Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1396, (31 May - 6 June 2018)
Wednesday,20 February, 2019
Issue 1396, (31 May - 6 June 2018)

Ahram Weekly

A Syrian Ramadan

Ramadan is a festive month for all Muslims, but how are Syrians in Egypt celebrating during the holy month, asks Ameera Fouad 

A Syrian Ramadan
A Syrian Ramadan

“Happiness is sharing a plate of konafa,” Salama said with a wide smile as he gave a little girl a bite of the delicious Syrian konafa al-Nabulsia, an oriental sweet, he is famous for making. 

While crowds line up outside his store to buy famous desserts that blend Syrian and Egyptian cuisines, Salama walks outside and spreads happiness to every passer-by by holding out a plate of konafa to share. With every bite, he greets all comers and with every smile he gently says Ramadan Kareem.

Talaat Salama, the owner of a famous dessert house on the Mediterranean coast, is one of the many Syrians who have fled the Syrian civil war to end up in Egypt. In his home country, he was a businessman in the town of Idlib, but he lost two of his relatives and all his property when an air strike demolished his hometown in December 2012. 

Torn between Europe and neighbouring Arab countries, Salama chose Egypt as a country where he felt he could start again.

In fewer than three years, Salama has built a chain of stores in Alexandria, encapsulating the growth of the Syrian economy that has flourished in recent years in Egypt. However, though he smiles, deep down in his heart he wishes he could be reunited with his family in Syria.

“I am living the best of times in Egypt, but when it comes to Ramadan, what I wish for most is to be reunited with my family in Idlib,” he says.

Salama, though trained as an engineer, was fond from a young age of baking and wanted to establish his own pastry shop. “When I arrived in Egypt, I thought why not start over again with desserts. With the help of Syrian friends, I started my business in pastry and oriental desserts,” he said.

Honnain, Salama’s wife, shares a different pain this year as she has heard of her brother’s death just three months ago in a village near Idlib. “Ramadan this year is painful for me, but at the same time peaceful. If I were in Syria, I would have buried myself in grief because of my brother’s death. But being far away can be merciful sometimes. Though I feel the pain, my Egyptian friends are my backbone. They are my family now,” she said.

Though the UNHCR, the UN relief agency, estimates the number of Syrians living in Egypt to be 120,000, government sources say the number is in fact closer to half a million, while some non-governmental organisations estimate the number to be a million at least. They mainly reside in urban areas like 6 October City and parts of Alexandria. Like Salama, most of them are engaged in private business or employed in the informal economy.

The Ramadan economy in Egypt is worth at least LE500 million, with the government also providing products at low prices. Supermarket chains like Carrefour, Metro, Fathallah, and others have rushed to promote special offers on popular food items associated with Ramadan like yameesh, qamareddin, and so on (fruit and nuts and apricots).

Since the Syrians are famous for their qamareddin, a juice made of dried apricots that is sweetened and made into thin sheets, some have integrated into the Egyptian market to produce Syrian qamareddin using Syrian workers.

“Last year, I was dumbfounded when I found out that qamareddin in Egypt was sold at around LE50, whereas it could cost much less. I introduced an idea for cheaper products to the manager at the food company I work for, and we started to sell a line of fresh qamareddin made the Syrian way,” Mohamed Al-Basha, 44, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Qamareddin is an originally Syrian product that goes back to the 14th century when the ruler used to distribute the juice in the streets in celebration of the holy month. Syrian women took up the tradition and made the juice inside their homes before it became an industry worth millions of pounds.

Malak (not her real name), the mother of three children, said that “this Ramadan I made my own qamareddin at home and distributed it among the neighbours and some restaurants. When they realised it was almost like the sold product, or even better, they ordered some more from me.”

“I am the only breadwinner of the family, so whenever I feel something is trending in the Egyptian market, I make it in packets and distribute it to local restaurants. Online delivery is also very feasible in Egypt,” Malak said.

She has a Facebook page run by her son Hussein and said that “I came to Egypt empty-handed with my three children over the border with Sudan. I did not even know if there was any roof to sleep under. An NGO helped us with a house we shared with others. After a while, and with the help of charity groups, I was able to supplement my income with a bakery I set up at home,” she said.

For Malak, Ramadan in Egypt is like the Syrian one, with lanterns shining, friends gathering, and food being made in every house. There are the same TV drama series, Ramadan tents and giving to charity. 

“I am glad I am in Egypt with the same traditions and using the same language and having the same religion. I would never made it in Europe or survived in the Western culture. I feel I am at home in Syria here in so many things,” she said.

Tarek, in his mid-30s, who lives in a poor neighbourhood of Alexandria, disagreed with Malak, however. “Ramadan to me is family and friends. Most of my family is gone, and many friends have been scattered across the world such that we have lost contact with each other,” he said. As a result, Ramadan could never be the same.

Though it is easy to integrate into Egyptian society, many Syrians still feel the pain of being half-citizens in Egypt with no official status. “Because of my status here, I do not know if I am an asylum-seeker or a refugee. I feel I do not exist, and I am afraid to show up to any official meeting because I could be deported even though I have been living and working in Egypt for the past three years,” Tarek concluded.

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