Ramadan starts in Mideast amid high costs, hopes for peace

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — Hundreds of millions of Muslims began the first daily fast of Ramadan on Thursday, as parts of the Middle East approached crucial junctures in high-stakes peace negotiations during the holy month, traditionally a time of reconciliation.

In Sudan, parties are wrangling over how the country will usher in a civilian government following 17 months of military rule. In Yemen, diplomats are pushing for a lasting truce, following the recent rapprochement between regional powerhouses Iran and Saudi Arabia which have been locked in a proxy war there for eight years.

During Ramadan, observant Muslims abstain from food and water from dawn to dusk, before gathering with family and friends for indulgent nighttime meals. According to Islam, fasting draws the faithful closer to God and reminds them of the suffering of the poor.

In Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, families prepare culinary delights weeks in advance to mark the break of the fast each evening, a meal known as iftar. For the feasts, Sudanese worshippers favor assida, a semolina-based flour dish, and a sugary fermented drink called, “sweet bitter” — both recipes that date back generations.

“Those who can’t afford don’t have to pay,” said Fatima Mohammed Hamid, who sells food items from her small home on Tuti island on the Nile River, just north of Khartoum.

In addition to fasting, charity giving is another of Islam’s five pillars. During Ramadan, mosques and charities regularly provide meals for the poor at long tables that sprawl out onto the street.

Sudan has been steeped in political chaos since a coup ousted a Western-brokered power-sharing government in October 2021. There are hopes for a transitional government before the four weeks of Ramadan end, as promised by the country’s ruling military and other political forces earlier this week. However, many prominent Sudanese factions reject the move.

Amid the uncertainty, most find common ground in complaining about the rising cost of living.

“Everything costs double what it did last year,” said Hamid.

At a meeting in Egypt earlier this week, Israeli and Palestinian delegations pledged to lower tensions during the sensitive holiday season — Ramadan will coincide with the Jewish festival of Passover in April — but surging violence continues across the occupied West Bank. There are concerns about flare-ups with large numbers of Jewish and Muslim faithful expected to pour into Jerusalem’s Old City.

From the Gaza Strip to Sudan and Tunisia to Yemen, soaring prices are proving a further concern for observant Muslims. Arab countries are continuing to suffer from the economic fallout of the war in Ukraine, with many reliant on grain imports from eastern Europe.

At the once-bustling Bab al-Fellah market in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, rising costs have left shoppers unable to splurge on Ramadan delicacies as they might have in past years.

“I have almost used up the 40 dinars (roughly $13) that my husband gave me and I bought only vegetables, a chicken and some spices,’’ said Fatima B., embarrassed to give her full name out of her financial desperation.

In Pakistan, shoppers reported similar hardships, with inflation surging to nearly 40%. Many said they would consider breaking the daytime fast if free food were to be handed out.

In war-torn Yemeni capital of Sanaa, prospects for Ramadan are bleaker still, with residents struggling to buy even basic supplies. The country’s ruinous civil war, now in its ninth year, has killed more than 150,000 people and pushed millions to the brink of famine.

“I am not able to provide daily food for the children,” said Saleh al-Omrani, an unemployed resident from Sanaa. “We had Ramadan in the good old days, but today there is no longer Ramadan.”

Diplomats and leaders had expressed new hope for peace efforts in the days leading up to Ramadan, amid signs of warming relations between two of the region’s rival superpowers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The two are on opposing sides of the war in Yemen, and despite announcements of restoring ties, sporadic fighting continues across the country. Clashes in Yemen killed at least 16 people earlier this week.

In Afghanistan, people are observing their second Ramadan under Taliban rule. Since the Taliban seized power in the country in August 2021, foreign aid stopped almost overnight and the economy collapsed, driving millions into poverty and hunger.

In southern Turkey and northwestern Syria, the destruction caused by last month’s earthquake, which killed over 52,000 people, poses perhaps the steepest challenge of all.

In the Turkish city of Kahramanmaras — near the quake's epicenter — worshipers held the first Ramadan prayers inside a 1,000-person tent on the grounds of the city’s famed Abdulhamid Han Mosque. Turkey’s fourth-largest mosque sustained slight damage in the temblor and has been closed to worshippers, Turkish media said.

Some 1,400 mosques have been destroyed or damaged by the quake, Turkish authorities say, leaving tens of thousands to pray in makeshift tents. More than 100 sound systems have been installed to recite the call to prayer.

In Syria's northwestern Idlib province — the last rebel enclave -- very few families still have the energy or resources to make the necessary preparations for Ramadan this year.

Abdul Qahar Zakou, a cafe owner from, said he will put up Ramadan decorations despite the prevailing misery and do his best to create a festive atmosphere.

“Despite all the odds, Ramadan will always have its own atmosphere, with a symbolism and spirituality that makes life easier,” said Zakou.

Fasting is required of all healthy adult Muslims, with exemptions for those who are sick, pregnant women and those breastfeeding.

Alongside eating and drinking, smoking and sexual intercourse are also prohibited during daylight hours in Ramadan.

Muslims welcomed Ramadan elsewhere in the world. In the United States, mosques announced schedules for prayers, religious classes and community iftars.

In West Covina, California, Samreen Khan, 40, decorated her home while her older sons practiced reciting from the Quran, the Muslim holy book. In keeping with Ramadan’s spirit of giving, her family also donates money to help poor families with groceries in Pakistan, where Khan was born.

“It’s the month of purification of our body and our soul,” she said. “We grow spiritually, and we build a stronger relationship with Allah, our creator.”

Islam follows a lunar calendar, so Ramadan starts about a week and a half earlier each year. At the end of holy month, Muslims celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holiday, when children often receive new clothes and gifts.

___ Associated Press writers Ghaith Alsayed in Idlib, Syria; Bouazza ben Bouazza in Tunis, Tunisia; Andrew Wilks in Istanbul; Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen; Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey; Munir Ahmed and Rahim Faiez in Islamabad, and Mariam Fam in Winter Park, Florida, contributed to this report.

 

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