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The Rhythms and Rituals of Cairo During Ramadan

The days before Ramadan in Cairo are filled with anticipation. Paper and tinsel streamers appear across small lanes, inner courtyards, and wide roads. Lanterns and miniature mosques made of everything from cardboard to recycled tin and glass are hung and lit at night. The beginning of Ramadan is announced when “one trustworthy witness testifies before the Islamic authorities that the new moon has been sighted.” Everyone waits for the sliver of moon to appear and to hear the official news announcing the start of Ramadan.

My husband and I experienced our first Ramadan two months after 9/11 while living in Giza at the foot of the pyramids. This holy time in a predominantly Muslim country at such a confused point in our collective history proved to be particularly meaningful to me as an American.

Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of faith for Muslims. All adults are expected to fast, unless they are pregnant, menstruating, sick, or traveling. Before the month of Ramadan, I found my neighbor Mona fasting ahead of time to account for her days of menstruation during Ramadan. She also told me that children are often encouraged to fast in a small way to help prepare for when they are older.

A child is carried down a street by a relative on the third day of Ramadan in Cairo, Egypt. Image by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

I don’t think I could manage such a fast. That November, Muslims were not allowed to eat or drink anything from 5:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. My neighbor in Giza explained that fasting also meant no smoking, impure thoughts, or sexual relations, and many people resisted these temptations for the entire month. I admit to wondering what “sexual relations” meant. Could you kiss your husband so long as you didn’t have intercourse? Later a Muslim friend told us that it meant you weren’t allowed to touch your spouse. Needless to say, marriages are rare during this month.

Alcohol, which is available in Egypt, became prohibited and removed from shop shelves. Most bars were closed. If you wanted a drink and looked Egyptian, you had to show your passport proving you were not.

Strict Muslims even refrained from using toothpaste — for fear they might swallow water while brushing their teeth. Instead, they brushed their teeth with a twig of miswak. Among its benefits are that it “clears the brain, generates a sense of well-being, remedies the stomach for the next meal, embraces the prophetic tradition, adds to one’s merit, pleases Allah, and delights the angels.”

An Egyptian man washes himself on a boat in the River Nile in Cairo. Image by Khaled Desouki/ Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.

Mr. Ashraf was our main guide through the Ramadan season. He was a sincere and gentle man of immense bulk, and we met him one day by the Sphinx when he approached us to see if we needed a cab. At first he appeared a bit frightening, especially with his broad, powerful hands. My husband and I hesitated, but then agreed, once Mr. Ashraf pointed to his relatively new, clean Mazda.

He told us during that first trip into town that he had been teaching computer science at the university for per month but found taxi driving much more lucrative. The year we lived in Giza, we often called on Mr. Ashraf to taxi us through Cairo.

Mr. Ashraf was respectful and courteous with regard to securing our business, yet it was also clear that what he valued most was personal human contact. My Dutch husband Kees and he developed a special friendship with one another while driving through the snarl of Cairo traffic. While their worlds, experiences, and ways of thinking would always make them strangers to one another, their mutual appreciation and genuine liking became stronger over time.

During Ramadan, Mr. Ashraf kept saying, “I hope, insha’allah (God willing), that you come to my home for breakfast.” I kept wondering if “breakfast” meant at five in the morning, when most Muslims ate yogurt and dates or a big plate of brown beans seasoned with cumin and lemon to last them through the day. Later I found out that “breakfast” in Arabic is iftar, which is what they call the evening meal during Ramadan, because, in fact, the meal is “breaking the fast.”

Egyptian Muslims sit at a shared table as they partake in the iftar meal to break their day-long fast during the holy month of Ramadan in Cairo. Image by Khaled Desouki/Getty Images.

About one hour before iftar, the streets would become full, bustling with excitement as people ran around buying last-minute food. The air felt electric with the promise of eating and drinking. We would climb our terrace to watch the sun set behind the pyramids. Camels loped home, horses cantered, and donkeys quickened their seemingly careful plodding steps. Young boys energetically played soccer in the street waiting for the hour when they might feast.

Then the sun would slip behind the Sahara horizon and soon the street emptied. Muezzins from the mosques called “Allah Akbar!” — one, two, three, up to six echoing the evening prayer in a blast of amplified sound. From the terrace, we would then turn east and gaze over the city of 16-18 million people with 90 percent being Muslim, and imagine each of them home, surrounded by family, eating their dinner. Quiet soon descended and a satisfying stillness. Around 10 p.m. the streets would fill again with people visiting friends or descending on restaurants, nightclubs and bars that had been turned into Ramadan tents where men could enjoy smoking a water pipe and a game of backgammon.

