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High Prices Cut Into Muslim Celebrations

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By ALI SULTAN
The Associated Press
Friday, October 12, 2007; 2:38 PM

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 Saturday's 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 told The Associated Press in Zanzibar, where 98 percent of the people are Muslim. "The prices of basic items are very high, and I cannot afford them."

Consumers worldwide have seen food prices climb, driven in part by China's economic boom and the growing biofuels industry, which is cutting into grain supplies. Italian consumer groups have called for pasta boycotts to protest price increases. Heavy rains in Western Europe and a drought in Eastern Europe devastated crops, while cattle diseases have increased meat prices in Britain.

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 Quran. 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.

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.

In Lebanon, prices of meat, chicken, vegetables and fruits rose sharply during Ramadan. Although food prices are usually higher during Ramadan, this year people noticed "an unprecedented rise in prices of almost all consumer goods, including those produced locally," the Lebanese daily An-Nahar reported.

Quoting the state-run Central Statistics Department, the newspaper said prices of consumer goods and services rose by 16 percent. Prices of all kinds of pastries, especially those made during Ramadan, increased by about 20 percent.

In Egypt, the government said recently the price of basic foodstuffs 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.

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. A 110-pound bag of sugar was selling for $36, up from $20 recently.

"I am the breadwinner of a large family and I can't afford to buy essential foods," said Mogadishu resident Isaaq Hussein. "We hope our fellow Muslims can help us."

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.

___

Associated Press writers Hussein Dakroub in Lebanon, Maggie Michael in Egypt and Sean Yoong in Malaysia contributed to this report.


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