So goes the 1950s song of the powerful tenor Muhammad Abdel-Muttaleb. Today Abdel-Mutalleb is no longer, but his song lives on with its lilting tune and simple lyric, a classic joy in Ramadan. Ramadan is the ninth month on the Hijri calendar, a lunar calendar, meaning the 29 or 30-day month moves 11 days earlier every year. It is preceded by the month of Shaaban and its beginning is determined through the centuries-old tradition of the sighting of the crescent moon. The skies are closely scrutinised on 29 Shaaban to check if the crescent appears on the horizon. If it does, this will be the final day of Shaaban and Ramadan will start on the following day; if it is not, then Ramadan starts the day after.
Steeped in tradition
Ramadan is a month steeped in tradition. It is the Muslim holy month of fasting, the fast beginning at dawn and lasting till sunset. Both hours are marked by watching the daybreak or the sunset, and both are ceremoniously announced with a canon shot from the 12th-century Saladdin citadel, east of Cairo. The canon shot used to shake Cairo a couple of centuries ago when the tradition was first instated, and it would clearly signal the beginning and end of the fast. Today, however, it can barely be heard above the tumult of modern-day Cairo, but Egyptians can hear it broadcast on the radio. Alternatively, they can wait for azaan, the traditional Muslim call to prayer, to know that it is time to eat and drink at sunset, and to stop eating at daybreak.
Then of course there is the famous fanous Ramadan, the Ramadan lantern which children—and grown-ups—used to light up their way as they moved through the streets and alleyways on Ramadan evenings before there was modern electricity. Now the fanous with its multi-coloured glass sides persists in sizes that vary from miniature to a metre-high, but only as a beloved children’s toy or a Ramadan ornament. Gone are the days when the fanous was a handmade delight; today it more often than not comes from China.
The long fast hours call for goodies and sweetmeats once the fast is broken. Ramadan is a month of gatherings and reunions for family and friends. The tables for iftar (the sunset meal that breaks the fast) and suhour (the pre-dawn meal after which the fast begins) traditionally host a crowd of loved ones feasting on traditional Ramadan foods. In between the two main meals, one can snack on yameesh, dried fruits and nuts, or dig into kunafa and qatayef, the syrup-drenched-pastry desserts much in demand during the holy month.
Many end up gaining weight in Ramadan, but Shahinaz, a young graduate, has made the fast work in her favour. “Once I graduated I couldn’t immediately find a job. Being at home for long hours and worrying over the future drove me to binging on food. I gained weight, which only added to the strain and anxiety. But last Ramadan I took a decision to use the fast to lose weight. This meant, of course, that I had to skip the goodies and sweetmeats and exercise full will power at the table. The result was fantastic! I lost all the pounds I wanted to lose.”
Women: overburdened in Ramadan
Women especially suffer throughout Ramadan. The sheer effort required to prepare all the goodies for the family and friends to feast upon is no trivial task. Two main meals have to be cooked daily, iftar and suhour. They have to be innovative, nutritional, and festive. They have to cater for a big lamma, literally crowd, of loved ones. The feasting involves substantial washing up after eating. The planning, cooking and baking, serving and cleaning up afterwards have to be squeezed in between the normal everyday chores of work, housekeeping and family tasks. And after all is said and done, women have to be left with some time for prayer and contemplation. No wonder many of them end up looking drawn and bitterly complaining that the 24-hour day cannot accommodate all what needs to be done during that time. The only way to do so is to skip on sleep, something possible for a day or two, but for a full month?
“Oh for the good old days when there used to be ample time for everything!” says the 60-year-old Magda Salah. “There wasn’t so many TV soap operas, so we could use the time for family and for whatever preparations are needed. We used to cook simpler meals, and we had help at home. Now there are so many cooking programmes which offer so many new recipes on TV, the result being that we compete to serve more elaborate, innovative meals. I have to start cooking a day earlier if I have people for iftar, just for everything to be ready on time. But worse, family members are now so far apart physically and morally that getting together is no longer the same.”
