Ramadan is usually a festive season, welcomed by Muslims on all four corners of the globe. This year, however, it cast a long dark shadow over the people of Lebanon, who dreaded the thought of having to feed their families with a proper meal for thirty-days in a row. Most simply, could not afford it.
It no longer feels nor smells like Ramadan in Beirut. Gone are the delicious smells of Levantine cuisine flowing from the open windows of families in Hamra, Basta, and Zoukak al-Blatt. Down are the big tents that hosted festive musical suhoors, once a prime attraction of the Lebanese capital during the Holy Month.
They have all been banned by the state due to Covid-19, with a 9:30 PM lockdown imposed on Lebanese society. But even if they were still open, it is doubtful that they could survive the entire month since there are no tourists in Lebanon and ordinary Lebanese can no longer afford such entertainment.
No Ramadan charm
Also gone are the big billboards that are usually plastered across the capital by major charity organisations, seeking alms for the poor. People are barely making enough money to feed for their own families and are simply no longer capable of helping others in need. But nowhere is the change more painfully felt than on the dinner table of fasting families.
Due to the dollar crunch, corruption, and overall economic meltdown, the savings of Lebanese citizens have vanished into thin air. They were already razor-thin to start out with, and many lost their deposits in banks, which since October 2019, have stopped withdrawal on foreign currency, sending thousands into financial ruin.
Eighteen months ago, the exchange rate stood at 1,500 LP to the US dollar. It now stands at a whopping 12,200 LP, nearly touching the 15,000 benchmark in late March.
More than 50% of Lebanese now live below the poverty line, says the World Bank, making less than $3.84 daily. With Covid-19 on the rise, hospitals packed beyond capacity and a protracted political crisis between President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Al Hariri, the lives of ordinary Lebanese are sinking from one low to another.
417% increase in the food market
Locked borders with Syria and the high cost of production have greatly affected the Lebanese food market, hiking prices by 417%. One kilo of meat now costs 65,000 LP. In American dollars that’s just $5.3 but for a country where minimum wage stands at no more than 675,000 LP ($55.3), it’s a big sum that is completely unaffordable.
Chicken tawouk (marinated shish kebab popular throughout the Middle East) is more suitable but still over the line for most Lebanese, selling for 50,000 LP/kilo ($4). The price of bread, which is essential for any Levantine meal, has increased by 100% since April 2020.
A typical Ramadan meal consists of lentil soup, salad, and a chicken meal with rice. That now costs 60,000 LP ($4.9) and it does not include desert nor traditional Ramadan juices like jallab (fruit syrup with rose water) or tamerhendi (tamarind).
One bottle of jallab — previously a must on any Ramadan iftar table — is now selling at 53,000 LP ($4.3), up from just 25,000 LP in 2020. People cannot switch to tap water because its never been clean in Lebanon. They have to buy bottled water instead, which sells at 1,650 LP/1.5 litres.
One litre of milk, for example, used to cost 3,000 LP back in 2019. It’s now selling for 10,000 LP (eight cents). And due to the lack of financial means, many have shifted to more affordable meals where there is no meat nor chicken, like fried eggplants, which will eventually lead to malnutrition.
A Fattoush Salad — another Ramadan tradition — is also becoming too expense for ordinary Lebanese although it’s a fairly simple receipt, with toasted bread and mixed greens. Last year it used to cost 6,000 LP. It’s now up to 185,500 LP ($15.2) a staggering 268% increase. To put it in other words, one salad a day would devour around 82% of a minimum wage salary.
The American University of Beirut (AUB) just came out with a study, showing that a daily iftar for an average family for thirty days of the month costs 1.5 million LP ($123), more than double the minimum wage. The price of ingredients for the Fattoush Salah has soared by 210%, dubbing the study, “The Fattoush Index.”
Dissecting the problem is one thing, however, and finding solutions is another. That is up to the Lebanese government, which in present caretaker capacity, can do very little.
The cabinet of Hassan Diab is totally incapacitated, unable even to resume vital talks with the IMF, which began last summer and ought to have secured a $9-10 billion loan for Lebanon. Those talks have been put on hold, awaiting a full-fledge constitutional cabinet but that too is more distant than ever as Hariri and Aoun quarrel over the distribution of posts.
Paying the price and bearing the brunt are ordinary Lebanese citizens—along with their Ramadan celebrations.
— Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.