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For cash-strapped Arabs, little cheer during Eid

From Cairo to Baghdad, Muslims are having to pinch pennies as the global financial crisis and high inflation give new meaning to the four-day Festival of Sacrifice, which began Monday.
A mother and daughter return from a market near Cairo on Friday with goods for the Eid al-Adha feast. Amr Nabil / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The bones would normally have gone to the dogs.

This year, they are a carefully wrapped prize tucked under Zeinab Mansour's arm in an embarrassing reminder of the meat that her family cannot afford much of during this Eid al-Adha, one of Islam's most important holidays.

"One of (the bones) has a few small chunks of meat. It'll be good for soup, and to flavor the fatta," says Mansour, a 32-year-old mother of three, referring to a traditional Eid dish of rice, bread and meat. But the bones, supplemented with a pound of fatty meat she also picked up, are a meager substitute this year.

From Cairo to Baghdad, Muslims are having to pinch pennies as the global financial crisis and high inflation give new meaning to the four-day Festival of Sacrifice, which began Monday, marking the prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son for God.

Families are having to cut back on celebrations, and retailers are feeling the hit during a holiday when Muslims usually enjoy lavish meals of lamb or beef, distribute meat to the poor and splurge on clothes and other gifts from their children, relatives and friends.

In Egypt, meat has surged to about $4 a pound, up 30 percent from last year's Eid, a painful squeeze in a country where the World Bank estimates that nearly 20 percent of the 79 million population lives on less than $2 a day.

"What does it say about me, and this country, when I have to ask the butcher to give me bones that he used to throw to the dogs," asked Mansour as she walked down a litter-strewn street in Ain Shams, the teeming lower-income Cairo neighborhood where she, her husband and children live a two-room apartment and survive on around $110 per month.

The Egyptian government has been actively working to mitigate the impact of the global financial downturn. The unstated fear is that lower economic growth, lower tourism and Suez Canal revenues and high inflation could again stoke the kind of protests that erupted earlier this year, when inflation hit highs of about 24 percent.

The government last week unveiled a $1.3 billion stimulus package aimed at supporting investment levels in industry and trade.

Officials have also said they expect inflation, currently 20.9 percent, would drop to the low teens next year as commodity and food prices decline. Economic growth, meanwhile, is expected to slow to 6 percent, about one percentage point lower than a year earlier.

But the figures are largely meaningless to Egyptians and other Arabs, who were already struggling to make ends meet before the global meltdown.

Retailers, car dealers see sharp drop
Youssef Mohammed, owner of an Amman, Jordan, clothing store said sales have been slow this year, particularly heading into the usually busy Eid period.

"I don't see many clients in my shop, although my prices are not high," he said.

The declines are mirrored elsewhere in the country, with car dealers in the duty free zone reporting a 50 percent drop in sales this year.

To stimulate the economy and boost liquidity in a country dependent on foreign investments and aid, Jordan's Central Bank has lowered key lending rates and the banks' reserve requirement.

In Syria, where investments have been slower to come and an influx of about 2 million Iraq refugees is straining the government's budget, holidays like these drive home the economic difficulties.

In shopping districts in central Damascus, retailers report a roughly 50 percent decline in sales compared to the period leading up to last year's Eid.

Late last week, at a time when they would usually be bustling with activity, several sweet shops were almost empty. Sheep sellers were also finding little to cheer about.

"If I sell half of them, I'll be very happy," said Adel Jasim, 35 who, as of Friday, had not sold any of the 130 sheep he brought to the city's lower-income Zablatani suburb.

Baghdad blues
In neighboring Iraq, an almost $100 per barrel slide in global crude prices since July has left the oil-dependent Baghdad government, along with others in the region, worrying about spending cuts.

Salma Mohammed, a 56-year-old housewife, said her husband's once-bustling Baghdad restaurant has been in trouble for the last couple of months. This year, the family of 12 — including grandchildren — is skipping the sheep slaughtering.

"We can't afford it," she said. "We didn't even buy the grandchildren new clothes. We only bought them new shoes."

Even in the Arab Gulf nations — which until months ago were sitting pretty with oil prices at record highs — consumers are fearful.

"With all we read about economic crises, we are worried about the future, we are worried that salaries might be cut," said Sheika al-Shimmiri, a 30-year-old nurse at a state-run hospital in Kuwait.

Kuwait's government provides a plush cradle-to-grave safety net that has buffered the roughly 1 million citizens. But the government is feeling the need to belt-tighten. The finance minister was quoted several days ago in the Al-Rai newspaper that government offices have been asked to cut expenses.

Layoffs in Dubai
Elsewhere in the Gulf, unusually strong rain showers in the days leading up to the holiday helped keep malls packed in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates sheikdom famous for its man-made palm shaped islands and multibillion dollar projects.

Still, the economic mood in the city remains unsettled as layoffs rippled through the city's real estate and banking sectors and property prices start to fall for the first time in years.

Back in Cairo, Mansour's concerns are less focused on the world of macroeconomic indicators than on giving her family a Eid they will remember fondly.

"It's tighter this year," she said. "But God willing, we'll be all right and, at least we'll be able to taste some meat. There are many who won't even get that."