posted October 14, 2009
Ramadan in Egypt means many different things, from fasting and religious reflection to parties in the streets with children lighting off firecrackers. Either way is a unique time to be living here in Cairo. Things become completely different during the month of Ramadan than the usual lifestyle of this bustling metropolis, and as a result I was thrown from my normal schedule along with everyone else into the spirit of the holiday season.
The most obvious component of Ramadan is the food aspect, because this is the time when Muslims will fast from dawn until dusk. This includes no water, even in the Egyptian heat!
It also means most Cairenes won’t be smoking like fiends as per usual, so between the lack of food, caffeine, and nicotine everyone becomes a bit on edge by the time Iftar (breakfast) rolls around at sunset.
Policemen glare sullenly from their stations, cab drivers honk and scream at each other more than usual, and everyone seems generally more quiet and grumpy during the day. This year seemed especially tough as the Muslim calendar is based on the lunar cycle, thus the month of Ramadan moves up a couple weeks each year and it happened to fall in the middle of August this time around, ouch!
Just before sunset Cairo streets become completely clogged as people rush home to prepare to eat and socialize for the evening. Then abruptly the rush hour ends, and everything gets very quiet as everyone digs into the first meal of the day. Most stores close during the Iftar and everyone is off the streets, so everywhere is almost completely silent and deserted in one of Cairo’s more unusual displays. I’ve grown used to the loudness of the city here, because Cairenes like their lives big and loud, so walking the streets in my neighborhood during the first Iftar of the month was actually eerie for the complete lack of noise and humanity. Even the policemen stopped patrolling and left their posts to gather in groups for Iftar in the gardens and green belts in my neighborhood.
Fasting reflects the obvious religious character of the holiday here of course. This is a time for Muslims to be particularly devoted and pious, and traditionally as I understand it a lot of people read a chapter of the Qur’an each day to reconnect themselves to their religion and moral principles.
This idea of renewed religious commitment and the character of Ramadan to involve self-deprivation makes many of us westerners think that this is a somber time, but in fact there is another side to the month of Ramadan that is quite lively and exciting.
For a few weeks up until the actual event I started to notice more and more swaths of the special tent fabric that is famous here going up around town as everywhere from restaurants to grocery stores started to decorate. Soon lanterns (singular in Arabic is fanoose) engraved with saying such as “Ramadan Kareem”(Happy Ramadan) and “Allah Akbar” (God is good) were going up all around town along with strings of lights, and each apartment building seemed to have a fanoose dangling above the doorway to cast cheerful colored light on visitors. My friend brought me my own adorable fanoose in fact, which stands at a comparatively short 1 foot high, compared to the 5 footers you can see around town in the lobbies of companies and hotels!
The display around town was beautiful and festive, similar to how people like to decorate during Christmas in the US but with a unique Egyptian flair such as throwing huge ropes of lights or tinsel off balconies so that apartment blocks were faced with twinkling colored lights dripping down over five stories. Alleyways were striped with tinsel garlands and little holographic flags stretching between balconies in a random pattern extending several floors up to form a mosaic of color and light that kids ran around under setting off fireworks and firecrackers to tease each other and torment drivers. A fun and entertaining but somewhat dangerous activity as my friend and I almost ran over a lit firework! We all got used to hearing bangs and pops like cars backfiring during the evenings in Ramadan because the children on my street are particularly celebratory, but one night I thought the sounds seemed particularly nearby and went out on the balcony to investigate. What did I see?
My middle-aged saiidii bawwabs (doormen) laughing and running around with their galabeyas hiked up as their kids threw lit fireworks in their direction in the street out front!
Let’s face it though, everyone feels like partying and stuffing their face by the time the sun goes down, not just children. Everywhere I went during Ramadan at night was packed to the rafters with happy people out celebrating and shopping. The cafes were crammed to the bursting point, to the extent that I couldn’t even get served for half an hour in my favorite one behind Al-Azhar mosque, which is one of the more popular places to be at night during Ramadan. It is also a time to buy children gifts of clothes and toys, and give charity as well as presents and so forth so there was a big upswing in the amount of shopping going on, to the point where an Egyptian friend advised me to just wait until after Ramadan because it was almost dangerous to go during for the rush of people and he was worried about me getting hurt.
On a dance and music note, there are many concerts to attend during Ramadan, some of which are free. This is a great time to attend regular music events, because the belly dance
industry all but comes to a standstill as dancers, musicians, and costumers take a much-needed vacation.
There simply isn’t much to see on the belly dance front, but lots to experience when it comes to popular Egyptian music that doesn’t get exported for the belly dance crowd.
I got to see a very famous Egyptian band, Wust el Balad (“Downtown”, lit. “Center of the Country”), who are now some of my favorites without
paying a dime! The best part was that we were at the most beautiful and ancient of venues: The citadel itself! It was amazing strolling up the switch-backing ramps to the outdoor stage, because half the time you turned a sharp corner and were suddenly confronted with the imposingly beautiful and ancient façade of the main castle itself. I am definitely going back during the day when the weather improves to explore the grounds and historic buildings there after this one-time teaser.
All in all the spirit of Ramadan seems to be cleansing, renewing, and most of all sharing. Egyptians are some of the most hospitable people ever during normal times, but during Ramadan it seems like everyone is giving each other things, congregating to celebrate and eat together whether for Iftar or So7or/Suhhur* (the second meal, eaten at about 1-3am), and sharing what they have.
I went out on the my street several times to give the policemen, bawwabs, guards, and people hanging around sweets and dates just after sunset, and followed the normal custom of giving my doormen food and extra money as a gift just before the Eid al-Fitr (the small feast at the end of Ramadan—there will be a big feast in November, which marks the end of the pilgrimage season to Mecca) which made me feel like part of the celebration and seemed appreciated, particularly coming from an American not observing Ramadan. It’s normal to invite guests to Iftar, but due to various circumstances I only got to have Iftar at an Egyptian home once. However it was delicious and there was still food to spare even after we were stuffed! I did decide to host my own Iftar during the last week of the month on a whim, and although it was crazy to cook for 11 people (I wrote more about this evening on my own blog) I found it to be rewarding and heartwarming to get friends together in the spirit of Ramadan; Egyptians, Muslims, and American study abroad students alike!
*Please note Arabic transliterates horribly! For example, there are 3 letters that could be expressed with “h” but the 7 stands for an aspirated H coming from the throat.
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