Postcard from Cairo: Egyptians embrace frugal Ramadan as economic crisis hits home

Traditional holy month decorations have been hung up on Cairo's streets but many residents are limited by tight budgets this year

A man arranges his onions for sale at the Sayyida Zeinab food market ahead of Ramadan in Cairo, Egypt. Bloomberg
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Ramadan is taking place in Egypt this year against a difficult economic crisis that has turned the month into one of budgeting and culinary creativity.

While residents of Cairo’s various neighbourhoods have put up the usual decorations that celebrate the coming of the holy month, such as lanterns with twinkling lights and long lines of shiny streamers hanging between apartment buildings, many are rowing back on the more indulgent aspects of it.

One of the quintessential features of Ramadan is families getting together in the evening after breaking their fast and eating a variety of pastries and other sweet treats.

This year, soaring prices of staples such as sugar, nuts and dried fruits have meant many families have been forced to cut back.

“It’s the fourth day of the month and I have not made any of the traditional desserts yet,” says Mariam Ali, 34, a mother of four who lives in Cairo’s Al Gamaliya district.

“Sugar is still very expensive and nuts are out of the question this year. We have been making do with dates soaked in milk.”

Today, a kilogram of hazelnuts costs 700 Egyptian pounds ($14.65) while walnuts cost 600 pounds a kg. Cashews and pistachios, considered more luxurious by many Egyptians, cost between 900 and 2,000 pounds.

Nuts are almost exclusively imported to Egypt and they, in light of a 75 per cent drop in the value of the Egyptian pound against the US dollar since March 2022, have steadily risen in price.

The price of dried fruits has also increased twofold since last Ramadan, says Reda Mohamed, the owner of a shop in Cairo’s Heliopolis district.

“No one is really buying much this year,” he told The National. “It’s been a very slow start, even compared to last year, when business was already down by half compared to the year before. People are only buying small amounts of dried dates – because they’re cheaper than the juicy ones – raisins and peanuts.”

Many Egyptian families struggle to afford meat for Ramadan

Many Egyptian families struggle to afford meat for Ramadan

Even some of Egypt’s more affluent households have put more cost-effective spins on some of Ramadan’s most popular dishes.

Naglaa Mohamed, 51, who lives in a large villa in the upper-class district of Al Korba, told The National that this year she had decided to make her kunafa, a spun pastry that is baked in a sugar syrup and filled with a mixture of nuts and dried fruit, with a plain date filling instead.

“It was an idea I saw in a TikTok video. There are many housewives making content on how to make your Ramadan more budget friendly this year,” she said.

“I was very happy with the results. The recipe is definitely very different from the kunafa I have made for the past 30 years. It doesn’t taste like Ramadan but it still tastes good.”

Other Egyptians have asked relatives working in the UAE and Saudi Arabia to bring back fruit and nuts for them.

Nahed Alaa, whose husband works as a property agent in Abu Dhabi, said: “These items are a fraction of the price in the UAE, so he sent us enough that I gave some to my mother and sister’s homes as well.

“My husband’s brother works in Riyadh and he also sent us a package of various kinds of food, so I feel really lucky this year.”

Promises from the government that food prices would come down as a result of a deal with the UAE, under which Egypt would receive a $35 billion cash injection, have failed to materialise, as prices continued to increase this week.

The country’s headline inflation rose to 35.7 per cent in February, from 29.8 per cent in the previous month.

Planning ahead

Many Egyptians have planned ahead to ensure they can provide decent iftar meals.

Ms Ali said she bought four young chickens at the end of last year so they would mature in time for Ramadan.

“I have something to put at the centre of the table when my in-laws come for a meal,” she said.

Ms Alaa planted potatoes crops on her roof in November to harvest them in time for Ramadan.

“I am not alone. Many housewives in Egypt are doing these things now because of social media and cooking shows that have all been centring content on how to get through the month on a tight budget,” Ms Alaa said.

However, the economic crisis has not changed some of the month’s more communal aspects, another important feature of Ramadan when many households host their extended family to break their fasts together and neighbourhoods provide large communal meals for the less fortunate.

“You don’t need money to feel the spirit of Ramadan,” said Ahmed Youssef, a day labourer from Cairo’s lower income Al Khosous district.

“Yes, we have all had to work more during the day this year, when a few years ago we would have gone home early and lounged around waiting to break our fast, and yes, many things are way too expensive for us to afford.

“But the other day, a bunch of the men in my building went up to the roof and worked with our neighbours in the next building to hang this heavy metal lantern and light it up. It took a couple of hours to get it done and we spent the night together laughing, eating and smoking.”

Lanterns still shining

Owner of one of Egypt's oldest wooden lantern workshops fights to keep tradition alive

Owner of one of Egypt's oldest wooden lantern workshops fights to keep tradition alive

Despite a twofold increase in price, compared with last year, that has discouraged buyers, a vast array of traditional Ramadan lanterns were still on sale in the Islamic Cairo district before the start of Ramadan.

Mr Youssef said nobody in his building bought traditional Ramadan lanterns this year and his community made do with one hanging between two buildings that “we can all see when we want to”.

While the price of smaller, lower-quality lanterns, usually made of plastic or wood, rose from between 30 and 150 pounds to between 100 and 300 pounds at a shop in Al Gamaliya district, larger, more intricately designed metal lanterns are now selling for between 2,000 and 10,000 pounds, depending on the size.

“The larger ones are really expensive because of the labour that goes into making them and because they are made of bronze or copper, which are much more expensive than wood or plastic,” says Maher Mohamed, 67, the owner of a lantern shop in Islamic Cairo.

“Those ones, I am mostly selling to tourists looking for Arabian-themed gifts or to companies, mosques, schools and government agencies who can afford them.”

Updated: March 15, 2024, 6:00 PM