he Muslim holy month of fasting, Ramadan, began on Saturday 22 August. Egypt turned the clocks back a month early in a bid to reduce daylight hours for those fasting.
Because it follows the lunar cycle, Ramadan comes 11 days earlier every year on the Gregorian calendar, bringing the fasting month this year in the summer.
During Ramadan, Muslims are required to abstain from food and drink from dawn until dusk as life slips into a lower gear during the day. Activity peaks between iftar, the breaking of the fast at sunset, and suhour, the last meal of the day before sunrise.
The generous month
Egypt is among those nations most set on preserving heritage and traditions. This is in keeping with the motives of the team supervising Egypt’s Contemporary Memory project at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina to register historical customs and traditions of Egyptians.
The traditions differ in their detail, but the roots go back to our ancestors. Prominent among such traditions are those which pertain to “the generous month of Ramadan” as it is commonly termed.
Ramadan celebrations start on Ru’ya Night (sighting night) when the new lunar month is due. On this night, Al-Azhar officials try to spot the crescent to determine the first day of Ramadan. Before the advent of TV or radio people in Cairo would walk in procession, holding the famous fawanees (lanterns) accompanied by musicians beating drums to announce in the streets the first day of fasting.
Khaled Azab, supervisor of the project of Egypt’s Contemporary Memory, says this has all changed with the shift in ideas of entertainment. Nowadays time is spent shopping, sitting in coffee shops, listening to music or going to the gym. The messaharati (the one who calls for suhour), the man who roams the streets at night waking people up with his drum beat so they could have their sohour meal before daybreak, has today been replaced by satellite channels and Ramadan dramas. In fact, many stay awake between iftar and sohour, rendering the messaharati’s task obsolete. The long waking hours between the two meals is the main culprit behind the collective nervousness of Egyptians, especially observable on the streets and among drivers, which has come to characterise Ramadan in recent years.
The Egypt’s Contemporary Memory project is also registering every significant feast and celebration, among which is the Eid al-Fitr, the feast which ends Ramadan, during which Egyptians eat kahk—the famous sugared cookies whose recipe goes back to ancient Egypt. There is also the Mulid al-Nabi (the Prophet’s birthday); Sham al-Nassim (the Spring Festival); Nuqta (the night when ancient Egyptians honoured the River Nile, spending that night on its banks); and other social occasions such as the wedding and the sobou, the seventh day after a baby’s birth.
Interestingly, the project is registering Egyptian costumes of different classes and successive periods in history.