CAIRO: Muslims around the world are gearing up for the holy month of Ramadan this week amid security concerns, massive price hikes and extravagant all-night festivities.
The start of Ramadan, the ninth and holiest month of the Muslim calendar, is traditionally determined by the sighting of a new moon, often dividing rival Islamic countries and sects over the exact date.
For the month, Muslims are required to abstain from food, drink and sex from dawn until dusk as life slips into a lower gear during the day, and activity peaks between iftar, the breaking of the fast at sunset, and sohour, the last meal of the day before sunrise.
In Cairo, the shopping frenzy began weeks ago despite soaring prices, as the faithful prepare for the first day of Ramadan where extended families break the fast with dates and milk, in accordance with Islamic tradition.
In the teeming city of 18 million notorious for gridlock, traffic police have been banned from taking time off during Ramadan, with extra wardens deployed to control pre-iftar accidents as cars clamor to get home in time for iftar.
In Baghdad, the 400 year-old Shorja market has been bustling with activity with war-weary residents stocking up on spices, sugar, tea and nuts – these days imported from neighboring Syria.
Visiting Shorja is like an annual tradition for us and we can t give it up for fear of bombings, said Um Ahmed, a Baghdad housewife.
The US military, which has deployed thousands of troops in Baghdad, said levels of pre-Ramadan violence are lower this year, and expects the trend to continue.
A top Iraqi security official announced on Monday that the nightly curfew in Baghdad and a vehicle curfew will be eased during Ramadan.
Residents of Gaza spending their first Ramadan under Hamas, which seized control of the tiny territory in June, are bracing for clashes after Fatah and other Palestinian groups called for sunset street prayers in defiance of a Hamas ban.
On a positive note, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during talks on Monday to release prisoners as a traditional goodwill gesture for Ramadan.
Security is also expected to be tight in Afghanistan, where Taliban violence has increased.
The militia in power from 1996 until 2001 when they were toppled by a US-led invasion, is waging a guerrilla-like war with over 100 suicide bombings in the past nine months alone.
Saudi Arabia, home of Islam s holiest shrines, is this year preparing to receive around one million pilgrims expected to perform Umrah, or a smaller pilgrimage, in Mecca.
And as political and commercial activity shifts slows down during the day, life in the Gulf begins in earnest at sunset with lavish iftar parties and extravagant social gatherings that last well into the night.
Dubai, one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates, regains its bustle at night, with shops making up for the slowdown in daytime activity by opening until midnight and thousands of people gathering in lively entertainment tents for the night.
But in oil-rich Kuwait, authorities under pressure from Islamic lawmakers are clamping down on music concerts, turning down requests by five-star hotels to hold such events.
As generosity peaks during this month of charity, Kuwait is monitoring fund-raising activities by Islamic charities and has banned any cash donations to make sure that charity money does not reach extremist organizations.
In Qatar, Egypt and Tunisia, dramatic price hikes ahead of Ramadan have prompted authorities to take measures to control prices, with Qatari authorities vowing to clamp down on traders who manipulate prices.
Jordan has banned the sale of alcoholic drinks in bars, nightclubs and restaurants.
In Shia Iran, which is due to begin fasting on Sept. 13, authorities continue to ban restaurants from operating during the day, while television soaps are taking on a religious theme.
In Lebanon, Ramadan will take place against a backdrop of tensions between feuding political parties as the country gears up for a presidential election with the anti-Syrian and pro-Syrian camps at odds over a consensus candidate.
In the multi-confessional country, some Shias will begin fasting on Sept. 13, while Sunnis will wait for the sighting of the moon.
Muslims in the southern Philippines will be observing Ramadan under the barrel of a gun after the military, which is battling Islamist extremists, rejected an appeals a ceasefire.
In Indonesia, the world s largest Muslim nation, Ramadan has a strong impact on everyday life.
Television stations run Islamic programs from the early hours of the day, to entertain and educate Muslims who have to wake up early for the pre-dawn breakfast during the month.
Hardline Muslim groups in the major cities have issued warnings that they will act against nightclubs and other dens of vices that disregard the restricted opening hours for the month.
The government in Bangladesh, where inflation has topped 10 percent, on Monday started to sell rice at 20 percent reduced prices at 15,440 outlets to keep prices down ahead of Ramadan. Agence France-Presse