Iftar an unaffordable luxury in Lebanon as Ramadan approaches

New study says iftar for a family could cost two and a half times the average salary

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Employees at Mikki Market, a neighbourhood supermarket in Beirut’s Saleem Salam, are building a Ramadan stand.

Dates, syrups and the drink known as Jallab – all staples of the holy month – are stacked on shelves, ready for the start of Ramadan on Tuesday.

Yet the brightly coloured stands and decorated shop fronts mask an uncomfortable reality.

A protracted economic crisis means the lavish spreads and hospitality associated with iftars and family gatherings are a luxury many Lebanese simply cannot afford.

The average cumulative monthly cost of iftar for a family of five is now two and a half times the country’s monthly minimum wage, the American University of Beirut’s Crisis Observatory Unit found this week.

The cost of fattoush – a Lebanese salad popular year-round – is now calculated to account for more than 82 per cent of the monthly minimum wage.

Prices of staple foods have shot up over the past year as the country sinks deeper into financial crisis.

Videos posted to social media have shown fights breaking out over rice and bread, which are subsidised by the government.

Ramadan only adds to those tensions, with struggling families now carrying the expenses of the holy month.

“How can I celebrate when I don’t know where the next meal is coming from?” asked taxi driver Fadi Mahmoud, 35, whose salary has dropped by 80 per cent in the past year.

“My mother would usually stock up for the month. Now we are living day-to-day. This is not the time to celebrate.”

Others have been forced to borrow money or vastly scale down their preparations.

Fatima Salah, 65, would usually cook for more than 20 of her cousins and children over the holy month, but this year they are forced to rely on a local charity for some of their food.

“We will be just six for the first day but after that, I do not know," Ms Salah said. "We cannot plan more than one day at a time.”

“We will have to be humble this year but we will try to celebrate together."

Shopkeepers are also struggling. Mikki Market’s manager, Samer Melham, said a bottle of Jallab, a date drink wildly popular when breaking the fast during Ramadan, costs 53,000 Lebanese lira, or $4.20 at the current black market exchange rate.

Mr Melham sells it for just 55,000 Lebanese lira, leaving him a profit margin of barely $0.20.

Last year, the same Jallab was almost half that price.

“If the dollar goes up tomorrow I’ll lose money on it,” he said. “I stopped trying to make a profit a while ago.

"Now it’s just about survival. Ramadan is going to be more painful for a lot of people.”

When Beirut breaks its first fast on Tuesday evening, there will be many who cannot afford to do so. Lebanon’s fine tradition of hospitality may be tested to new limits.