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In Beirut, Ramadan is different this year

By Dareen Al Omari, CNN
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 0257 GMT (1057 HKT)
Security concerns and higher prices have made Ramadan hard for many in Beirut this year.
Security concerns and higher prices have made Ramadan hard for many in Beirut this year.
  • Tough economic conditions in Lebanon have made it harder for families during Ramadan this year
  • Security situation has also created fear and uncertainty among many in Beirut
  • Running water and electricity are daily concerns and prices of food more expensive this year
  • Charities are struggling to provide Iftar because of less donations

(CNN) -- The smell of traditional dishes served during Ramadan fill the house of Iman, a Lebanese mother of four.

Fattoush, diced vegetables mixed with pomegranate molasses and olive oil, lentil soup spiced with cumin and with other small mezze dishes including fatteh (yogurt and chickpeas), and cheese-filled sambousek are all placed on the dining table.

For Iman's family living in the Hamra district of Lebanon's capital, Beirut, it's a mouth-watering way to enjoy Iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daily fast of Ramadan.

But the air of tranquility and enjoyment around the table is quite different from the situation faced by many Lebanese people outside their homes.

Lebanese citizens leaving their homes to work or shop do not believe that they will return unharmed.
Makram Rabah

The country is coping with severe security issues and tough economic circumstances. Iman describes the fears that many have while on the streets of the capital as if there is a "predatory monster" stalking the city.

She says that getting basic necessities, such as water and electricity, is a problem for the majority of Lebanese people and that observing Ramadan has been very difficult this year in Lebanon.

"Especially because those who fast in Beirut are under a lot of pressure, in addition to the fasting period, which extends for about ten hours (every day)," says Iman.

Read: Leone Lakhani's Ramadan diary

Makram Rabah, a Lebanese researcher at George Town University's history department, says that "the country is open to all sorts of security breaches, and this situation imposes concerns of a different kind on those who fast."

Rabah suggests much of the national mood of uncertainty stems from the unresolved presidential election in April -- no candidate won the needed majority -- but more immediately because of a spate suicide bombings.

"(This has) imposed a sense of horror about going outside the house. And if Lebanese citizens come out from their homes to work or to buy food, they do not believe that they will return unharmed," he says.

Travel is particularly difficult in the southern suburbs of Beirut because of activity by Hezbollah --- a Shiite group listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. that backs Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Lebanese government checkpoints have been set up at the entrances to many of these areas because of the fear of suicide bombings, which have been blamed on Sunni extremists.

Tensions and prices are high

While security is a big issue during Ramadan this year, the cost of the Iftar table with its different types of food has increased. Vegetable prices are high, making even traditional and basic dishes like fattoush a luxury for some families.

Professions gradually die out in the month of Ramadan but the lucky businesses are those that are related to food and beverages.
Hussein Shahrour

The inflated prices stem from the economic and political uncertainty. A wider issue facing the country's economy and political balance is the civil war in neighboring Syria. It has lead to an influx of refugees into Lebanon, putting pressure on locals for jobs.

Rabah says that charities that normally provide Iftar to the poor have had to cancel many of their invitations as they could not secure enough donations.

The general economic climate is made worse for many as work in many industries slows during the holy month.

"Professions gradually die out in the month of Ramadan," said Hussein Shahrour, the owner of an aluminum shop in a southern suburb of Beirut. "The lucky businesses are those that are related to food and beverages, since there is a big demand for them."

"Relatives and friends usually invite each other for Iftar during Ramadan, but this year there has been less due to the economic situation and high prices."

Even being able to enjoy Iftar under electric lights can prove a problem for some.

"Power is cut at the time of Iftar each day," says Shahrour. "Subscriptions to electricity generators, in residential neighborhoods, are not available to everyone, because of a monopoly system and favoritism."

In some southern Beirut suburbs running water is not a reliable service and has to be purchased. Shahrour says that a family of four is only able to buy ten gallons of water every 48 hours at a cost of around $7, the price of which has increased during Ramadan.

The security situation has had a large effect on the wider economy, particularly the tourism sector. According to Rabih Fakhri, a local NGO worker, this has hit members of low-income households hardest as many work in tourism.

Ramadan usually sees a reduction in tourists, but the fear of bombings has put many expatriates off from visiting Lebanon, believes Rabah, pointing to the attack on the Duroy Hotel in Beirut's Raouche district in June.

For Iman, Ramadan will always remain about faith, forgiveness, and charity.

But, she says, that this year "with a lot of violent incidents taking place in Lebanon, and other Arab countries, it may become difficult for some people to embrace the real spirit of the holy month, and instead are committed to the lesser concepts of Ramadan."

MORE: Ramadan's glitziest tent feasts

MORE: Leone Lakhani's Ramadan diary

Dareen Al Omari is a producer for CNN Arabic

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