BEIRUT (AFP) – “A more beautiful Ramadan,” promises an advertisement for one Beirut clinic offering discounts to image-conscious Lebanese during the Muslim holy month of dawn-to-dusk fasting.
Though traditionally a time of frugality and prayer, the month of Ramadan has become an occasion for extravagant spending on everything from lavish evening meals to crystal bowls to cosmetic surgery in Lebanon, a country famed for its “see and be seen” attitude.
“You don’t keep track of your spending during Ramadan,” said Rami Shuman, manager of designer Vivienne Westwood’s signature boutique in Beirut’s chic Downtown.
“I’ve paid 120 dollars for an iftar meal,” the 27-year-old told AFP.
“This is Lebanon. Even if you’re poor, you have to seem rich.”
Devout Muslims observe Ramadan by abstaining from food, drink, smoking and sex from dawn until dusk, and across the Middle East, offices in August have been opening later than usual and closing earlier to allow people to get home on time for the iftar meal after sunset.
In other Middle Eastern countries, particularly in the Gulf, iftar gives the wealthy an opportunity to show hospitality on a grand scale, and Lebanon is no exception.
“Reservations have been skyrocketing since the beginning of the month and on weekends we’re always fully booked,” said Joanna Kharma, public relations officer at a five-star hotel in the capital.
“Some customers have even reserved the entire restaurant for an iftar and racked up a bill of 8,000 dollars (6,300 euros).”
Prominent Beirut families and socialites compete over who can host the most lavish iftars, and night-long feasts are not uncommon, often landing on the pages of glossy magazines.
In the “Ramadan tents” set up for the occasion, guests gather to dine, smoke shisha, or water pipes, and dance to oriental music or enjoy performances by local singers.
Another Beirut beauty centre advertises reduced prices for permanent hair removal “for only 300 dollars” during Ramadan or even “special lip injections at just 250 dollars.”
Traditional gift-giving also takes on gargantuan proportions during the holy month.
“Some clients come in looking for crystal bowls or candy boxes imported from Italy worth at least 3,000 dollars to give as gifts at iftars they are invited to,” said a saleswoman at a chocolate store in downtown Beirut.
Sociologist Michel Abs, of the Saint Joseph University in Beirut, says the extreme consumerism is not limited to the holy month but is part of the national culture.
“Ramadan or not, the Lebanese have a tendency to overspend. Simplicity is a lost virtue,” Abs said.
The surge in demand by the rich and would-be rich spells hardship for the majority, however, in a country where the minimum wage stands at little more than 330 dollars a month.
Prices for iftars range from 20 to 60 dollars per person but can climb to a hefty 200 dollars in some upmarket eateries.
Retail food prices surge as well and even the lower middle classes struggle to make ends meet as vegetables and meat sell for double or triple their usual prices.
“If I want a real iftar, I’d have to pay double my normal budget for lunch, so 40 dollars,” said Mohammad Afif, a newly-wed 30-year-old accountant.
Many clerics lament the loss of the spiritual meaning and traditional character of Ramadan, which is meant as a month of prayer, fasting and donations to the poor.
“The holy month of Ramadan should be a return to religion, prayer and a reminder to the observant to aid those in need,” said Sheikh Hussein Abdullah, whose Shiite community counts some of the capital’s poorest.
“Iftars hosted outside the home should not be an occasion to show off or prove one’s wealth,” Sheikh Abdullah told AFP.
But sociologist Abs said there was an upside to the changing face of the Muslim holy month in a country whose mosaic of religious faiths fuelled a devastating 15-year-long civil war that ended just two decades ago.
“Ramadan is no longer a religious event limited to one faith,” Abs said. “In recent years, Christians in this multi-faith country have begun to increasingly participate in iftars.
“Christians know little about Ramadan, but the month has nonetheless become an event shared by both communities.”