To break the fast for just $3

Frugal Ramadan for cash-strapped Damascenes

GMT 03:03 2016 Sunday ,26 June

Arab Today, arab today Frugal Ramadan for cash-strapped Damascenes

Syrian Rida Saleh (R) and his family
Damascus - Arab Today

This Ramadan, a radio station in Syria's capital Damascus presented cash-strapped listeners with a challenge: plan a meal to break the fast for just $3.

Diala Hasan's cooking show on Sham FM used to feature recipes for sumptuous Ramadan feasts.

But in government-held parts of Syria, where a five-year war has devastated the currency and unemployment is rife, listeners' budgets are stretched to the limit.

"We decided to make a programme that demonstrates thrifty recipes costing 1,500 Syrian pounds ($3) to match peoples' incomes," Hasan, 26, told AFP as she prepared to record the show at a studio in Damascus.

"We're not using lamb, expensive spices, or even almonds," she said.

Throughout the holy month, Muslims abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours and sit down to a feast -- known as iftar -- once the sun goes down. 

But in Syria, many struggle to scrape together ingredients even for a basic meal. 

Salaries in areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad's forces have dropped dramatically with the 92 percent devaluation of the pound since the war began.

A UN report published in April estimated 83.4 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line, compared with 28 percent before the war.

Hasan has even changed the name of her show from "Bread and Salt" -- an Arabic saying referring to friendships forged over a meal -- to "Ramadan of the poor".

- Handouts double -

Rida Saleh and his wife Umm Hassan are among those whose quality of life has plummeted since 2011.
On a recent evening they broke their fast around a little table in a cramped apartment where they settled after fleeing the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta. 

They sat down to a modest meal: a few stuffed courgettes, some potatoes, a bowl of salad and a plate of beans -- normally used as appetisers but now their main course.

"There are so many dishes and drinks that have become for us just a distant memory," said Rida, 49.

"It's the first year we don't have dessert."

Umm Hassan agreed.

"Even fruits are now a dream for us. We used to be able to buy apples by the kilo -- today the whole family just shares two little apples," she said.

Living costs have risen so much that charities have nearly doubled the number of iftar meals they distribute to the needy during Ramadan.

"We distributed 130,000 meals in 2013 compared to 230,000 in 2015. But this year, we may reach as many as 500,000," said Issam Habbal, who heads the charity "Saed" (Help).

"The crisis didn't spare anyone. If even the rich have been affected, you can imagine how those that were already unfortunate have been devastated," he said.

In the shade of the famous Umayyad mosque in the Old City of Damascus, about 100 Saed volunteers cooked and distributed large pots of rice with meat. 

Men and women were hard at work chopping cucumbers to add to a mix of lettuce and carrots.

"With each additional year of war, we need more volunteers because there are more poor people," said Tareq, 24.

- Every month is Ramadan -

Desserts and syrup-covered sweets are an integral part of iftars across the Middle East and are a special delicacy in the Syrian capital.

But today, they have become too expensive for many Damascenes.
In Midan, a neighbourhood in southern Damascus, Ahmad Qaysar tended his bakery, which sold a mix of Arabic sweets. But few customers were buying.

"I inherited this trade from my father and my grandfather. We've never had a season like this," the 30-year-old said.

"Our sales have dropped by half because of the rising prices for pistachios, margarine, semolina, and flour" -- indispensable ingredients for delicious oriental sweets, Ahmad said. 

In another shop, Shawkat Qornfola, 67, said he won't be able to buy desserts for his grandchildren this year.

"My grandchildren adore sweets but I can't afford a kilogram of maamoul at 20,000 pounds," he said, referring to cornmeal pastries stuffed with pistachios, dates, and walnuts.

"I'll have to just stick to barazek," he said, referring to crunchy biscuits made of pistachios and sesame seeds.

The price of food also makes it hard to invite guests.

"Before the war, we used to invite everyone over each Friday, but now we don't have the means," said Riad Mahayni, who works at the national water service.

He makes 30,000 pounds, which amounted to $600 before the war but now is worth just $65.

Leaning against the wall of Damascus's citadel, Mohsen, a pistachio seller, told AFP every month is Ramadan now in Syria.

"Because of the rising prices, we fast the whole year," he said.

Source: AFP

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