Muslim countries in the Middle East are preparing for the fasting month of Ramadan amid violence in the Palestinian territories sparked by alleged Israeli sacrilege at one of Islam's holiest sites.
Islam's holiest month, during which Muslims should abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual relations from dawn until dusk, begins on Sunday in Libya, Monday in the Palestinian territories, Iraq and the Gulf states, and on Tuesday in Iran. Syria has not yet declared a date.
According to Islam's lunar calendar, Ramadan's beginning and end are determined each year by the appearance of the new moon.
In wake of the Intifada, Israel is debating whether it can allow Muslims to pray in east Jerusalem at Haram al-Sharif, Islam's third holiest site, where, according to Muslims, the Prophet Mohamed rose to heaven.
It was here that the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian violence ignited on September 28 after Israel's right-winger Ariel Sharon visited the site, which houses the al-Aqsa mosque but is also revered by Jews as the place where their temple once stood.
To reduce the violence, Israel's military has restricted access to Haram al-Sharif since October 13. In the Israeli press, security officers have expressed fear that clashes could intensify during Ramadan.
In Egypt, this year's best-selling model of the traditional lantern which children carry during Ramadan comes in the shape of the Dome of the Rock, one of the two mosques on Haram al-Sharif, in order to show their support for the Intifada, or Palestinian uprising.
Although upset by the Palestinian troubles and their own economic woes, Egypt's population has already started to buy things for celebrating the holiday. The shopping spree has caused traffic jams all over Cairo.
Large supermarkets have taken out advertisements in Egyptian newspapers, announcing Ramadan specials for rice, oil and sugar as well as other foods, like dried fruits, deemed essential for keeping one healthy while fasting.
Egypt's entertainment industry has also announced its list of special television programs for Ramadan. The shows will be enjoyed throughout the Arab world.
One eagerly awaited Ramadan program is a special episode of "The Face of the Moon," a television show, which features 60-year-old Egyptian female movie star Faten Hamama.
Another anticipated program is "The Season of Flowers", starring the female movie star Yusra, who has drawn the hatred of Islamists for her salacious screen persona.
In Saudi Arabia, home of Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, and the Gulf states -- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates -- daytime will grow quiet with the start of Ramadan.
Government offices will close early. Stores will only open in the afternoon, then close at prayer time, only to reopen after people have broken their fast. For the rest of the night, the streets will bustle with activity and joyous greetings.
But foreigners will have to adjust to the holiday's customs. In the Gulf, even non-Muslims are barred from eating, drinking and smoking in public.
For instance, in Abu Dhabi, hotels cannot bring meals to guests' rooms until after sunset.
Meanwhile in Iraq, the government has announced a special increase in government food rations for the holiday. Iraq has rationed food for its civilians for ten years due to the international trade sanctions imposed upon the country since it invaded Kuwait in 1990.
Although Syria has not yet declared a date, in recent times, the secular nation has drifted towards a dutiful observance of Ramadan. Men tend to avoid smoking or eating in public, and women wear less make up.
In Iran, the interior ministry warned the population to observe Ramadan strictly and non-Muslims to act with discretion – NICOSIA (AFP)
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