TUNIS - At Villa Didon, a hotel perched atop Byrsa Hill in Carthage, Tunisia, minutes pass like hours as waiters rush around with colourful dishes before the delightful moment when the soundof theadhanresonates to announce the breaking of the fast.
Those who are familiar with Ramadan — a holy month for Muslims — know well the two scenes that repeat themselves countless times and in different venues: Throughout the day, crowds flock to supermarkets and shops and overspend on food products they do not really need.Then, around sunset, they line up at restaurants, eateries and bakeries where they tend to over-order and fill their tables with too many plates.
These two scenes are not exclusive to one country. In Tunis, Beirut, Dubai, Manama, Istanbul and other major cities, the display of lavishness and over-consumption contends with the bitter reality of poverty, displacement and conflict.
“It is a chronic issue of mentality. Ramadan is a religious month of restraint but people tend to spend recklessly on food,” said Mounir Sehli, a volunteer at a charity in Tunis.
“While there is nothing wrong with spending money in Islam, israf (overspending) is forbidden. We should not forget that the Arab world is facing overwhelming challenges, withmultiple and complex situations on an unprecedented scale,” he added, noting that “people should feel for others.”
After political instability in recent years, Tunisia has been grappling with economic stagnation and persistent unemployment. A recent survey by the National Institute of Statistics put the country’s poverty rate at 15.2%.
In other parts of the Arab world, Ramadan has been a tough month, especially for millions of Arab refugees who were forced to leave their homes.
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) puts the number of Syrians who need humanitarian assistance at 13.5 million, counting more than6 millioninternally displaced people and more than 4.8 million refugees.
In Libya,Iraq and Yemen violence and instabilityare triggering an economic collapse and generating newwaves of displacement.
As Ramadan coincides again with summer, those who fled their homes to escape war and violence are not only facing the lack of basic necessities but also high temperatures and abysmal conditions in ill-equipped camps and shelters.
Away from the display of lavishness, the situation looks worse than unfair: A busy Ramadan for aid organisations in camps, food shortages, poverty affecting millions of Arab children and a long list of unaddressed challenges.
To deal with such a bitter reality, charities across the Muslim world are helping the disadvantaged. In Dubai, the Salma Humanitarian Relief Programme, an initiative of the Dubai Islamic Economy Development Centre (DIEDC), began a campaign to collect food and relief supplies for victims of war and national disasters.
In the Emirati capital, the Abu Dhabi City Municipality has been distributing meals to thousands of workers as part of the “Year of Giving” initiative.
In Tunisia, AFREECAN, an association for human and cultural development, has developed Lammét Lahbeb — The Gathering of the Loved Ones — in cooperation with Génération Liberté. Lammét Lahbeb is providing at least 200 Ramadan meals per day for those in need.
In the Greater Tunis District, A Meal for Every Tunisian has been distributing much-needed food to the deprived in Ettadhamen neighbourhood, Mnihla and Choutrana.
Across the Arab world, charities, civil society groups, consumer organisations as well as religious authorities have been warning against overspending and calling for restraint and solidarity.
SheikhMahmud Ashour, the former deputy imam of al-Azharand a member of the Islamic Research Academy, said: “Islam is a religion of moderation. Frugality as well as extravagance are disapproved of.”
“For a Muslim to carry out his religious duties, he needs to strike a balance between faith, biological needs and individual requirements. The religion stipulates that no aspect should outweigh the other,” he said.
Iman Zayat is an Arab Weekly contributing editor in Tunis.