Ramadan in Cairo: Yesterday & Today

Linda S. Heard | Special to Review
Publication Date: 
Thu, 2007-09-27 03:00

EGYPTIANS look forward to the Holy month of Ramadan almost without exception. For the devout it’s an opportunity for spiritual cleansing and reflection, while families enjoy cementing ties and children delight in discovering ancient customs.

In Cairo — home to 16 million — you know it’s Ramadan when vehicles morph into racing cars prior to dusk; when traffic jams clog the city at 2 a.m. and when traffic police are seen perched on makeshift chairs studying the Qur’an.

You know it’s Ramadan when the streets are lit with myriad brightly colored lanterns, tables of mercy spring up on pavements under colorful tents, homes are decked with joyful streamers and mosques are full to overflowing during the evening’s Taraweeh prayers.

And you know it’s Ramadan when getting a cappuccino in one of the city’s many Italian-style Al-fresco coffee shops after 8 p.m. becomes a scrum just to find a spare table.

It’s also a time of overwhelming kindnesses. Those who cannot get home to break the fast, such as policemen, security guards and bawabs (doormen) are never forgotten.

In the street where I live well-to-do families ensure that the poorest are fed while residents of my building take turns to provide a meal for the doormen and the drivers.

For many less fortunate, however, keeping up with the traditional aspects of Ramadan has become a worrying financial burden and especially this year when Ramadan has coincided with the end of the holidays and start of the school year.

Ashraf Hassan, a 43-year-old teacher from Upper Egypt reminisces about “the good old days”. “My parents would always buy a fanous (lantern) for each of us children and we always had new clothes. I try my best. I have three jobs, but I can’t always manage to do the same”

Hassan, whose family moved to Cairo when he was small, misses the camaraderie of his home village. “In Aswan, there is no need for tables of mercy. Each family erects a table outside their front door and passersby are invited to join them.

There, he says, people wear white for iftar, which always begins with a special sweet consisting of apricots and dates — a treat his relatives still insist on sending him each year.

Mimi Sheikh, a 50-year-old television repairman from Alexandria agrees that everything was more plentiful in the old days. “For us children Ramadan was the happiest time of year but now many of the things we were used to having have become unaffordable”, he says.

Sheikh describes how in his youth the wealthy went out of their way to help the poor not only with food but also with financial gifts.

“Most rich people don’t bother about the poor nowadays,” he grumbles. “If they provide compassionate banquets it is usually to propagandize themselves for election purposes or to earn tax deductions. Their charity no longer comes from the heart”.

Adel Toppozada, a former Deputy Minister of Information and grandson of former Prime Minister Husssein Pasha Rushdy, supports Sheikh’s contention and says there used to be less of a class barrier.

“I remember when the rich routinely erected massive tents for the poor in popular areas such as Hussein and Khan El-Khalily and in those days wealthy people would eat sitting next to the needy and would always hand out money after the meal”, he says.

Mimi Sheikh also bemoans dwindling customs such as the masaharaty or drummer, who used to wake a sleeping neighborhood for Sohour and the Konafa-maker who used to prepare the sweet on the street in front of everyone. “These days Konafa and Kataif are mostly shop-bought,” he says.

Both Sheikh and Toppozada say the quality of food has diminished over the years and agree that some traditional cuisine has disappeared off the Ramadan menu due, they say, to the fast pace of life.

Sheikh is nostalgic for the shadow puppets of his youth who inevitably taught children how important it was to listen to their mothers and to live life in an ethical fashion.

He remembers too the disappearing Ramadan songs and games. “My children don’t enjoy Ramadan in the way that I did,” he says regretfully. “All they do in the evenings is watch television just as they do at any other time of year”.

Hagar (Rasha) Abdou Suleiman, a 25-year-old student at the Faculty of Commerce isn’t old enough to dwell on how Ramadan today differs from the past. Like most young Egyptians she is deeply religious and loves having the time to read the Qur’an and attend the local mosque for taraweeh prayers.

When she isn’t studying or praying, Rasha helps her mother to clean the family home and prepare the iftar meal, which normally includes amr-el-din (a thick, sweet apricot drink), dates and foul madames (fava beans).

In the evenings she visits relatives or goes with her father to a café where he smokes sheesha and sips on karkady hibiscus tea until it’s time for sohour.

Apart from Ramadan’s religious aspects, all the above respondents agree that the best thing about Ramadan is the celebration of family unity.

“It’s always a thrill to hear the midfa (cannon),” says Sheikh. “The boom reminds me to join my wife and children and give thanks that we’re all together”.

Hassan says he loves the general spirit of cooperation during Ramadan between people from all layers of society and believes that during this month people still go out of their way to help one another.

Toppozada says he enjoys meeting up with old friends and family members but regrets that nowadays “Life is difficult and there are lots of family disputes, whereas in earlier times arguments would be put aside during Ramadan, problems were resolved and old insults forgiven”.

Mimi Sheikh says the one thing he misses most about the Ramadan of his youth is the special aromas that used to permeate the air. It may be true that the scent of Ramadan has faded but its essence — peace, love, togetherness, devotion and charity — never will.

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