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Middle East Heat, Economy Make Ramadan Challenging

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The Islamic holy month of Ramadan is due to begin Wednesday across much of the Middle East and families are feverishly preparing for the event.  However, economic troubles and an unusually hot summer are expected to make the annual event something of an ordeal for many this year.

Housewives crowded the cooperative supermarket in Cairo's Dokki neighborhood Tuesday as they bought fruits, nuts, beans, rice and other foodstuffs to make copious Ramadan meals to break the fast at sunset.

Wafaa, a smiling housewife with her 8-year-old son Gamal in tow, complains that inflation is making many traditional foods unaffordable for the masses, this year, but that those who can afford it are donating bags of groceries to the poor.

"Many, many families can't buy meat," Wafaa said. "They will eat only fool [baked fava beans] - and maybe chicken. But me and my sister, we always buy bags of food and give it to poor people.  One bag for each family."

The nearby Qods supermarket has lined over 50 bags of Ramadan food packages in front of the store, ready to deliver to poor families in the neighborhood.  When Ramadan begins, long tables of evening meals, or iftars, will also be set in many places for poor families to eat.

In Lebanon, traditional Ramadan tents are also being set up in many places for both the rich and poor to eat their meals after sunset and to spend their nights watching television or listening to music.

Tents for the poor, or Khaimat al-Kheir, are donated by the wealthy, says Mustapha, a young man who lives just outside of Beirut.

"Rich people help poor people by donating food and drinks at Ramadan's breaking fast time, which is sunset," Mustapha said. "They build tents, which are 'khaimat al-kheir,' to let these people eat and help them to break their fast.  Mainly it's soup with dates, with vegetables; sometimes they make rice; sometimes they make chickens."

Record heat this Ramadan has also raised fears that people who fast may be at greater risk of suffering from dehydration.

In Baghdad, the extreme heat this year has many families worried.  One Iraqi housewife, Umm Hussein, pleads with the government to provide more electricity to help families cope.

She says that everyone is pleading with the government and with God to help them find a solution to the electricity crisis, because the weather is extremely hot and everyone will be fasting.  She complains that it is unfair to give everyone only one hour of electricity every six hours.

In the Gaza Strip, many are angry that the enclave's only power plant has run out of fuel just before Ramadan.  People, like Abdul Rahman, also complain that they have no money for food.

He complains that the market is stocked with almost everything, but that many people cannot afford what they need because of the economic situation in the region.

With Ramadan set to begin Wednesday, many across the Arab world are concerned about poverty and the heat.  To ease the woes, religious leaders in the United Arab Emirates have issued an edict allowing workers to break their fast early if the heat is extremely bad.  Egypt's al Azhar University has also approved the ruling.

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