In total agreement with Mrs Salah was 30-year-old Shaimaa’ who deplores the fragmentation of the family. “Modern technology is responsible for that,” she says. “But again, and even though Ramadan is the month for prayer, it was not the custom years ago for women to go for post-sunset prayers at the mosque; they said their prayers at home. This gave them more time to do whatever they needed to do, the result being a more relaxed atmosphere. So even where prayer is concerned, there is somewhat more stress.”
How do non-Muslims fare in Ramadan? “Oh I love this month!” Fady, a young man in his twenties says. “Everyone at work is laid back and the whole atmosphere knows no urgency.”
Many Christians enjoy as much as Muslims the evenings out and meals in the old quarters of the town near the centuries-old mosques. It helps that working hours start later the following day; they can catch up on sleep. After all, they have no suhour or social obligations to worry about.
“I love the festive atmosphere all around,” says Mariam, a young mother. “And I enjoy the soap operas. I frequently join my Muslim friends in their activities.” But how do non-Muslims deal with everyone around abstaining from food or drink? “Never in my life did I eat or drink before a Muslim who observed the fast; I did that privately. I respected their fast and their feelings.” The words of 66-year-old Nabila were echoed by almost everyone Watani approached. Today, it has become a frequent sight on the sidewalks in Cairo streets to find Coptic Youth who move around at sunset distributing cold water and dried dates to Muslims caught outside at ‘canon time’, the common term used to denote the end of the fast.
If Ramadan is a month-long happy festival, can there be anything wrong with it? Oh yes, plenty! Perhaps worst is the general, collective short temper and stress during the day. Hussam Muhammad, a pharmacist in his 40s, says it should come as no surprise that so many people are in a quarrelsome mood; the dehydration caused by the lack of constant water supply to the body makes it difficult for many to control their tempers. Add to this the lack of sleep caused by the festivity-full long evenings and the not-to-be-missed TV programmes and soap operas, and you have an explosive formula.”
Suha, a homemaker in her thirties, could not agree more. “My husband is a very nervous person during Ramadan,” she says. “That’s on account of his having to stay away from coffee and cigarettes during the fast. Every year I try to persuade him to cut down on his smoking gradually before Ramadan, but he is never able to do that. Then the holy month is here, and my husband is nothing but a bundle of nerves. The whole family suffers, especially the children.”
One of the worst ever problems with Ramadan, as any Cairene could vow, is the traffic. Taxi driver Taha speaks of the agony of rush hour in Ramadan when everyone is trying to get home at the same time for iftar. It does not help, he says, that in Ramadan the majority of drivers are nervous and short-tempered. The accident rate goes viral, “As though it’s not bad enough under normal conditions!” he says, alluding to the notorious Cairo traffic.
“But Ramadan should in the first place be a month of prayer and spiritual uplift,” Mr Muhammad says. “It’s a pity that so many people get so taken up by the socialising and TV programmes that they forget that. We must keep on reminding ourselves of the primary purpose of Ramadan so as not to lose it.”
For Hind, a university student, Ramadan is a time for prayer. “I feel elevated and serene in Ramadan,” she says. “Ever since I took the advice to focus on prayer as much as I could during the holy month I learnt to keep quiet when something goes wrong, so as to dissipate the anger. I join in charity work, and I always try to project a smiling front; I found out first-hand that a smile relieves stress and makes me, as well as those I smile at, happy.”
Sadly, one time-honoured Ramadan professional has gone out of service, to the anguish of Egyptians. That professional is the mesaharaati, the guy who used to march about the streets before daybreak singing or calling to the beat of his drum upon those who were asleep to wake up for suhour. He was very welcome some decades ago, when the Ramadan evening entertainment ended a few hours after iftar and then people went to bed. A few hours later the mesaharaati’s song and drumbeat would wake them up to the famous call: “Wake up, you who are asleep…Pray to the Eternal…”
Another Ramadan day is here.
One of the most loved spots to partake of Ramadan iftar and suhour and spend the time in between lingering in the centuries-old streets, browsing the shops, sipping tea and snacking on kunafa and qatayef, and generally socialising with everyone around, is the district of al-Hussein in Islamic Cairo. Our photographer Nasser Sobhy was on hand to capture some dazzling shots.
8 July 2015