Ramadan in full swing
To know about a country's tradition, one must walk its streets. Those of Cairo always reflect the mood of its people. From feasts to death memorials, the streets tell it all. How do you know that it is Ramadan? The majority of the fasting population are yawning, lethargic or edgy due to lack of caffeine, nicotine, carbohydrates and consequently patience.
Traffic reaches its peak shortly before Iftar (breaking the fast) at sunset, and by then all the shops are closed until they reopen again in the evening, when trade extends into late night. Many streets are lit with colourful lights and decorations, big lanterns hang from balconies, across streets or in the hands of children passing by the local football match that ends by dawn. Prayers, of course, are held in mosques all day and night; while others prefer to indulge themselves with the delicious Ramadan desserts of konafa and qatayef.
Ramadan is known for its holiness, it's the month that the Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet Mohamed, the month of charity, piety and a high sense of religious rituals. But throughout the years, many changes have come across this holy month allowing new trends to falsely attach themselves to the Ramadan spirit.
For 27-year-old Sarah Saleh, Ramadan is the month where a person tends to walk the extra mile and be closer to God. "This is mostly conveyed through controlling and improving one's manners and behaviour, as well as practising religious rituals." This is something which is very hard to do during Ramadan while driving, for example, because "people are too short-tempered, rushing recklessly to arrive for Iftar on time, and then blaming their attitude on fasting," Saleh told Al-Ahram Weekly.
She added that there are civil servants who will postpone doing their job in the name of Ramadan; many women refrain from wearing make-up while fasting; others just use eye make-up because lipstick is said to break the fast if you digest it by mistake. Some women dress more conservatively for fear of harassment, and somehow it is more acceptable to harass women on the street if they do otherwise because they are jeopardising the male onlooker's fast, according to Saleh.
"I believe Ramadan has changed over the past five years," she argued. "People are more glued to their television screens than ever before, and Ramadan outings in the evening reveal that people go from one extreme to the other after sunset." Saleh was referring to the "Ramadan tents" which serve signature Ramadan food, drink and entertainment at night until Sohour. "Instead of being an outing for people to socialise, these gatherings have lost their Ramadan flavour and have turned into dance fests where tight, revealing outfits are on display," Saleh complained.
But according to driver Fekri Hussein, the difference between Ramadan now and then is the people. "The people's attitude has changed. They fast, but refrain from working; they miss the fact that fasting is not limited to food, it is fasting from all evils, including food." Meanwhile, continued Hussein, mosques which are packed during Ramadan are empty of worshippers once the holy month is over. "It's as if God is watching us once a year, while in fact he is there all year round," he added.
On a nostalgic note, Hussein remembered the old days "before television, when Ramadan was an opportunity for worship and family re-unions." For years, soap operas, fun shows and Ramadan riddles have been a cornerstone of Egyptian television during Ramadan, and this programming has been watched and imitated throughout the Arab world via satellite.
"As for charity, we had guest houses in our village to serve strangers and those who were fasting, providing food and shelter for the needy as long as they needed it," added Hussein.
The fixation on one month of festivities has historical roots, according to sociologist Ali Fahmi. "Religious celebration in general is embedded in Egyptian tradition," Fahmi told the Weekly. "As Herodotus and other historians explain, the religious festivities of Ancient Egyptians lasted for 15 days. Throughout the centuries, the religions changed but the sense of occasion lives until today."
Fahmi explained that this is why Egypt is one of the few Muslim countries which is so commercial and excessive in its celebration of religious festivities, especially during Ramadan. "Food extravagance, extreme entertainment and religious rituals are nothing but traditions of the same essence, but practiced differently in this day and age," he noted. In the old days, continued Fahmi, there were no free Iftars for the poor in the form of charity mawaaed al-rahman, but there was the waqf or endowment system that provided free food and shelter for the needy all year long.
As for the intense piety that the majority limits to one month, Fahmi described them as "traders" in religion who treat their God from a strictly commercial perspective. "This is a clear deviation from the true essence of religion which calls for doing good and following God's instructions all year long," he concluded.