A lifetime experience
by Sameh Arab
Spending the holy month of Ramdan in Egypt is different than elsewhere. Other than the rituals practiced during that month, certain social habits of Egyptian Moslems are much different than anywhere else.
Ramadan is a month that follows the lunar calendar, the basis of Islamic (or Hijri) calendar. With an eleven-day difference than the Gregorian, the exact timing of Ramadan during the year becomes variable, sometimes falling in summer, and sometimes in winter. The first day of Ramadan too is variable, since "Shaaban", the preceding month, sometimes comes in 29 days and sometimes in 30. Astronomical calculations are utilized to detect the birth of the moon, yet the cornerstone remains to be its visualization after sunset. Ramadan lasts for 29 or 30 days, as most lunar months.
The holiness of this month comes from the fact that it hallmarked the day when the Holy Spirit - Gabriel started the transmission of Gods message to prophet Mohammad, 14 centuries ago. The exact date has never been identified, but believed to be on one of the last 10 days of this month, which Moslems call "Lailat el-Qadr". According to Islam, the month is dedicated to prayers, as it is believed that it is an occasion to wipe ones sins and enjoy Gods unlimited mercy.
The principal ritual during Ramadan is fasting. This entails abandoning eating, drinking, smoking or sinning - even if minor - throughout the whole day, from dawn to sunset. Though the usual daily practice is natural, Moslems prefer to spend more time praying or reading the Qoraan, particularly at night.
The daily meals become limited to two, the first of which is the "iftar" which is breaking the fasting that takes place immediately with sunset. The timing of the second meal - "sohour" - is variable according to personal preference, but usually delayed as much as possible until just before dawn. In between "iftar" and "sohour", people are allowed to eat liberally.
What makes this month different in Egypt? Since long time, Egyptians adopted certain social habits during that month, which are not directly related to religion. Officially, the working hours are diminished to allow more time for prayers. People usually sleep very late, sometimes at dawn, after spending long times in mosques. The traditional practice start immediately after sunset, which is announced to people through all mosques by the ritual "azan", or the call for prayers. Long time ago, it became the habit that the government fires a canon, which voice is so loud to be heard everywhere for announcement. Though modern technology has replaced this habit, yet it is still practiced and announced daily on the air on TV. This tradition started during the 16th century, when the canon was fired from the Cairo Citadel over "el-Moqattam" mount, and continued since then.
"Iftar" is a rich meal, which is considered the principal one. Though this includes any type of food, yet the desert almost always include the "konafa" or "qatayef". The former is a cake-like made of wheat, and full of sugar, honey, raisins and different types of nuts. The later is almost the same, but takes the shape of a small circular cake, which is folded to include the nuts and raisins.
With Ramadan being the most joyful month of the whole year, children also have their share of fun. The "fanoos" or lantern, is a must for every kid to have. These are traditionally made of tin and colored glass, with a candle inside. Modern ones are battery operated, but lack the spirit. All mosques and streets during the whole month are full of colored lights in a festival fashion, and in the past, children used to play in the streets with their lanterns, singing "wahawy ya wahawy". This tradition is still practiced, though rarely now in the streets, except among middle to poor neighborhoods, and in the countryside.
With the introduction of TV in the 1960s, the traditions changed again. TV transmission lasts almost 24 hours a day, and the programs include too many new serials and movies. More than half of the serials produced by the Egyptian TV are broadcasted during Ramadan for the first time. The other traditional program is the "fawazeer", which is a daily riddle played in a comic or a musical show. The family is usually gathered around the TV for long hours, if they do not go for prayers. Nuts are consumed as a snack, together with a traditional drink "qamar el-deen" which is made of apricot. Most people prefer to spend at least the first day in an extended family reunion fashion, gathering in the grand parents house.
After the first few days, people start to go out after "iftar". So many gatherings between families, friends or colleagues take place for the main meal and few hours after. As so many people prefer to spend their time in the old fashioned atmosphere of cafes, many hotels now encourage this. It became a tradition for all 5-star hotels to build a large tent, furnished in the old Arabian decoration, where people enjoy their time listening to old traditional songs and music, recalling memories of the old classical days. "Sheesha" or water-pipes are smoked for fun, which during that month becomes unlimited.
Sports have their share as well. Most clubs arrange minor tournaments, especially for football. Many people from all ages share, even the elders who compete with their peers. It is not unusual to find so many professional football players among those teams of amateurs. The issue is not to win, but to share. In poor districts where no clubs are available, the youth and children can utilize a side street or alley as a football field. Although not encouraged throughout the year, but during Ramadan, people become very tolerant.
The show remains till late at night, and sometimes till the dawn prayers before people sleep. Some cannot stand that long period, and would sleep early to wake up shortly before dawn. In the old days, the tradition was a man named "mesaharaty" to walk down the streets before dawn with a drum. He used to wake up the people through singing and calling their names. The mesaharaty was not paid a fixed salary, but donations, and though this profession became extinct nowadays, yet it is still practiced as a tradition.
The worst experience for a student becomes if Ramadan coincides with exams. If possible, the exam timing would be shifted by the school or university authorities. If not, the whole fun may be lost. The majority of people fast during Ramadan. According to Islam, the sick, travelers, elders and children are not supposed to fast. Children start demanding that their parents would allow them to fast at an early age. Usually, they are not allowed before the age of 10, if the fasting hours are short. These are longer in summer, and with the hot weather, fasting sometimes become difficult. The sick too find it very difficult to accept the concept that they will not fast. No one would ever wish to miss a single day of that month, although has the right to compensate later. It is not just the religious obligation, but also the atmosphere.
It is not considered good manners to show that one is not fasting. Though not illegal, those who do not fast would usually hide to eat, drink or smoke. Christians too share their fellow Moslems in most practices. Some would also fast as a sign of national unity, but those who do not would never eat or drink in public, as a sign of respect to Moslems traditions. Alcoholic drinks are abandoned throughout the month, and all bars are closed.
On the last day of Ramadan, observatories again check for the new moon. The month ends after the 29th or 30th day, for the "eid" or feast to start.
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Ramadan in Egypt By Sameh Arab
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Kid's Corner By Margo Wayman
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Hotel Reviews By Juergen Stryjak
Egyptian Exhibitions By deTraci Regula
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