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Muslims mark Aidilfitri with joy, fear

Mariam Fam, Niniek Karmini & Kathy Gannon

CAIRO (AP) – For the Islamic holiday of Aidilfitri, the smell of freshly baked orange biscuits and powdered sugar-dusted cookies typically fills the air in Mona Abubakr’s home.

But due to higher prices, the Egyptian housewife this year made smaller quantities of the sweet treats, some of which she gives as gifts to relatives and neighbours.

The mother of three has also tweaked another tradition this Aidilfitri, which began on Monday in Egypt and many countries and marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadhan. She bought fewer outfits for her sons to wear during the three-day feast. “I told them we have to compromise on some things in order to be able to afford other things,” she said.

This year, Muslims around the world are observing Aidilfitri – typically marked with communal prayers, celebratory gatherings around festive meals and new clothes – in the shadow of a surge in global food prices exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.

Against that backdrop, many are still determined to enjoy the holiday amid easing of coronavirus restrictions in their countries while, for others, the festivities are dampened by conflict and economic hardship.

At the largest mosque in Southeast Asia, tens of thousands of Muslims attended prayers on Monday morning. The Istiqlal Grand Mosque in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta was shuttered when Islam’s holiest period coincided with the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and was closed to communal prayers last year.

Muslim worshippers offer Aidilfitri prayer at a park in the city of Jaffa near Tel Aviv, Israel on May 2. PHOTOS: AP
ABOVE & BELOW: Pakistani beauticians paint hands of customers with traditional henna at a beauty salon in Karachi, Pakistan; and a family prepares cookies for the Aidilfitri holiday in Basra, Iraq

“Words can’t describe how happy I am today after two years we were separated by pandemic. Today we can do Aidilfitri prayer together again,” said Epi Tanjung after he and his wife worshipped at another Jakarta mosque. “Hopefully all of this will make us more faithful.”

The mood was festive at Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque where people congregated for the Aidilfitri prayer on Monday. One man threw lollipops in the air for kids to catch in celebration, before the prayer started, while other children played with balloons.

“I was really happy at seeing the gathering and the joy of the people for Aidilfitri,” said one worshipper, Marwan Taher. “The atmosphere here really made me feel like it’s Aidilfitri.”

The war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia have disrupted supplies of grain and fertiliser, driving up food prices at a time when inflation was already raging. A number of Muslim-majority countries are heavily reliant on Russia and Ukraine for much of their wheat imports, for instance.

Even before the Russian invasion, an unexpectedly strong global recovery from the 2020 coronavirus recession had created supply chain bottlenecks, causing shipping delays and pushing prices of food and other commodities higher.

In some countries, the fallout from the war in Ukraine is only adding to the woes of those already suffering from turmoil, displacement or poverty. In Syria’s rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib, Ramadhan this year was more difficult than past Ramadhans.

Abed Yassin said he, his wife and three children now receive half the amounts of products – including chickpeas, lentils, rice and cooking oil – which last year they used to get from an aid group. It has made life more difficult.

Syria’s economy has been hammered by war, Western sanctions, corruption and an economic meltdown in neighbouring Lebanon where Syrians have billions of dollars stuck in Lebanese banks.

In the Gaza Strip, though streets and markets are bustling, many said they cannot afford much. “The situation is difficult,” said Um Musab, a mother of five, as she toured a traditional market in Gaza City. “Employees barely make a living but the rest of the people are crushed.”

Mahmoud al-Madhoun, who bought some date paste, flour and oil to make Aidilfitri cookies, said financial conditions were going from bad to worse.

“However, we are determined to rejoice,” he added.

The Palestinian enclave, which relies heavily on imports, was already vulnerable before the Ukraine war as it had been under a tight Israeli-Egyptian blockade meant to isolate Hamas, its militant rulers.

Afghans are celebrating the first Aidilfitri since the Taleban takeover amid grim security and economic conditions. Many were cautious but poured into Kabul’s largest mosques for prayers on Sunday, when the holiday started there, amid tight security. Frequent explosions marred the period leading to Aidilfitri. These included fatal bombings, most claimed by the Islamic State affiliate known as IS in Khorasan Province, targetting ethnic Hazaras who are mostly Shiites, leaving many of them debating whether it was safe to attend Aidilfitri prayers at mosques.

“We want to show our resistance, that they cannot push us away,” said community leader Dr Bakr Saeed before Aidilfitri. “We will go forward.”

Violence wasn’t the only cause for worry. Since the Taleban takeover in August, Afghanistan’s economy has been in a freefall with food prices and inflation soaring.

At a charity food distribution centre in Kabul on Saturday, Din Mohammad, a father of 10, said he expected this Aidilfitri to be his worst.

“With poverty, no one can celebrate Aidilfitri like in the past,” he said. “I wish we had jobs and work so we could buy something for ourselves, not have to wait for people to give us food.”

Muslims follow a lunar calendar, and methodologies, including moon sighting, can lead to different countries – or Muslim communities – declaring the start of Aidilfitri on different days.