Egypt – Ramadan in Cairo

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I was commissioned this piece for the Qatar Airways inflight magazine Oryx last year then trouble/protests broke out and the article was pushed back. Well its been published and I’d like to think Ramadan in Cairo hasn’t changed much from how I remember it….

“DALLIA M. ABDELMONIEM, A RESIDENT OF CAIRO FOR MORE THAN 15 YEARS,reflects on the joys of spending Ramadan in one of the worlds busiest cities.

 Cairo can be maddening at times. Very maddening. The crowds, the traffic, the noise levels, the road rules that only locals seem to understand; but for one month of every year all the negative points seemingly dissipate and the city turns into a mass of twinkling fawanees (lantern).

Ramadan is one of the holiest months in the Muslim calendar and, though observance of it is sacrosanct, in Cairo its been taken up a notch and has very much become a month of celebration as well. When I first moved to the Egyptian capital I was told to enjoy fasting as it takes on a whole new meaning here, and that has been proven true. The nightspots that we know take a breather and shut up shop for 30 days while new ones pop up in their place; restaurant menus are replaced with more iftar and suhoor-oriented ones while Old Islamic Cairo becomes the destination de rigueur for those seeking a more authentic taste of the city.

The recent economic woes, coupled with the fact Ramadan has fallen during the hot summer months, have had somewhat of an adverse effect on the city and its inhabitants when it comes to enjoying the month, but nonetheless nothing can stop the festivities from taking place. And as with most countries in this part of the world, everything gets flipped backwards night becomes day, breakfast becomes dinner, and sleeping times are confined to the afternoons.

Entertainment-wise, Ramadan in Egypt revolves around the three Fs: food, family, and friends. All play a big part and all certainly add to the spirit of the month; from gathering around the TV set to watch the latest soap series, to meeting at the ahwa (coffee shop) for a few rounds of backgammon or cards, copious amounts of tea, and the customary Ramadan drinks of humous el sham and sahlab. Pop-up kheyyam ramadan, very similar to marquees but most often set up using traditional khayamiya decorative appliqué textiles, are also popular and have attained a permanent place in the night scene with party planners always on the lookout to try something new and innovative that will draw the crowds in. From PlayStation docks on every table and hosting Wii competitions, to hiring takht bands (where the musicians usually only play the oud, the qanun, the kamanjah, the ney, the riq, and the darabukkah) for some old-school music complete with a singer crooning the tunes of the much-loved Oum Kalthoum, Abdel Halim Hafiz, and Fareed Al Atrash.

Food, of course, a prominent Ramadan fixture; whether its hotels and restaurants with their set menus and all-you-can-eat iftar buffets, or invites at friends and families homes where what is generally a 30-minute meal turns into one that stretches for hours until the call for Al Isha prayer arouses people from their post-food slumber. A popular saying is that Egyptians don’t eat to live, they live to eat and, if anything, its proven true over the 30 days of fasting with everyones sweet tooth making its presence felt. Patisseries and oriental sweet shops kick it up a notch, selling old favourites with a twist, such as konafa with mango, or sticking to the tried and tested, such as basbousa with nuts and baglawa. Some desserts tend to make an appearance only during Ramadan, such as balah el sham; gatayef with either cream, nuts, chocolate, or a fruit jam filling; and lugmat al gadi  all guaranteed to satisfy the sweet cravings and help pile on the pounds.

But its not all about food, as peoples charitable side shows itself. If you happen to be stuck in one of Cairo’s infamous traffic jams, you’ll find fruit and vegetable vendors handing out their produce, especially to those providing a service, such as the traffic wardens and police; people in cars sharing whatever edibles they happen to have; mosques and well-to-do patrons setting up maidat el rahman tables (a soup kitchen of sorts) for the poor, taxi drivers still on the job, and anyone who’s far from their home and needs to break their fast.

Sahlab (winter drink from Egypt)  and peppermint tea.

For a taste of Egyptian culture, places like Beit El Seheimy and the Cairo Opera House offer events such as Sufi performances and musical recitals if you’re looking for entertainment other than having a shisha, enjoying your mint tea, and seeing people. Neighbourhoods such as Zamalek, El Hussein, the Khan El Khalili bazaar, and Downtown remain open until the early hours, with people from all walks of life  the rich, the poor; locals, visitors  all staying out late, having their suhoor, enjoying the vibrancy, the lights, and crowds.

Sleep is the furthest thing from anyones mind. The Hussein Mosque and Al Azhar illuminate the neighbourhood with their glass-painted lanterns and chandeliers, while the constant stream of worshippers going through their doors add to the buzz of the area. The smells emanating from the food stalls and cafés; the spice merchants; the shisha smokers, all converge into one head-spinning aroma; all the while vendors clamour to grab your attention to try and sell you a trinket or two. Its a place that is chaotic yet organised; loud but with areas of serenity one wouldn’t find anywhere else.

There really is no place like Cairo for one to enjoy the spirit of Ramadan. Its a celebration of the holy month, where religious belief is observed and yet enjoyment is also part of the package. A time when the city welcomes all, enveloping them in a sense of community thats hard to replicate anywhere else.”

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