Monday, September 15, 2008

Ramadan in Egypt

Since I was young, my mother used to tell me and my siblings stories about young children carrying lanterns and singing in the streets during Ramadan. That's what I had in mind as I prepared to spend my first Ramadan in Eygpt, on break from life in Sudan. It wasn't exactly what I got, but close enough. The biggest change in Cairo during Ramadan is that the traffic lets up a bit in the morning, as people are sleeping in. Go out around 9:30am and you'll see empty roads like you've never seen before in one of the world's busiest cities. Of course, the downfall is that around 9:30pm, after everyone has eaten and rested, the streets are packed with people going out. Malls are open until12:30 or 1:00am, and most people, even those who work, don't go to bed until 2 or 3 am. I saw Ramadan through the eyes of young people my age, who have a shortened work day (say 10-3), come home and sleep for three hours, and wake up in time for 'fitar' (meal that breaks the fast) at 6pm. The rest of the night unfolds as usual, except that many go out again, especially on weekends, at 12:00 or 1:00 am for 'suhur', the meal you eat in the early morning. I am used to just waking up before the sun rises, eating some beans and eggs, drinking a glass of water, praying and going back to bed. But here, suhur is a big extravaganza. Restaurants set up special decorations and tents for young people who flock there to "chill through Ramadan" as the sign says. While there might be more happening at night, the days are usually dead. Stores open later than usual in the morning and close early before fitar, and most people are busy preparing dinner or sleeping. I also saw Ramadan through the eyes of mothers of families, and let me tell you, it is a stress. They spend days preparing beforehand, planning out meals and ensuring that everything that the kids want will be present (sweet, cold drinks, etc.) The meals are always huge. If I lost weight during Ramadan in Senegal, I have gained it here. I have never had stomach pains for so many consecutive nights due to over-eating on an empty stomach. But damn, it was delicious.

But that's not to say there is nothing traditional about Ramadan here. Some people do hang lanterns and fabric with special Islamic patterns, especially outside stores and restaurants. And apparently in some of the more "sha'abaya' (ie. poorer) neighboorhoods, the celebrations are much more old-school, with children singing, etc. Unfortunately, I didn't get to check that out. But Ameera (my sis came from Canada to meet me in Egypt), Amr (my cousin) and I ran into a 'saharati' - the old men who walk around neighbourhoods at night with a drum calling people to wake up for suhur. He taps the drum and calls out the names of people in different houses. "Amr! Tim!" he called as he passed my family's apartment. Tim was a German exchange student living in Amr's house about a decade ago. But the old man still calls his name everyday during Ramadan. This one took his job very seriously. He said he had been on TV and in the newspaper. We chatted for a while, then we had to let him go. He had many more houses ahead of him. (Notice all the shopping bags on Ameera's arm - she went a little crazy!)

Of course, the best thing about Ramadan is the sweets after every meal... uh, i mean, the extra time spent with friends and family. (But seriously, desert is considered a necessity because of the lack of sugar consumed during the day, and there is aways plenty from balah-al-sham to baclava to kunafa...) So I'll leave you guys with a bunch of pics: Me and Ameera with the Bahgat sisters; Khan-al-Khalili (a well-known place with windy roads and shops selling everything from papyrus paper to jewellery to belly-dancing outfits); Me and Mimi with freshly coiffeured hair ($4 each); Mohamed, Jassy, Amr, Ameera and Me having suhur at Sequoya Restaurant.
Ramadan Karim!


Salooly said...


Umm Fatima said...

Salam Heba! Ramadan Kareem - 'tis fun to read about your adventures - I'm sort of living vicariously through u as you finesse your journalism. . .May Allah Increase your chances at shedding light on the disenfranchised of our world, as a voice for the voiceless. (amira)

Still.Searching said...

I love the "Chilling thru Ramadan" bit! Th mesa-ha-ratee calling Tim's name yaers after Tim left says a lot about the time scale in egypt.. Tim will be remembered fro generations to come :-)