In the Khan el-Khalili market in Cairo, Egyptians walk past traditional lanterns known in Arabic as fanous, which are sold during the month of Ramadan. Image by Mohamed El-Shahed/Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.

This was one thing about Ramadan that struck me as odd; the 12-hour abstinence is followed by platefuls of meat, rice, vegetables, and sweets — a feast every night. The rest of the evening consists of lulling with full bellies in front of the TV watching special programs prepared for the holiday season.

In the evening, you could also see tents where long tables were prepared to seat and feed the poor. Such tables and chairs appeared in parking lots, under freeway overhangs, in front of mosques, and alongside downtown office buildings. I kept threatening Kees that one night I was going to sit down to see what might be served, but Mr. Ashraf saved him the embarrassment by explaining to me that the rich people in the various neighborhoods treated the poor every night to meat, rice, vegetables, and fruit juice.

Such almsgiving (zakat is also an important part of Ramadan, and many people contribute to these mawa’id al-rahma (meals of compassion). In addition, begging is tolerated and there are even certain areas in town where the disabled and poor gather to beg for alms. This can be quite disconcerting, as you are greeted by every miserable human condition. Yet, it gives everyone the opportunity to extend a special kindness to strangers.

Ramadan is also a time for prayer and everyone is encouraged to read the entire Qur’an. Often, while walking to the market, I would pass men sitting in wooden chairs reading the Qur’an in the midday sun. The Qur’an played from radios more regularly, and one day while buying my cucumbers and tomatoes, the old woman shopkeeper mouthed along with the suras.

Despite not eating or drinking, everyone seemed so happy and exhausted at the same time. Dark circles ringed the eyes on the faces of subway passengers. When walking into a shop, I would often come upon a clerk, nearly asleep, with his or her head down on the desk. When listening to the English news one day at 2:30 p.m., I heard the woman newscaster fumble tenses and stumble over simple words. “Poor thing,” I said to my husband. “She hasn’t eaten anything since 5:00 this morning.”

Throughout the month, people wished each other a Happy Ramadan. As a conversation piece, I went around asking people, “Are you having a nice Ramadan?” They would smile, nod, and insist they were. This started to annoy me, mainly because of my own weaknesses. Nobody seemed to be starving, thirsty, or dying to have sexual relations, which, I admit, would be my whining attitude if forced into such a pillar of faith. The Egyptians are tough people, and, even when Ramadan falls in the summer months, fasting Muslims won’t touch a drop of water.

Muslims pray at the Hakeem Mosque in Cairo, Egypt during the holy month of Ramadan. Image by Chaoyue Pan/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)..

It wasn’t long, however, before Kees and I had entered the collective consciousness. During the day, we discretely ate our own regular meals inside with the curtains drawn and did not drink our usual bottles of water in public. But the odd thing was some mornings we found ourselves waking up hungry before sunrise! Once at 4:30 a.m. we sat up in bed eating yogurt and marveling at how unconsciously we had tuned into the lives of the hundreds of millions of Arab Muslims fasting around us.

Ramadan in Egypt actually felt to us as if we were on one gigantic retreat. Everywhere we went, people were fasting, giving alms, praying, purifying themselves, singing religious poetry, and feeding the poor.

Finally the evening came when we would be guests of Mr. Ashraf and his family for iftar. “Ten days eating. Ten days cake. Ten days new clothes. This is what they say about Ramadan,” Mr. Ashraf said that night while driving us to his home.

The night before he had been out shopping until midnight with his son and daughter for their new clothes, and had promised his wife the same. This is because the day following Ramadan, everyone celebrates by enjoying a mid-day meal and afterwards wearing new clothes and strolling through their village.

“You always need two times money during Ramadan. To buy meat. To buy sweets. To buy clothes. You know,” Mr. Ashraf continued, “everybody like Ramadan because stomach takes a rest and every night with family. One night with my mother. One night with my brother. One night with the mother of my wife.”

“And you, Mr. Kees,” he said smiling at my husband. “You are like brother to me. Really. I mean this. Tonight we eat with my brother.”

The significance of this statement was not lost on any of us. Only three months had passed since the tragedy of September 11th, and the idea that East and West, Christian and Muslim, might be brothers seemed to be a small miracle in the midst of the world’s fear.

Mr. Ashraf turned down an unpaved narrow street and parked the car. We entered the dark foyer of an apartment building and carefully climbed the unlit concrete steps to the first floor. Mr. Ashraf opened the door and bid us to enter. “You are welcome.”

Egyptians break the fast outside al-Azhar mosque, in Cairo's Islamic neighborhood, after attending evening prayers on the first day of Ramadan on July 20, 2012. Image by Gianluigi Guercia/Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.

