Ramadan – 20+ days to go

Okay, so I’m experiencing my first Ramadan. Let me first say that I mean no religious disrespect and all of my complaints are completely personal and selfish… having said that, I was surprised at how immediately I felt affected. Even on the first day I could feel a change in the city. The energy flow seems to ebb less than flow.

Here is a good description of Ramadan that I found online: “Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic or Hegira calendar, is when the Koran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammed and is thus considered the ‘Holy Month’. A time of spiritual reflection, Muslims fast for the entire month from daybreak to sundown, eschewing even drinking-water [ending in a three-day feast called Eid al-Fitr]. If for some reason you cannot fast for the entire month, the days are to be made up elsewhere or you must volunteer and feed someone or do other charitable deeds… It is perhaps the equivalent of the Christian Christmas since it is a time of exchanging gifts, and buying new clothes. The Islamic calendar is lunar and it moves eleven days ahead each Gregorian calendar year. So when Ramadan falls in summer, the heat and long daylight hours make fasting a not inconsiderable undertaking for a whole month. And yet most Muslims view it as a time of celebration. The meal breaking the fast, called iftar, starts [at sundown] and the last meal before the fast, called suhour, takes place anywhere from 0100 until daybreak which according to the Koran is defined, ‘until the white thread of light becomes distinguishable from the dark thread of night at dawn.’ The times change every day and obviously are different throughout the world… The last 10 days of the month are considered the holiest with the 27th Ramadan, ‘Laylat al Qadr’ or Night of Power, being the actual night the Koran was first revealed. On this night hundreds of thousands of men still go to the mosque and spend the entire night in prayer.”

So, as you can see, not drinking or eating, or even more importantly smoking (everyone here smokes, everywhere), from sunup to sundown, makes for a tired and cranky crowd. The times of sundown are printed in the newspaper, however I was told that typically people don’t start feasting at exactly 6:17pm. They start with tea, relax and then begin the meal and the festivities, which often last throughout the night (though without alcohol I’m not sure why or how they last that long).

The embassy printed some Ramadan information which stated that it was impolite to openly eat or drink in public during fasting times (i.e., daylight), so I am consciously not drinking water during my Arabic class (as my teacher is Muslim) as well as in public, despite my shopping outings and the heat. I have relied on moments of grabbing a swig in bathrooms, hallways, stairwells and dark museum exhibit rooms before resuming public interaction.

As a result of fasting, not smoking, and the heat of summer, the momentum of Cairo comes to a slow crawl around 3:00pm. Shops close, businesses halt, work in general ceases. Last week, as I was walking from the embassy to the fabric market (with plans on buying fabric for some little upholstery jobs I have in mind), I saw men lying around, in parked cars, on benches, on the ground, under bridges, in bobbing feluccas – all moreso than normal (let’s be honest here, there are a LOT of seemingly idle men in Cairo, but typically they are at least sitting up).

The only thing that increases to a frightening pace is the traffic, particularly between 4:00-6:00, when people are racing to get home for the iftar meal. We have actually been advised to stay off the roads, out of cars and taxis during this time, however last Thursday I found myself in a taxi at 4:00 careening like I’ve never careened before up the Corniche from Maadi to Zamalek. It was actually rather harrowing, and I will definitely not do that again (though I will say my Zen breathing is getting much better).

The shops closing has been a bit of a bother for me, as I’m still trying to figure out when some of them open during non-Ramadan times. But here and there I see signs posted, saying “Closed for iftar, 3:30-7:30pm, open 7:30-11:00pm.” So I just have to switch my shopping times to late evening. Blech. Restaurants are open, but typically only non-Muslims eat there before sundown, obviously, and alcohol is not served in most establishments. (Egypt is not a completely “dry” country, but alcohol is certainly not highly prevalent. We tend to purchase ours from the commissary, which carries beer, wine and spirits.) Most tourist sites have limited hours, opening up later in the morning and closing around 3:00pm.

Another result of the fasting, heat and not smoking is the fighting and arguing. In general, Egyptians may talk at each other loudly, gesticulate wildly, but honestly I’ve never seen a fight. But since the start of Ramadan, I’ve seen more angry yelling arguments than in the prior four months combined and I can only imagine it’ll get worse as the month progresses.

Another change, which doesn’t affect us, but amuses us, is that the “Fashion TV” channel displays “Removed for Ramadan” when you pass by it on the remote. I haven’t seen that on any other channels yet.

The city itself is decked out with strings of lights, banners, colorful fabric swags, and brightly colored metal lanterns. Apparently shops actually have to apply for a lighting permit and the Electricity Company of North Cairo charges 300LE (about $60) for every 50 lamps that a business displays in an attempt to thwart black-outs. We have ventured out in the evening, attempting to eat dinner at one of our favorite restaurants which we found was closed, and there was definitely a festive air about. However, I am also personally very conscious of all the live animals throughout the city and know that the last three days of feasting are precluded by massive slaughtering. One guide book mentioned the number of animals being slaughtered results in rivers of blood in the streets. I have full intention of either being out of the city/country or will remain indoors for those “festivities.” A friend said she enjoys Ramadan because it’s quieter and no one’s smoking. I disagree and will just have to wait it all out.