Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Reflection: Ramadan in Cairo

The first day of Ramadan dawned in pink and blue shades over the Mother of the World. The lights of the city still glittered, their reflections rippling in the Nile, and a few clouds hovered above Cairo’s usual blanket of fog. As the clock ticked toward 5am, I watched the sun rise. A few moments before I had heard the call from the mosque behind my building, signaling the start of the fast.

Ramadan is a holy month for Muslims – a month of fasting and prayer, where each kind or generous deed is worth 100. During Ramadan Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset – or approximately from 4:30am until 6:00pm. The fast is complete: Muslims may consume nothing. No food, no water, not even chewing gum – nothing is allowed (there are, of course, exceptions: children, people who are traveling or sick and require medicine, and menstruating women are forbidden from fasting). Ramadan is a month of reflection and prayer. The phrase ‘Ramadan Kareem,’ which literally means ‘generous Ramadan,’ is heard and written everywhere. I have been told that Cairo is the best place to experience Ramadan – having experienced it, I am inclined to agree.

A few minutes before 6:00 in the evening I went out and walked the streets of Zamalek, the district where I live in Cairo. The streets were nearly bereft of cars, a novelty in such a crowded and bustling city, and just as lacking in the usual throngs of people moving about. The exceptions, for the most part, were clearly foreigners.

Yet the Egyptian people were not entirely absent from the streets of Cairo; they were simply absent in the normal sense. Instead of walking the streets and moving from place to place, they were all nearly motionless, seated (mostly silently) at one of the many long tables that crowded much of the available space on sidewalks and in alleyways. During Ramadan, Egypt’s poor eat better than they do at any other time of the year. It is impossible to go hungry. Food is provided every evening at Iftar, the breaking of the fast, by charity, various wealthy individuals, and mosques. Anyone, I have been told, is welcome to sit and join in the breaking of the fast.

As the moment of Iftar arrived, the mosques could be heard in the distance and there was a sudden commotion as the Muslim people of Cairo broke their fast. Walking along the street, I was invited to join at least three different groups of people in their meals – although I declined the offers, I did accept a cup of dark, sweet juice, and thus broke my fast along with the rest of the city.

For the first two weeks of Ramadan I fasted with my Muslim friends and acquaintances. As the majority of the people I spent time with, including my roommate, were fasting, I decided to join them. Besides, if I was going to experience Ramadan in Cairo, I decided I might as well (to be honest, not eating all day is not difficult – the difficulty of the fast arises with not being able to drink, especially under Cairo’s heat). I finally broke my fast about a week into the semester, deciding that curiosity was not a good enough reason to fast when I had upwards of 7 hours of class in a day.

There were many nights during Ramadan, both in Cairo and in Alexandria, that I spent out with friends. One of my first Iftars was at Luceille's, a favorite Italian restaurant in the Maadi district of Cairo. After the first few weeks, my roommate and I tended to break fast together while watching a succession of That 70s Show, Friends, and E.R. They were lazy evenings, often followed a few hours later by going out and having another meal.

Cairo, as a whole, does not sleep during the month of Ramadan (except during the day). The common routine is to have Iftar at 6, then a few hours later go out and then have dinner, and then have the final meal, Sohour, around 2 or 3 in the morning.

I was invited to various dinners, including a huge Iftar at my roommate's boyfriend's house with homemade Egyptian foods and sohour at a Palestinian restaurant in Nasr City. Near the end of Ramadan, my roommate and I hosted a large Iftar at our apartment, complete with homemade pasta, bread, caramel apple pie, and cookies (and KFC - neither my roommate nor I cook much meat).

The University hosted various Iftar dinners and an Egyptian Sohour for the International Students during Ramadan. These dinners served 'traditional' fare from different areas of the Muslim world, finally ending with Egyptian.

Finally, Ramadan ended just before October began, and the students of the American University in Cairo departed from the city to their various destinations for the Eid break. That, however, is a topic for another day.

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