We walked timidly into the living room which was furnished with gilded chairs and sofa out of a Louis XIV decorating showroom. Everything seemed to glitter with gold. One wall was completely wallpapered with a giant photograph of a river stream. Mr. Ashraf sat us down and then disappeared with great agitated excitement. Soon his 15-year-old son, Wusem, appeared through the same door that had swallowed Mr. Ashraf. “Welcome to Egypt,” he said and as quickly disappeared. It all seemed like magic, as Wusem was a perfect miniature of his father, only without the mustache.

We sat listening to the television blaring Ramadan tunes in the next room and the busy shouts of preparation from the entire family. Mr. Ashraf had worked as a chef in a tourist hotel for four years and the meal promised to be gourmet. He had taught his wife, Huwayda, all he knew and liked to boast how she had become a better cook than he.

We were soon invited to enter the dining room, which also had one entire wall papered with a series of waterfalls. It was there we met Mr. Ashraf’s wife and nine-year-old daughter, Chulut. The room was sparsely furnished with a dining room table, cabinet, and TV.

We all took our places at the table which was beautifully set with individual portions of half chicken, rice, peas and carrots in a tomato sauce, and a dish uniquely Egyptian called molokkia. This green slimy soup-like broth is made of minced Jew’s mallow (a leafy herb) and chicken stock. Tablespoons of molokkia are poured over rice to flavor it.

We started with a hot bowl of bird’s tongue soup, so named for the pasta that floats in it has the shape of what you might imagine birds’ tongues to look like. Mr. Ashraf, whose size easily fills any space, sat next to me and his wife directly across. Her hair was completely contained under a chic head wrap. Our eyes met across the table and we each seemed to approve of the other. She spoke little English but understood more. “My wife say you bring light into our house,” Mr. Ashraf translated for us.

We used our fingers to devour the tender chicken. Mr. Ashraf kept smacking his lips and saying, “Eat. Eat. The chicken is very good.” In fact, that was his ploy all evening, telling us how one thing or another “was very good” which any polite guest would have to agreed with and then prove by eating all the more.

Egyptian Muslims break their day-long Ramadan fast during a group meal (iftar) for the residents of a neighborhood in downtown Cairo. Image by Khaled Desouki/Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.

Both children were studying in private English schools, and his son was happy to answer our questions of how old he was, what time did he go to school, what time did he return, and so forth. His younger sister noted everything and spoke less, frustrated with her brother’s dexterity and the attention it brought. Throughout the meal, Mr. Ashraf translated for the rest of us, between English and Arabic.

After the meal, our fingers saturated with chicken grease, we were ushered into the bathroom to wash our hands. On the floor in one corner swimming in a basin was a catfish, saved by the little girl from death the other evening. It had narrowly escaped being part of the feast of fresh fish. We then returned to the living room while everyone else became busy with the cleaning up and preparation of the tea and desert. Every so often, Wusem would appear in the doorway, beaming, “Welcome to Egypt.”

Soon the children came to show us with great solemnity their new clothes for Ramadan. I noted the matching pink bows on Chulut’s jeans and jacket, and we balked at the size of Wusem’s new sneakers. His huge hands and feet exposed his immanent growth into manhood. Then the children retired to the room they shared, and their parents returned with mint tea and a plate piled high with katayef, a sweet delicacy of fried dough filled with hazelnuts.

“The katayef are very good,” Mr. Ashraf said pointing to the 20 or more sweets that sat in front of me. What could I do? Of course, I had to over indulge. Everything in the end was washed down with two glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice, the second glass only appearing after I agreed that it was “very good.”

An elderly Egyptian man stands in front of a shop selling traditional Ramadan lanterns in the working-class Saida Zeinab district in Cairo on the second day of Ramadan in 2013. Image by Marwan Naamani/Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.

After all this gorging, Mr. Ashraf returned the conversation back to sacrifice. “You know. Fasting is good. You learn that you can control many things. Everything is for only looking, but no touch. Water, food, your wife. And after, you learn that you can make this.”

“This is like my life now. I work sometimes 16 hours in one day. I try to buy my children the books they need for study. My wife the things she needs for house. My working, il-hamdu-l-illah (thanks be to God), makes for beautiful things in my life and the life of my family.”

“My mother learned me one thing. What you put in a glass, that is what you drink. You put in sugar, you drink sugar. You put in tea, you drink tea. You put in something not good, you drink that. It’s the same with your children. It’s the same with your life.”

And so with that, we said our thanks and goodbyes. Their kindness and welcome extended to us was something we would never forget. We felt blessed for such an evening with a family who were trying to build a life with human dignity under the auspices of their own Islamic traditions. Ramadan, in this way, seemed to reflect all that is human — piety and gaiety, charity and ostentation, sacrifice and indulgence.

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