Searing summer heat adds hardship to Ramadan fasting for Muslims in Middle East
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Hundreds of millions of Muslims across the Middle East sweated their way through the start of Ramadan on Wednesday, beginning a monthlong daylight fast in sweltering summer heat.
With temperatures over 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43 Celsius) in some countries, governments and religious authorities sought to lighten the holy month's burden by shortening work days, granting exemptions from the fast and even setting the clock back an hour.
Frequent power outages in places like Egypt, Iraq and the Gaza Strip compounded the struggle to give up food, drink and cigarettes during the searing 15-hour day.
But most — even those forced by work to be in the heat — said faith would get them through.
"I praise God," said 24-year-old Hamas police officer Mohammed Hassouna, directing traffic at a Gaza intersection in 90-degree heat while wearing black fatigues and boots. "It's all about your intention, and when you fast with belief, you don't feel it."
On the lunar calendar, the Islamic month of Ramadan begins around 11 days earlier each year, which now puts it in the long, hot days of summer.
At midday Wednesday, highs around the Middle East ranged from the 90s Fahrenheit (30s Celsius) to over 115 degrees Fahrenheit (46 Celsius) in cities like Baghdad, where the devout found little refuge from the heat.
Cobbler Soud Aziz, 39, sought to keep himself cool while fixing a sandal on a Baghdad sidewalk by frequently wiping his face with a wet cloth.
"I'm really having a hard time fasting today," he said, adding that he had yet to earn enough to buy food to break the fast at sundown. "I pray to God I'll have more customers."
Electricity cuts are common in Iraq, Jordan and Egypt, where the government blamed the power shortages on too many people using air conditioning and staying up all night.
In impoverished, Hamas-ruled Gaza, power is often off for 12 hours, on for four, then off again for 12 due to an overburdened grid, damage from Israeli military offensives and an internal Palestinian dispute about who should pay for power plant fuel.
Gaza housewife Tharwa Suboh, 38, said her family can't afford a gas-powered generator. This means they can't run a fan, often eat by candlelight and must shop every day since they can't refrigerate food.
"In our prayers, we ask God for forgiveness, but also to take revenge against all the people behind our suffering due to the power cuts," she said.
Governments across the region took steps to aid those fasting. Authorities in Egypt, the West Bank and Gaza moved the clock an hour back, allowing people to break their fast earlier in the evening.
The start of the school year in Jordan and the Palestinian territories was postponed until after the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which concludes the holy month.
Civil servants in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories worked six-hour shifts, two hours shorter than normal, and construction workers in Lebanon struck deals with their employers to work a few hours of their shift at night.
In the United Arab Emirates, officials ordered private companies to reduce workers' shifts, and the top religious authority issued an edict, or fatwa, allowing laborers to eat if conditions become too difficult for them to fast. The fatwa was issued in response to a question from an oil rig worker.
"God does not burden any soul beyond what it can bear, and God knows best," it said.
Under Islamic law, travelers, the sick, children and the elderly are also exempted.
Some found the heat almost too much to bear.
Standing in line at a government office in Amman, Jordan, Ismail Abu-Hasweh, 28, said he wasn't sure he could continue. The temperature there reached 95 degrees (35 Celsius).
"I'm a chain smoker and I feel lightheaded because I didn't smoke or drink my coffee," he said, removing his sunglasses to show his red eyes. "It's bad, I know, but I can't take it, especially in this heat."
Elsewhere in the Muslim world, it wasn't only the heat that added to the hardship of fasting: Flooding in Pakistan has killed 1,500 people and affected nearly 14 million.
"Ramadan or no Ramadan we are already dying of hunger, we are fasting forcibly and mourning our losses," said Mai Hakeema, 50, living in a tent with her ailing husband in the southern Pakistani city of Sukkur.
Associated Press Writers Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan; Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad; Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Ashraf Khan in Sukkur, Pakistan, contributed to this report.