BENGHAZI, Libya — Civil war or not, every year the holy Muslim month of Ramadan must be respected and in Libya’s rebel stronghold of Benghazi women bakers are working overtime to meet demand.
Dozens of women knead dough into shape, making sweets and salty pies, at the iconic Al-Harabi bakery, undaunted by the unrelenting war, sweltering temperatures, power-cuts and tight budgets.
Ramadan, when devout Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, is due to begin on August 1.
Throughout the month, families get together to break the fast with lavish meals that must include olive and cheese pies and special Ramadan sweets.
The revolution launched in February to unseat Libyan strongman Moamer Kadhafi has turned life in Libya upside down.
Men, the traditional breadwinners, left for the front line or lost their jobs, universities and schools closed, and businesses and homes were hit by daily power cuts.
As a result women have left their homes to look for jobs, with many finding a job al Al-Harabi.
“We had no money but I had free time so I started working here,” said Iman al-Jihani, 22, a medicine student who also volunteers two nights per week in the surgery department of Benghazi’s Al-Jalaa hospital.
At the bakery she earns a monthly salary of 275 Libyan dinars (around 230 dollars) which is paid on time — unlike her policeman father whose salary is always late.
Jihani’s salary helps relieve the pressure of feeding five mouths at home.
For Ghada Ali, 20, working at the bakery is a matter of survival.
Her father and two brothers are off fighting in Brega and Misrata, two front lines west of Benghazi, leaving Ali to care for her sick mother and three sisters.
“I am responsible for everything now, even the rent of the house,” she said, kneading frantically and pausing only to wipe sweat and tears from her face. “I am worried all the time. Every moment I think of them.”
In peace time the bakery was a runaway success. It opened its doors in 2006 with only four women bakers. Now up to 70 female employees fill the three-storey factory.
“Sweets are the speciality of women,” said Selma Abdelsalam, 50, as she wrapped Tunisian dates in dough.
The bakery boasts at least 100 types of sweets that are sold in the liberated areas, as far east as Tobruk near the border with Egypt, and Kufra in the south near the border with Chad.
“Now we make cookies with the colours of the revolution to celebrate Libya’s freedom,” said Wisha Ibrahim, who has worked at the bakery since it opened.
Sometimes the bakery sends sweets to the front to give fighters a taste of home, she said.
With “Free Libya’s” first Ramadan just around the corner, the women expect to see a real rise in demand for sweet and salted baked goods as well as the special pastries for the Eid al-Adha which marks the end of the fasting month.
But bakery owner Mohammed al-Harabi fears that demand will be subdued this year because of a lack of liquidity over the past few months.
“The problem is money,” said Harabi. “People have no salaries so there are delays in payment.”
Daily power cuts ranging between four and six hours in the area are an additional challenge for the business.
“The power shortage affects our work as half of our instruments require electricity,” said supervisor Najla Saad, 32.
Fortunately the Italian oven runs on fuel oil, churning out a wide variety of baked delicacies no matter what.