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Pakistan Prepares for Start of Ramadan


Muslims throughout Pakistan this week begin observing the holy month of Ramadan, a sacred period of fasting and religious observance.

Ramadan, which officially starts Thursday in Pakistan, is traditionally a time for introspection. Muslims fast during the day, abstaining not just from food and drink, but from all earthly pleasures, in order to focus on the spiritual aspects of their lives.

But when the sun goes down, Ramadan becomes a much more festive occasion. Friends and families come together for lavish multicourse meals, full of fried foods and rich desserts. Not surprisingly, these nightly feasts, known as iftar, are eagerly anticipated throughout the day.

But doctors and government officials here are warning the extensive meals do have a downside.

The rush to buy ingredients is driving up prices in food markets across the country. Shoppers at a crowded market in Islamabad say costs are two or three times higher than normal.

A woman says salaries cannot keep pace with the soaring prices, making life for the average family more difficult during Ramadan. The Pakistani government insists it is doing all it can to keep provisions affordable and government-run stores are selling basics like rice and sugar below market value.

Officials also warn they may take legal action against shopkeepers artificially inflating prices during the holy month.

But some health experts say the extra expense may not be such a bad thing. Dr. Adalat Khan says every year he sees fasting Muslims actually gain weight during Ramadan. The doctor says those fancy evening meals can exact a heavy price on public health.

"Because the food is usually very fatty and contains a lot of sugar, a person can go obese," explained Dr. Khan.

He says diabetics and people suffering from hypertension are at particular risk during Ramadan.

Dr. Khan says Ramadan is about focusing on faith, family, and charity. But, he says, this year it would not hurt if Pakistanis kept an eye on diet as well.