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Syrians in Damascus spend Ramadan in darkness

The usual decorations and hubbub synonymous with the holy month are missing this year in Syria, amid a devastating war, economic crisis and the fallout from a deadly earthquake.
Displaced families celebrate with their children the Eid al-Fitr Muslim holiday, which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, at a luna park in Afrin, Aleppo province, Syria, May 3, 2022.

DAMASCUS — Jamal’s family gathers around the iftar table — for the fast-breaking evening meal during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan — in the town of Harasta, near the Syrian capital Damascus, just before 7 p.m. at sunset, as darkness begins to obscure their faces. 

Syrians in the government-held areas barely get one hour of state electricity daily, spending the rest of their days in complete darkness amid a crippling power crisis plaguing the war-torn country. 

This year, they were hoping to get more electricity during Ramadan. But their hopes were shattered after Minister of Electricity Ghassan al-Zamel announced earlier this month that his ministry will not be able to provide even one hour of power in some areas, due to the lack of generators. 

This year's Ramadan is particularly difficult for Jamal after losing several of his relatives in the devastating earthquake that struck northern Syria last month. Some of the family members had fled from the Damascus suburb of Daraya to Idlib in 2016, after the government and rebels reached an agreement to evacuate fighters and residents to northern Syria after a yearslong siege. Since then, the family has been scattered around the country, only keeping in touch via video calls. 

“This year's Ramadan is difficult for us, especially after my brother was killed in the earthquake that struck the country,” Jamal told Al-Monitor.

“Since we were young, the family would come together for Ramadan. After our family was scattered due to the political circumstances that plagued the country after 2011, we tried to maintain this connection, even if it was virtual. We could no longer gather around one table, so we would meet in one online conversation,” he added.

But even these calls are missing this year after the death of Jamal’s brother. “We don't want to notice his absence. I just dig up memories of Ramadan from the past, which have become harsher with each of us losing a loved one,” Jamal said, with a heart full of sadness.

The devastating effects of the earthquake that struck northern Syria in February are not the only issue that Syrians are worried about this year. The difficult economic situation in Damascus is also a concern for many. This year, decorations are missing from the markets and streets of the city that Damascenes were accustomed to during Ramadan. Meanwhile, the usual hubbub of the holiday in shops is also missing despite the attempts of merchants to attract customers by offering special discounts during this month. 

In previous years, shops that were financially stable in Damascus and its surroundings would close and grant a paid 10-day vacation for its workers at the beginning of Ramadan, instead of on Eid al-Fitr day — which marks the end of the holy month. However, this year, the main markets in the capital did not close.

A falafel shop in Damascus, which used to follow this custom at the beginning of Ramadan, did not close its doors this year. “We no longer have the ability to close due to the economic inflation. If we stop [for 10 days], we may stop forever. Closing [on holidays] has become a luxury for us. We want to work as much as possible to meet our most basic economic needs,” the shop’s owner told Al-Monitor. 

Syrians have been struggling to make ends meet since the start of the 2011 war that triggered a crippling economic crisis, coupled with the Syrian pound’s collapse. Before the war, the local exchange rate was set at 47 Syrian pounds to the dollar. But it is now trading at around 7,500 Syrian pounds to the dollar on the black market, leading to skyrocketing prices of food and other commodities. Many Syrians have opted out of traditional meat-based dishes from their iftar feasts this year due to their declining purchasing power. 

Meanwhile, government activities during this year’s Ramadan were limited to offering a food basket in public consumer institutions affiliated with the Ministry of Internal Trade. The “Ramadan Food Basket” initiative of the ministry consists of providing a basket of essential food — sans meat this year — priced at around $12. The monthly salary of public sector employees does not exceed $30.

Charities that would organize holiday activities for the needy each year during Ramadan have received little to no donations this year due to the ongoing crisis, leaving many Syrians to spend the holiday alone in their homes.

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