen their ability to influence the national agenda.
A TARGET OF INCITEMENT
Israel’s Arab minority makes up about 20% of the population of 9 million, and is descended from Palestinians who stayed in Israel after it was established as a state in 1948. They officially enjoy full citizenship, including the right to vote, but they lived under martial law until 1966 and still suffer widespread discrimination.
Decades of marginalization have bred voter apathy, and in April’s elections more than half the Arab electorate stayed home. This time around, Arab leaders joined forces and mobilized turnout, vowing to topple Netanyahu and push for improvements in public services.
Arab citizens have close family, cultural and historical ties to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and largely identify with the Palestinian cause. That has led many Israelis to view them as a fifth column and a security threat. Netanyahu has repeatedly branded them as terrorists and traitors in a bid to energize his right-wing base, in remarks widely condemned as racist incitement.
In the closing hours of the 2015 elections, Netanyahu warned that Arabs were voting in “droves.” This time around, he pushed for the placement of cameras at polling stations in Arab districts based on unfounded claims of widespread fraud, saying Arabs were trying to “steal” the election . Facebook suspended an automated chat function on his account for 24 hours last week after it published a post saying, “Arabs want to annihilate all of us.”
Netanyahu appeared to double down in his election-night speech, saying no Israeli government could include “anti-Zionist Arab parties” that “reject the very existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and “praise bloodthirsty terrorists who murder our soldiers, citizens and children.”
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VICTORY AT THE POLLS
Netanyahu’s tactics appear to have backfired.
The increased turnout among Arab voters propelled the bloc to a strong showing and may have denied Netanyahu the right-wing coalition he had desperately sought.
“There is no other prime minister who incited against us like Netanyahu,” Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, told Israeli media as the initial results trickled in. “There’s a limit. The Arab citizens undoubtedly felt that they became a persecuted minority, an endangered minority.”
Arab leaders seemed to savor Netanyahu’s apparent comeuppance. “We voted in droves,” Ahmad Tibi, an Arab member of parliament, tweeted in Hebrew.
The Joint List is unlikely to sit in any Israeli government because that would entail endorsing military operations against the Palestinians. Many Jewish-majority parties still refuse to sit with Arabs as political partners.
But the Arab parties’ increased clout could allow them to block right-wing legislation like the law narrowly passed last year defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. An informal alliance supporting the ruling coalition from the outside could also help deliver legislation to improve housing, education and law enforcement in long-marginalized Arab communities.
The Arab bloc is also expected to advocate for a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians at a time when none of Israel’s main parties has made the peace process a priority.
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A NEW PLATFORM
Neither Gantz nor Netanyahu have enough support to form a government without the Yisrael Beitenu party led by Avigdor Lieberman, who has emerged as kingmaker .
Lieberman, a right-winger with a history of incendiary remarks about Arabs, has demanded a national unity government with Likud and Blue and White. That would leave the Joint List as the largest party outside the government and make Odeh Israel’s first-ever Arab opposition leader.
In his official duties as opposition leader, Odeh would hold monthly consultations with the prime minister and meet with visiting dignitaries. He would be granted a state-funded bodyguard, access to high-level security briefings and an official platform to rebut the prime minister’s speeches in parliament.
“This is a very significant, unprecedented level for us,” Odeh told Army Radio. “When presidents from around the world come they’ll meet with us as well.” He has described the prospect of an Arab leader receiving security briefings as “interesting.”
Odeh says his bloc also mobilized support from Israeli Jews, some of whom welcomed its success.
Nahum Barnea, a prominent columnist with Israel’s main daily Yedioth Ahronoth, said the Joint List’s achievement should be measured not in the number of seats it won but in “its ability to build bridges to the mainstream of Israeli politics and society.”
“It is unthinkable to continue to exclude and to humiliate forever 20% of the electorate,” he wrote. “Their expectations in all that pertains to integration, influence and respect all emanate from the ground up. Those expectations have to be met somehow.”