Teriza Mir | Middle East and North Africa Fellow
The final weeks of April saw the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the celebration of Eid al-Fitr (Feast of Breaking the Fast) for adherents the world over. In the Middle East and North Africa, Ramadan's common tenants of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and adoration were observed in a variety of ways, owing to the ranging political and economic situations and cultural diversity across the region. While Ramadan clearly demonstrated how values such as religiosity and community spirit are common throughout the region, it also highlighted stark disparities in wealth and social stability between neighbouring nations.
Breaking the Fast
Ramadan is typically a social season. Neighbours and loved ones come together after sunset each day to break their fast (iftar), and large gatherings are characteristic of Eid al-Fitr celebrations. This year, widespread cost of living, high inflation, and economic crises severely restricted many Muslims’ ability to fill their tables as lavishly as in the past.
In Lebanon, a 98 per cent national currency devaluation since October 2018 has prompted a shift towards pricing all goods in American dollars to combat the high volatility of the lira. This has enormously inflated cost of living for the 90 per cent of workers who continue to receive their wages in lira. Traditional Ramadan dishes were thus substituted for cheaper alternatives, for example beef mince rather than chunks, and plant-based rather than meat options. The poorest families simply hoped for providence when it came to putting food on the table.
The February 6 earthquake exacerbated already perilous economic conditions in Türkiye, where the inflation rate exceeds 57 per cent. Ongoing ramifications from the disaster have added medical and repair costs to the holy month's expenses. A small saving grace was the occurrence of Ramadan during spring, which allowed families in earthquake-stricken parts of the country to save money by growing their own produce.
Similar issues of food affordability were felt in Tunisia and Sudan, the latter of which also experienced food and water shortages, and the closure of shops just before Eid due to conflict in the capital Khartoum. Nevertheless, Sudanese Muslim men continued a beloved iftar tradition of breaking their fast while seated on mats on the side of the road, sharing the meal with neighbours and any passers-by that hadn't made it home in time to eat.
Almsgiving – Zakat al-Fitr
During the month of Ramadan, all Muslims with food in excess of their needs are required to make a charitable donation, called Zakat al-Fitr. Saudi Arabia, the richest country in the Middle East by GDP, has for many years funded multiple million-dollar charity campaigns in observance of this obligation, this year the ruling family themselves donating USD$18.66 million to war-torn and crisis-stricken countries. The King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre (KSRelief) provided 151 tonnes of food baskets, rice, dates (a Ramadan staple), and other food products to Indonesia, Bangladesh, Liberia, Albania, Nigeria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Lebanon, including Syrian and Palestinian refugee communities in the latter. Additionally, the King's annual fundraising campaign raised almost USD$400 million during the holy month, providing housing to over 5000 families.
Peace and Conflict
In 2022, warring factions in Yemen agreed to a two-month ceasefire to acknowledge the holy month. The truce has continued to hold in the year since then, allowing critical supplies and humanitarian aid to enter the country, and contributing to an exchange of almost 900 prisoners from both sides during Ramadan this year. Sudan saw the opposite as Khartoum became a battlefield for army and paramilitary forces in the last week of the holy month. While both sides ostensibly agreed to a ceasefire over Eid al-Fitr, violence did not cease entirely, and subsequent peace agreements have not been upheld by either belligerent party.
In Occupied Palestine, Ramadan was a time that both inflamed tensions between Palestinians and Israeli settlers and inspired efforts towards peace and understanding. The Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem is a particularly meaningful place of prayer during Ramadan, as it is the third most sacred site in Islam, and is believed to have been visited by the Prophet Muhammad during his lifetime. Hundreds of thousands of worshippers attended the mosque for prayers during the holy month, however for those coming from the Palestinian Territories of Gaza and the West Bank, access is restricted by Israeli military checkpoints. On 17 April, tens of thousands of Palestinian Muslims sought to pray at the mosque on Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Destiny, the date that the Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet. To bypass the checkpoints, which were turning worshippers away in their thousands, some resorted to disguises, scaling walls and fences, and paying people smugglers, just to attend evening prayers.
Conversely, joint Palestinian-Israeli initiative Roots organised seven iftar gatherings throughout the holy month, bringing together three hundred Palestinians and Israelis to break the day's fasts. On some occasions the gatherings took place mere days after the death of members from either population, as violence between the two escalated during the holy month and the Jewish Passover festival. While not all attendees were completely comfortable sharing a meal with each other, they believed in the importance of building relationships to work towards a peaceful future.
As a sacred season common to all countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Ramadan highlights those factors that unite and differentiate each unique nation from one another. Despite economic hardship, political tensions, and armed violence, the shared desire to honour the holiness of the month of Ramadan and the celebration of Eid al-Fitr saw Muslims across the region celebrate using any available means, however meagre or bountiful.
Teriza Mir is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.