Hospitality on hold as Damascus prepares for an uncertain Ramadan

Meme complaining about high cost of lemons "A kilo of lemons for 1000 Syrian Pounds. Did you pick it from the White House garden?"

A video showing peaceful scenes at a food market in Damascus has proved to be compulsive viewing for many Syrians ahead of the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Although the clip lasts less than a minute and has no commentary or speech it was watched more than 200,000 times in the four days after it was posted on social media.

What has gripped and horrified Syrians are the close-up shots of the prices of fruit, vegetables, and other produce, provoking a flood of sad face reactions and angry comments under the video.

Still from market video with food prices A clip of footage of food prices in a Damascus market has been viewed more than 200,000 times online.

This is not the only example of social media anguish over the skyrocketing food prices.

A popular pro-government Facebook page - called The Diary of a Mortar Shell in Damascus - posted a chart that compared current food prices with those at the time of Ramadan last year.

The table - which has been widely discussed and shared - shows that the price of some vegetables is now five times more. For example, one kilo of lemons cost 125 Syrian Pounds (SYP) last June and has since shot up to 700 SYP (around $1.2).

To put that in some context the salary of a civil servant is around $45 a month after the latest dramatic currency devaluation earlier this month.

But at least in Damascus food - expensive as it may be - is more plentiful than in some rebel-held areas blockaded by the Assad regime. Aid organisations have on occasion reported that civilians have died of starvation in areas besieged by the government.

However, for people living in government-held Damascus the increases in food prices are of particular concern as Ramadan approaches.

During the month of Ramadan the majority of Muslims fast during the day and have their first meal at sunset. Traditionally, this religious occasion also has a social dimension as families and friends exchange visits and prepare numerous dishes to share with guests.

However, BBC Trending has heard anecdotal evidence from several Damascus residents that the stratospheric cost of living is leading to a tacit unspoken agreement to suspend the usual rules of hospitality.

"Usually we would put a box of sweets on the table and keep offering guests to have more," one woman told us. "But now you just offer a plate with one or two sweets, that's if we manage to buy the box in the first place."

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So who do Syrians blame for this new hardship in the sixth year of the conflict?

In the comments under the price comparison chart many people blamed traders for taking advantage of the devaluation and the ongoing conflict.

"Enough traders, you have no fear of God," one Facebook user wrote. "Stop compiling money, Ramadan is approaching so be merciful to people, they have enough troubles".

This sentiment also found voice in a Facebook page called "Boycotters" which was set up by consumers who wanted to protest against alleged profiteering by food sellers. The page's aim was to encourage shoppers to not buy imported goods for one week earlier this month. Although 35,000 people claimed to have participated in the boycott it's not clear what success, if any the protest had.

Syrians have also blamed the government for not limiting the price increases in the markets. One social media user wrote: "The performance of the Syrian government is genuinely embarrassing, the dollar is about to reach 1,000 SYP and prices are sky high, salaries are still the same … Any government that does not feel with citizens is dirty and corrupt and it has to step down".

Boycotters Facebook page logo A Facebook page was set up to try to organise a consumer boycott against alleged profiteering.

Trending spoke to several people to see how they were coping with the price increases.

One retired woman who lives in Damascus with her husband, told us that she was still buying basic food items but with some austerity measures. She buys smaller amounts, chooses cheaper kinds of vegetables and has dropped many fruit and vegetables from her diet.

The couple's combined pensions are not enough to get by on so they have found part time jobs. The woman is worried now about the potential increase in robbery and crimes because people "need to get food for their families".

A younger mother from Damascus told us some of her neighbours had not had meat for a long time. "Even the traditional dish of beans, which is called 'the poor's meat', is becoming unaffordable for many after it was a regular dish", she said.

Although the majority of Damascene people appear to be feeling the pinch, there are different levels of hardship. In Damascus, very diverse groups with remarkably different economic capacities live side-by-side; internally displaced people staying in shelters or in rented places, retired people, civil servants, jobless, self-employed and a limited number of UN and NGOs staff.

Some see a grim future for those who have little. "… But there are also many people who are unemployed. What shall they do; in my opinion it is better for them to die [rather than living under such conditions]," a Facebook user commented.

And another commentator made a gloomy forecast heavy with sarcasm: "We should be happy because these [food] prices are many times better than the ones of Ramadan 2017."

Reporting by BBC Monitoring

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