The two sides of Ramadan
BY DARAH RATEB
‘Tis the season to be cranky” seems to be the daily jingle ringing in the ears of many Egyptians this Ramadan. With the long hours of summer delaying the intonations of the Maghrib call to prayer exacerbating the fasting nation’s frustrations, along with the excessive power cuts all over Egypt, it’s easy to forget at face value just how special this month is.
People from all walks of life go out of their way to come to Cairo in Ramadan, but what is it that amplifies this city’s charm during the holy month? It’s hard to put your finger on it, perhaps the juxtaposition of amazing food, scorching hot weather and a 15-hour fast may have something to do with it.
The month’s paradoxes are hard to miss: city traffic that becomes incredibly intense around 3 pm, only to become virtually absent by 6 pm; and while some people display zero tolerance, others exhibit more patience than the Dalai Lama.
Who would choose a kilo of basboosa over a decadent chocolate cake any other time of the year when invited over for a meal? In Ramadan, the tables are turned; this is when boho-chic meets food.
Guru of oriental sweets Koueidar hands out numbers at the door to organize the long customer queues. Eager fasters call out to the salesmen for plates of basboosa covered with roasted almonds, hazelnut stuffed qatayef dripping with syrup, malban (Turkish delight) oozing with fresh cream, and of course a more current version, but soon to become a classic, mango kunafa.
Zamalek’s recently-launched Zooba has come in time to satiate the palates of the more traditional salty-food seekers with fresh bread, lentil soup, a falafel sandwich doused in a healthy dose of mozerella cheese, and even warm sweet potatoes with a modern twist, melted marshmallows. But for the more traditional Ramadan experience, El Khan tent on the Blue Nile boat is sure to provide you with a very Ramadanic treat with its ‘enchanting oriental music’ and open air atmosphere.
But aside from the gastronomical adventures highlighting the month, another feature of Ramadan’s appeal is how the spiritual creeps into small acts throughout the day. Supermarkets such as Alfa and Seoudi offer Ramadan charity bags stocked with basic needs ranging from staples like rice and oil, to little luxuries like nuts. And just outside in the parking lot, you’ll almost always find the parking attendants and police officers huddled into a corner reading their daily section of the Quran.
For an aesthetic touch generally associated with Christmas decorations, you needn’t look any further when it comes to sprucing up your home than style-treasure.com offering runners and table cloths adorned in beautiful khayameya patterns, “Ramadan Kareem” guest towels and napkins are found in various colors, and even miniature Ramadan canons, which traditionally signalled the close of the fasting day.
Right before the call to prayer, something exceptional happens to the streets of Cairo: food scents waft out of kitchens, rows of tables and chairs line the sidewalks to feed the poor who are breaking their fast on the goodwill of others. It’s charity, but it’s not patronizing; it’s brotherhood and sisterhood in action.
And soon after iftar the streets start to crowd again as people scurry to mosques to pray, creating a unparalleled spiritual atmosphere. When the call to prayer rings through the quarters of Al-Azhar echoing in the nearby Al-Hussain mosque, people huddled in the streets in earnest supplication, are a sight to behold.
While some may complain that the ninth month of the Islamic calendar has become far too commercialized with the pseudo inflation of Ramadanic staples, there is something slightly beautiful in this materialism.
No one can deny the glimmer of a smile on a child’s face when little ones wait for their annual, inexpensive, made in China, Ramadan laterns blaring an almost incomprehensible tune; the beaming grin from wives who empty out what is left of their husband’s bank account to buy new clothes for Eid, the sight of a hungry man’s eyes as he looks to the sky to give thanks for the gigantic bag charity bag that will keep him going for a whole month.
The cheerfulness of the month cannot be separated from the benevolent spirit found within those who choose to give in whatever way they can, to whoever they can, all with the intention of fulfilling the meaning of Ramadan Kareem. –The Egypt Monocle