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High Food Prices Shrink Eid al-Adha Feasts for Some Middle Eastern Families

CAIRO — As the Middle East prepares to celebrate the Islamic festival of Eid al-Adha, many in the region say they cannot afford the cattle for the usual sacrificial ritual and are cutting back on the family festival because of soaring food prices.

“Everyone I know who used to slaughter an animal isn’t doing it this year,” said Attwa Mohammed, a 41-year-old teacher who lives with his wife and three children in a small town in northern Egypt. “Prices have gone up insanely high everywhere.”

Eid al-Adha, which begins on Friday evening, is one of the most important festivals in Islam. According to Islamic belief, it honors God’s decision to provide a sacrificial lamb to Prophet Abraham in place of his son. Muslims around the world usually slaughter animals in celebration, get together for a family feast, and distribute the remaining meat to the poor.

With the Covid-19 pandemic curbing their celebrations for the past two years, many across the Arab world had been looking forward to larger gatherings of family and friends to celebrate the festival. Instead, some invite fewer guests while others serve cheaper fare.

Um Othman, a 57-year-old chef from Baghdad, took several orders for pacha, a traditional slow-cooked dish made from sheep’s head, trotters and gizzard, and maslawi kubba, a meat pie with lamb and pine nuts. But only two customers asked her this year.

“It makes me sad,” she said. “It’s not just about money, it’s about habit and tradition. I wish I had enough money to make food for people just to make them happy.”

The weeks leading up to Eid al-Adha usually bring high demand for sacrificial animals at shopping venues like Al Manashi Market in Giza, Egypt.


Photo:

AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/REUTERS

Food prices were boosted by higher oil prices and supply disruptions resulting from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some governments, like those of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, use their oil wealth to boost social spending programs to help poorer people. Others are making efforts to provide such support and have recently considered scaling back subsidies.

As prices soar, some people have started joining forces with relatives and friends to buy a sacrificial animal to continue the tradition this year. Ahmed Ibrahim in Egypt says after buying his own sheep every year for more than a decade, the 37-year-old shared the cost with his brother this year. Now he’s worried that if prices continue to rise next year, they won’t even be able to afford an animal.

In Egypt, a depreciation of the Egyptian pound has further pushed up real prices for animal feed and transport, which had risen on the back of higher oil prices.

In some parts of the region, the price of a sheep has increased by more than 50%. For example, at a typical Egyptian market, an animal that used to cost $100 to $200, depending on its size, now costs $150 to $300.

In the port city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, prices for a premium local lamb variety called Harri rose from around 1,400 riyals last year to 1,700 riyals (about $452) to 2,200 riyals, according to local lamb farmer Abu Walid.

The majority of Mr. Walid’s sales leading up to this festival have been of a standard variety called sawakni, as customers are moving away from buying Harri. The former is typically imported from Sudan and has seen a price increase of 6% to 8%.

The rise in livestock prices has hit low- and middle-income families the hardest, who are also coping with increases in other commodities, partly due to the Ukraine crisis.

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Cattle traders at Al Manashi Market have received customer complaints about price hikes.


Photo:

AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/REUTERS

“We didn’t get a lamb for our house this year,” said Susan Ismaeel, a 65-year-old preschool teacher in Jeddah. An animal would have cost her more than $530, she said. “The prices were way too high!”

Meat industry workers like Farhat Arfaoui are feeling the effects. Mr Arfaoui owns a meat stall in a market in downtown Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, and says his business is struggling to make ends meet as sales plummet and his own transport costs soar. This after the store was mostly closed during the pandemic.

A handful of protests erupted in Tunis last year, fueled by rising inflation and long-standing economic stresses such as unemployment.

Mr. Arfaoui’s family of four buys meat once a week instead of two or three times as before. His daughter has asked why they eat more chicken than beef. “I keep promising that maybe next week we can eat fish or other things,” he said.

At Al Manashi Cattle Market in Giza, Egypt, cattle dealer Hassan Rabouh says he gets defensive when customers get upset that they have to spend more.

“A lot of people think it’s us that are driving prices up,” he said. He tries to explain that his 30% to 40% raises are mostly coming from wholesalers and he’s trying to absorb some of the cost.

Aside from not being able to put meat on the family table, many Muslims wrestle with the guilt of not being able to provide for the poor at all on this holiday.

“I hope God will forgive me,” said Ahmad Hussien, a 45-year-old from Baghdad. He was fired from his construction job last year because of the pandemic, but even before that, buying meat was a liability. An animal costing around $250 accounted for more than a quarter of his monthly salary.

write to Summer Said at summer.said@wsj.com and Chao Deng at Chao.Deng@wsj.com

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Alley Einstein

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