Ahead of Ramadan, most Middle Eastern countries have eased restrictions to near pre-pandemic times. However, increases in prices and food shortages due to the war in Ukraine are casting new shadows on the Holy Month.
In the run up to Ramadan, which starts on April 2 in most countries, city centers all over the Middle East have become festive.
Streets and shops are decorated with the symbol of the crescent moon, lanterns and banners are emblazoned with well-wishing words like "Ramadan Kareem" or "Ramadan Mubarak."
In Lebanon's capital Beirut, however, much of the decoration on sale for private homes remained unsold this year.
"I remember the times when I used to buy decorations for Ramadan and invite my siblings over for a large meal in the evening," Randa Mohsen, a nurse and mother of four in Beirut, told DW. "This year, we can't even afford to pay for our own iftar meal that breaks the fast after sunset."
In order to prepare fattoush, a traditional iftar salad, Mohsen would have to buy ingredients for around $4 (€3.60), she says. Given that the family income is around $80 (€75), this is simply out of reach.
"For us as a family, it doesn't matter whether the pandemic restrictions are removed or not, we don't have money to go out anyways, we can barely afford to eat," she said. "At least COVID-19 was an excuse to stay home."
Almost like 2019
For the past two years, or in other words, since the beginning of the pandemic, Ramadan traditions, like meeting family and friends for meals after sunset, have been restricted or banned throughout the region.
However, as of this Ramadan, only masks remain, as well as at times reduced prayer periods and social distancing inside mosques.
"Ahead of this Ramadan, most governments in the Middle East have removed or eased restrictions almost to a pre-pandemic level," Simon Wolfgang Fuchs, a lecturer of Islamic and Middle East Studies at the University of Freiburg, Germany, told DW.
Sheikh Mohammed Abu Zaid, Chairman of the Sunni Court and imam of the largest mosque in Saida, near Beirut, confirms the new freedom.
"In Lebanon, all mosques are open and people are welcomed to gather and pray. Imams are free to ask for social distancing or to request wearing masks," Abu Zaid told DW. "However, most imams agreed to advise old people and those who have chronic diseases, to not attend mosques."
For Ramadan's extended morning and evening prayers in his mosque, Abu Zaid decided to advise the faithful to wear masks.
And yet, with the end of many pandemic-related restrictions, new problems are casting their shadows on the Holy Month.
"Inflation and food insecurity have started to affect many countries in the region at an unprecedented level," Fuchs said.
Egypt, in particular, has suffered from price hikes and a devaluation of the currency ahead of this Ramadan.
"We expect Ramadan to be extremely hard as a soar in prices happened just a few days before the Holy Month," Haitham El-Tabei, CEO of the Abwab Elkheir NGO in Cairo, told DW.
On Friday, a day before the beginning of Ramadan, around 20 volunteers met in the early hours at the NGO's headquarter in Cairo's Mokattam neighborhood, to prepare food baskets with meat and dates.
During Ramadan, they expect that more families than ever come by and pick up the food donations.
"This year, the situation is exacerbated by a decrease in donations and a stark increase of prices," El-Tabei told DW.
So far, though, the NGO has been able to cover the extra costs. "In such a tough period, we cannot let families down during the Holy Month," he said.
Crescent moon in Saudi Arabia
Ramadan, also spelled Ramazan and Ramzan, is observed by about 1.6 billion Muslims globally. Adults, who are physically and mentally healthy, are required to not drink, eat or smoke from sunrise to sunset for 30 days. The annual month of fasting and praying is considered one of the five pillars of Islam.
Muslims believe that God revealed the first verses of the Quran to Prophet Mohammed during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar around 1,400 years ago.
Literally, the word Ramadan derives from "al-ramad" which means intense heat or fire and symbolizes the hardship of fasting and the burning of sins.
The exact beginning of Ramadan, however, depends on the first glimpse of the rising moon, and therefore differs from country to country.
Traditionally, the day and time are calculated by astronomy experts in the Saudi Arabian village of Hautat Sudair.
In 2022, Ramadan begins on April 2 for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, Egypt and Bahrain.
In Lebanon, Morocco and Syria, Ramadan begins on Sunday, April 3.
In line with most other countries in the region, also Saudi Arabia lifted most of its restrictions after two years in the run-up to this Ramadan.
However, pilgrims are required to wear masks and use either the Tawakkalna or Eatmarna app when signing up for a prayer slot in Mecca and Medina.
Using the governmental Tawakkalna apps became mandatory for Saudi citizens during the pandemic. The Saudi Data and Artificial Intelligence Authority (SDAIA) had developed the app to monitor the movement of citizens during the curfew hours.
However, Simon Fuchs sees the prolonged mandatory use of these applications as a pretext. "The pandemic has given authoritarian regimes new tools to control their population under the pretext of health," he said.
However, it is not only Saudi Arabia that is keeping an eye on its citizens, other countries in the region have decided to uphold restrictions and limits.
In Kuwait, iftar gatherings remain banned inside and outside mosques. Only distributing free pre-cooked meals is allowed.
And Morocco's government has just extended the ongoing state of emergency until April 30, due to fears of a new COVID-19 surge despite low COVID-numbers at the moment. Moreover, the kingdom has been battling a severe drought and the situation is exacerbated by worries about food security due to the reduction of wheat imports as a consequence of the war in Ukraine.
So far, however, the state of emergency ends on April 30. If not extended, the Eid al Fitr celebration, which marks the end of Ramadan, could be celebrated with friends and family on May 3.
Lebanon fears food crisis
Razan Salman, Beirut; and Mohammed Magdi, Cairo, contributed to this report.