Ramadan started on the 1st of September, which was also the first day of school and my roommate Lori’s birthday. Ramadan ends with the Eid El Fitr (a big feast for a couple days) at the end of September/beginning of October (dive trip!!!). From my understanding, Ramadan is a month out of the year where Muslims fast from sunup to sundown from food or drink in order to be able to feel what it is like to be without these things and to focus on compassion toward the poor. The fast-breaking meal (breakfast…) is known as Iftar and is eaten around 6:15pm following the call to prayer at sunset. There is also a meal around 4am that people wake up early to eat. During Ramadan, Iftars are often spent with families or friends. Everything in Cairo stops completely during this time. The streets are eerily empty and all of Egypt breathes a sigh of relief because they can finally eat. It is pretty common for people who can afford food to put on an iftar on the streets for poor people to come and get food. They do this in big tents made of colorful Ramadan fabrics. At some markets, you can buy Ramadan Bags that have basic staple foods in them to pass out to the poor. Aside from the Ramadan tents, the streets are decorated with lots of colorful lights and huge lanterns called “Fanooses” (I’m sure I’m spelling that wrong)
Ok, that’s what Ramadan is supposed to be – and some people do follow it. Here is what it tends to looks like. During Ramadan, those fasting get very grumpy because they have not had anything to eat or drink since 4am and they are tired because most of the festivities happen during the night, and they still have to wake up to go to work, school, etc. the next day. For this reason and to avoid traffic (which I will get to later), everyone gets off of work and school early so they can get home for Iftar on time. We get off of school at 1:40 and have a special Ramadan Schedule with a shorter “Lunch” break for the Christians, and “Prayer” break for the Muslims. Either way, most kids run out and play soccer. The kids have an even harder time than normal paying attention and not falling asleep in class (which is saying a lot), and their breath smells because they are not even allowed to brush their teeth in the morning. This is especially a problem due to a variation in "personal space" distance than what most westerners are used to. ..
One thing I have found particularly amusing this year is that Daylight savings time came early this year- just before Ramadan so that everyone would have to fast one hour less! (Each year Ramadan gets a little over half a month earlier because it is all based on the Moon and what Sheikhs in Saudi Arabia see. No one knows 100% when it starts until they say it) Next year it will be in August and I don’t think they’ll be able to change the time again. It is pretty horrible to imagine making it through the August heat without water.
Traffic is horrible during Ramadan, and people drive like crazy people. There are far more accidents during this month than other times in this year, mostly during the times when people are trying to get home for Iftar. If you walk down the street during Iftar time, you feel that something is eerily wrong. Cairo is not known for its tranquil, serene aura, but for being one of the noisiest cities in the world with the average decibel level equivalent to that of a construction site. Walking out during this time feels like you’re in a western movie walking into a ghost town where plastic bags drift across the street instead of tumble weeds.
Stores that are normally open all day and late into the night are now only open till around 4 then open again around 8. This makes it difficult to do things like grocery shopping after you get home from work. You have to wait till after 8 to get any errands done. On September 1st, Mobonil, the cell phone provider I use – decided to turn off my phone line that I have had for over a year because I needed to “update my data”. (I thought the word “Data” was pretty vague but turns out they just needed to see a copy of my passport and decided to turn off my phone service till I brought it in. Not only were they not specific in communicating this, but communicated the "Data" thing in an arabic text message) Well, being that it was the 1st day of Ramadan, everything was closed at 4 and didn’t open later in the day. So it was all closed by the time I got home and I couldn’t fix my cell phone service till about 10 pm 2 days later. The same day, I went to the gym and was about to start changing, when a man walked in to the women’s dressing room and told me the gym was closed for Ramadan. I definitely had that “I can’t win!!!” feeling and on that day, came up with the title to the culturally insensitive Ramadan song that Lori and I would later write, called “I’m Rama-done with Ramadan”. Yes, this song does exist, and is pretty amazing. It’s catchy and has been stuck in my head ever since. E-mail me if you want a copy .
At any time during the day, restaurants are empty and you get great service, other than that you feel bad that those serving your food can’t eat themselves during that time. I asked a Muslim friend of mine if this was rude and she said that it’s their own choice to work there, and they kind of get more points for fasting with people eating in front of them.
During Ramadan, people are also to abstain from drinking or even being around alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, sex, etc. – basically anything that would make you "impure". This also leads to grumpiness. Restaurants that would normally sell alcohol are prohibited to sell it during Ramadan and I heard that the few places that do sell it are not allowed to sell it to Egyptians. Egyptians must show that they have a foreign passport if they want to drink alcohol during Ramadan, regardless of their religion.
I was in a taxi last week during the sunset call to prayer and the driver pulled over at a kiosk as soon as the call went off to go buy cigarettes and started smoking immediately. In his rush to buy the ciggies, he almost forgot to set the parking break as the car started rolling backwards into another car. Luckily he put off his fix long enough to run back into the car and set the break. I’m still confused on if they are supposed to abstain from these things just during the day, or during the whole of Ramadan. I think people have varying ideas on this dependent on their level of devotedness.
A friend explained that you are not supposed to put anything bad into you including into your eyes. I thought this would be great – that the harassment on the street would stop for a month. Unfortunately I was a bit optimistic on this one. It may be better though!
I learned this year that Iftars are supposed to be small meals so that those fasting are able to feel what it is like to be poor, but most people feast it up as soon as the call sets off and start chowing down on special sweets that people only eat during Ramadan, dried fruits, nuts and huge feasts.
Well, that’s about it for my Ramadan files! It is a really funny time of the year when looking at it from the outside. It is a huge reminder that I am indeed the minority and that this country is centered around Islam. (I think I understand a bit how other religions feel during Christmas.) It is also a reminder that in any tradition in any religion, the purpose behind it can so easily be lost and replaced by legalism. I am glad that I have been able to have people in my life like my Arabic teacher Ashgan and her family who do adhere to the original meaning of Ramadan and are seeking to serve those less fortunate and be humbled and changed by this season.