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For the past week, Egyptians have been racing against time to shop for food, drinks and also school supplies
"So are you ready for Ramadan?" For as long as anyone cares to remember, that's been the traditional question in Egypt at this time of (lunar) year. In the run-up to Ramadan, it seems to come naturally, reflecting genuine concern; so does the assertion, in response, that "yes, we're trying to prepare..." But prepare what? What exactly is it that one should be ready for in the run-up to the month of fasting? Marketing executive Khaled Labbad, for one, doesn't have a clue: "I have no preparation rituals myself. As far as I'm concerned the month is about fasting." But for the vast majority of the faithful, rather than asceticism and memory of God, Ramadan is about traffic jams, packed sidewalks and lines before supermarket cashiers, billboards and TV. Unwarranted anticipation of the inevitable, like someone who is worried they won't see the sun unless they stare at it: yearly the notion of preparing for Ramadan, championed by the government, is fine-tuned by the people. And this year is no exception.
For months now the newspapers have conveyed a message from the one to the other, reassuring them that their holy-month needs will be met. By the end of last month no less than 90,000 tonnes of frozen meat, 120,000 head of cattle, 5,000 sheep, four million chicken and 100 million eggs had been imported; and that is to mention neither local production nor the pumping of oil, sugar and bread into the market. The idea is that it will be consumed in 30 days. And it is not an unwarranted idea. According to Ali El-Sheikh, who having his daily glass of tea was with friends at a coffee shop in Haram, "the fridge has to be full before the month starts." Some of the food might well go to waste, he admits. "But it's a habit one cannot break, even if it's no longer very practical. Besides, my wife and her acquaintances are very competitive about what they purchase and she needs to be able to show off. Now I can't argue with that, can I?" El-Sheikh giggles. With schools starting next Saturday, however, many have had to control that habit. Hamdi Abdel-Basset, owner of an export business, has had to choose: "my children are in private schools, so I'm happy to give up the luxurious yameesh [nuts and dried fruits] of Ramadan to keep them there," he retorts.
Still, food -- not fasting -- defines the festive spirit of the holy month. "We have a sort of family tradition," El-Sheikh says. "We go to the pickle shop just before Iftar, and each of us carries his own bag back home. We can't imagine not going through this ritual together." And indeed it is the high season, not only for pickles but fuul dispensers, dairy shops and of course restaurants and cafés. According to Nahla Imam, a folk belief specialist at the Academy of Art, "Egyptians are a festive people who tend to give the religious occasions extra attention; and food has always been the way to express this tendency. Similar habits are observed all over the world." Where people need to gather, food is necessary to bring them together. Mothers who work, like Safaa Fouad, may start making provisions very early on: "the idea of shopping before Iftar is not logical. Look at the traffic, the number of people trying to make it to their or their relatives' houses on time. I try to squeeze all my errands into the week before." Many have evidently done the same, judging by traffic alone. But Fouad says the pre-Iftar traffic problem has been less and less intense in the last few years. And there is more than the habit to the tendency of people to accumulate vast amounts of food.
"We're scared that by the time we need the stuff, its price will have gone up," says El-Sheikh. But insecurity about prices is precisely what enables food dispensers to raise them, since it causes a sudden rise in demand. A vicious circle. As Imam points out, what is more, within the general tendency to consume, consume, consume, different income groups behave differently: the rich hold large-scale Iftars, patronising -- among other nighttime "tents" -- no-alcohol versions of the bars they go to for the rest of the year; those who earn LE300-400 a month, and there are many of them, work towards having a substantial meal ready every day, with maybe one or two feasts. Compulsive shopping is rather a phenomenon of the middle class, which tends to be the most visible income group. Filling up supermarkets is their forte.
Food is not the end of the world, thankfully. And while the mesaharati may have disappeared, the fanous has not. Among the most essential Ramadan traditions, the former is a drum beating crier whose job it is to wake people up for Sohour, the last meal before the fast begins at dawn, the latter a lantern associated with the holy month. Fouad says lighting the candle in the fanous every evening after Iftar still heartens her: "As much for myself as for them, I make sure my children have one." After a bout of popularity it seems the battery- operated Chinese equivalent is making way to the traditional brass fanous once again -- a far more beautiful object. According to Mustafa Gad, another Academy of Arts scholar, "festivities in Egypt have always had their beautifying aspect, like the fanous which has been the Egyptian child's favourite toy for so many centuries, yet the Chinese have managed to ruin that beauty with their plastic disposables." According to Imam, however, "maybe exporting the fanous to us helps them find out about our traditions in a way." She added that, in the last 10 years the religious discourse has been such that more and more people, men and women, are eager to spend the evening at the mosque doing tarawih and tahajjud : long, Ramadan- specific prayers. "It's not a very Egyptian habit, but it's gaining ground because of the religious discourse, so are acts of piety in the holy month, partly because of religious satellite TV." And for people like Bassem Mustafa, indeed, this is the whole point of Ramadan.
Others may focus on consumption, but Bassem plans on following a religious programme of his own, doing good and avoiding misbehaviour: "This month is an opportunity that should not be wasted. I try to dedicate all the time I have to religious rituals; and in the good company I have kept for the last five years, I manage to spend the last 10 days of Ramadan in the mosque." He gets ready for that by finishing his work as earlier as possible, while at the same time eating lightly to be able to focus on prayers, avoiding the usual month's trademark gluttony. As some features of the month have changed in the course of time, it is clear that change does come, however much -- as Imam explains -- the Egyptian folk belief system hates it: "Egyptians have a saying that if you break a habit, that's a bad omen. They tend to stick to their habits. People just get used to this thing or that. It's only natural."