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Inflation and discord curb Ramadan festivities

High food costs, unrest alter how Muslims celebrate

ZANZIBAR, Tanzania - Last year, Maryam Juma marked the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in style.

She spent $40 on a goat, roasted it to perfection and invited 10 relatives to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the festival at the end of Ramadan. And she bought new clothes for each of her three children.

But this year, the skyrocketing price of food and other goods has forced her to cut back on the celebration - a story being played out across much of the Muslim world.

"I had to think carefully about who to invite this year, just a small group of family," Juma said in Zanzibar, where 98 percent of the people are Muslim. "The prices of basic items are very high, and I cannot afford them."

The Eid al-Fitr festival is one of the happiest dates on the Islamic calendar, but in the Mideast yesterday the three-day holiday began in an atmosphere of crisis, violence, fear, and isolation.

In Baghdad, Beirut, and Gaza, the beginning of the festival was somber and muted.

"I can't feel the spirit on this Eid," said Um Mohammed, a 55-year-old widow and mother of four in Azamiyah, a northern Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad. "My elder son was killed last year by gunmen and majority of my relatives either killed, displaced or live in remote areas."

Some predominantly Sunni countries delayed the start of Eid until today. The beginning and end of Ramadan, which lasts about 30 days, varies among Muslims, depending on the sighting of the new moon.

It might seem contradictory that higher food prices would be a concern during Ramadan, as Muslims fast daily during the month commemorating the revelation of the Koran. But each day of fasting ends with friends and families gathering for meals, sometimes sharing delicacies that may not appear on tables for another year.

And then comes the Eid feasting - for those able to pay for it.

Consumers worldwide have seen food prices climb this year, driven in part by China's economic boom and the growing biofuels industry, which is cutting into grain supplies. Heavy rains in Western Europe and a drought in Eastern Europe damaged crops.

In Egypt, the government said the price of basic food items has risen by 48 percent in the past year. Al Ahram newspaper reported Ramadan consumers have been "shocked" by spikes in prices for meat, fruit and vegetables, dairy products, eggs, bread, cooking oil, sugar, tea, and soft drinks.

Last month, violent protests over the cost of bread prompted the Moroccan government to annul a 30 percent price increase that would have taken effect just before Ramadan.

Local media in Malaysia report that Eid cookies and cakes cost more this year because wheat flour prices went up nearly 20 percent last month.

Rice, spaghetti, and cooking oil have nearly doubled in price in Somalia's violence-wracked capital, and many blame the lack of security combined with the monsoon season, which makes it perilous for ships to reach port.

"I am the breadwinner of a large family and I can't afford to buy essential foods," said Mogadishu resident Isaaq Hussein. The inflation rate in Zanzibar has reached 12 percent - bad news for any festive season, said Abdullah Kibao, the chief government economist. He blamed fluctuating fuel prices, unregulated trade, and the ongoing rehabilitation of the main port.

Zanzibar's government says it is doing all it can to bring down inflation. But Salma Massoud of the Ministry of Trade said businesses should shoulder some of the blame for price gouging. "They are hiking or self-regulating the prices of items just to make big margin of profits," he said.

Over the past year, the 43-year-old Juma has seen the cost of a pair of shoes go from about $20 to nearly $50. The prices of rice, bread, and flour have increased about 20 percent, she said.

Despite the difficulties, Juma carries on. Instead of a whole goat, she is buying chicken for Eid.

In Baghdad yesterday, public festivities were rare as Sunni Arabs began to mark Eid. Bomb attacks, shootings, and sectarian killings have forced many Iraqis to temper all celebrations.

Most of Iraq's Shi'ites, along with those in Iran, were to celebrate Eid today.

For Gazans, the first Eid under Hamas control was marked by international isolation, empty shelves, and bitter internal rivalries. Even Friday prayers were divided along factional lines, with separate locations for supporters of Gaza's Hamas rulers and their rivals from Fatah.

In Lebanon, Sunni Muslims and Shi'ites who follow Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah started marking Eid yesterday. Others who follow Sheik Abdul Amir Qabalan, deputy president of the Higher Shi'ite Muslim Council, the highest religious authority for the country's 1.2 million Shi'ites, are expected to begin marking the feast today.

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