Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 August 2011
Issue No. 1061
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Ramadan tales

How would we be able to get into the true spirit of Ramadan without konafa, qatayef and the famous Iftar cannon? Some of these traditions go back to the 10th century, says Nader Habib

Click to view caption
Clockwise from top: illustration by El-Berginy, from Fonon Ramadan Book; trying to spot the crescent; making konafa;the cannon; preparing the kahk; one of the best ramadan desserts, katayef

I grew up in a Christian household, and yet Ramadan was one of our biggest events of the year. We would all gather around the radio before Iftar, following the popular programmes that preceded the firing of the madfaa al-iftar, or sunset cannon.

I can still remember the singer Sabah and the comedian Fouad El-Mohandis featuring in a show in which the husband (El-Mohandis) would ask his wife (Sabah) to prepare a huge meal for him for Iftar. She would do as he asked, but then the husband would eat only one bite of it and would leave the rest. Sabah, frustrated, would then scream a line from her famous song at him, "ha teganenni" (you're driving me mad).

After the sunset meal, everyone would dig into Ramadan sweets, the konafa and qatayef we rarely had during the rest of the year. Then we would go out onto the balcony and look at the hangings, the paper lanterns strung between balconies to make the nights so festive. Think Christmas in Europe or America. This is what we had, and for a whole month every year.

Ramadan wasn't exactly a holiday, but it was the next best thing. It was a month in which people exchanged visits frequently and in which children were allowed to play out a lot. It was a time of year in which we would take our fanous, or candle lanterns, and run around the block. Either that, or we would stay up late into the night to listen to the fantastic stories of The Thousand and One Nights on the radio. If you stayed up long enough, you might even hear the mesaharati (Ramadan drummer) doing his rounds, calling out the familiar names of the neighbours one by one, a feat that never ceased to amaze me.

On the occasion of the advent of Ramadan, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina's latest issue of Egypt's Contemporary Memory magazine dedicates a column titled "Our traditions and customs" to Ramadan. The column tells of our rulers who took part in the celebrations, often performing prayers in the mosques on Fridays or on the night of the spotting of the crescent. The latter was a big night, with the ulema going to the top of the Moqattam Mountains to look for the crescent moon, without the sighting of which the month could not begin. When they saw it, celebratory processions would follow in the streets, with everyone singing, "O followers of the best of God's creatures, tomorrow you start the fast."

Two cannons were fired every day, one at dawn and one at sunset. The first was the signal for people to start eating and the second told them to begin the fast. On the radio, we'd hear an officer shouting out the order madfaa al-iftar idrab! (cannon for the breaking of the fast, fire!), or madfaa al-imsak, idrab! (cannon for the start of fasting, fire!). The cannon tradition sadly waned and has been replaced by cartoon illustrations of cannons broadcast on television.

The custom of firing cannons at dawn and sunset goes back to the Mamluk sultan Al-Dhaher Seifeddin Zinki Khoshkadam. He had received a cannon from a German dignitary, and his soldiers -- trying it out -- fired it exactly at sunset. Delighted with this new method of declaring Iftar, the ulema went to Khoshkadam to ask him to keep doing the same thing every day. They were not allowed to see the sultan, but met instead with his wife, Hajja Fatima, who relayed their request to Khoshkadam, who then obliged.

For a long time afterwards, the public got into the habit of calling this particular cannon "the cannon of Hajja Fatima". A similar story attributes the practice to Mohamed Ali, the early 19th century ruler of Egypt.

After Iftar, the mosques would stay open for the extra prayer service in Ramadan called the taraweeh. Small mosques usually closed their doors to the public after taraweeh, but big mosques often stayed open till dawn.

Socialising normally started right after taraweeh. Some people went to caf│ęs to meet friends and listen to the radio (in earlier centuries they would listen to story-tellers instead). Others went to attend zikr (sufi chanting) sessions in mosques and private homes. The more affluent members of society often held free banquets in open spaces, a tradition revived in recent years in the form of the mawaed al-rahman, or charity banquets.

One of the desserts served at such banquets is konafa, a word derived from kanaf, or haven. The first man with whom this dish was associated was Syria's seventh-century ruler Moawia Ibn Abi Sofian, who, according to legend, liked to have konafa at Sohour (the pre-dawn meal). Konafa remained popular during the Ayoubid, Mamluk and Ottoman times.

Some credit goes to the Fatimids for inventing the dish. According to one story, when the Caliph Al-Muiz entered the newly-built city of Al-Qahera (Fatimid Cairo), he was showered with gifts, including a delicious plate of noodles with nuts that he greatly enjoyed. From that moment on, konafa became popular, and, later spreading to Syria, it then assumed the various forms we enjoy today.

The origins of katayef go back to either Abbasid or Fatimid times. According to one account, a man once gave a lovely arrangement of nut-stuffed cakes to his guests during Ramadan, telling them to "pick out" what they liked best. This is how the word katayef, which literally means "pickings", came to be used.

Both the mesaharati and the fanous are associated with the popular welcome given to the Fatimid Caliph Al-Muiz in Cairo. People are said to have gone out carrying lanterns and singing to the beat of drums to receive the country's new ruler on 5 Ramadan of 358 Hijra, or 24 July 968. The practice of beating drums and hanging up colourful lanterns then became part of Ramadan culture.

Mesaharatis roam the streets during Ramadan, singing songs and lingering just a bit longer in front of the houses of families known to tip more at the end of the month. The small drum they use is known as a baza, and each mesaharati is usually accompanied by a child carrying a lantern. After intoning a religious litany in front of a particular house, a mesaharati will call out the name of the house's owner and wish him every happiness: yesead layalik ya folan (May God make your nights delightful, sir).

The last 10 days of Ramadan are the best. One of these nights, the night on which the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Mohamed, is called the leilat al-qadr (Night of Good Fortune). This night is described in the Quran as being "better than one thousand months." Eager to capture the blessings of that particular night, the pious spend the last 10 nights of Ramadan praying in mosques.

Ramadan ends with the Eid Al-Fitr (Lesser Bairam), which lasts for three days. The Eid starts with cannon fire declaring the end of Ramadan, and then everybody heads out to prayers at a major mosque dressed in their best clothes. It is customary to give idia (a gift of cash) to younger members of the family, as well as to servants, on this occasion.

At the Eid, it is customary to eat kahk (sugar-dusted cakes) shoreik (soft and scented bread), salt fish and nuts. The recipe for kahk may go back to Pharaonic times, since in the tomb of the Pharaoh Ramses III there is a scene showing royal bakers decorating kahk with images of the sun. Cake moulds for making kahk from Fatimid times, still on display at the Agricultural Museum in Cairo, feature thanksgiving phrases like bel shokr qodum al-neam (gratefulness begets prosperity) and kol we eshkor (eat and give thanks).

In the countryside, village women often go out to the cemeteries during the Eid to hand out alms and sweetmeats and adorn tombs with basil branches and palm fronds.

Few families today buy ready-made kahk, preferring to make it at home. But when I was a child, people would stand in line outside pastry shops and bakeries where they would have their home-made kahk professionally baked. Families would then exchange gifts of kahk, and we children would act as unofficial referees, declaring which family had made the best sweets of the year.

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