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Ramadan in Cairo

Muslims in Cairo celebrate Ramadan and ’Eid Il Fitr, thus strengthening their faith in a merciful God.

“…and at the approach of night.” – The Qur’an

A feeling of anticipation grips Cairo. Muslim residents are eager to put behind the past year’s day-to-day dreary routine. Merchants string up lights on their tiny storefronts to prepare for a communal event. Sweetshops have sprung up in the hundreds of neighborhoods in this sprawling city of more than ten million. All is in preparation for the month-long religious observance of Ramadan, when Islam becomes the heart controlling the pulse of the city.

As the month of Sha’ban comes to an end, Muslims watch their televisions expectantly. At about 8 p.m. a special news bulletin interrupts the regular programming to announce the appearance of the sliver of a new moon. The city’s residents erupt with joyful clapping and singing. The month called Ramadan has begun.

Ramadan in Cairo is a time of daytime fasting and nighttime feasting. Within Islam’s religious fidelity, it is a time of mortification and celebration. During this month in the year 610 A. D., Mohammed received inspired words during prayer and meditation in a hillside cave outside Mecca. As the last of the prophets and “the bearer of the recitation” from the archangel Gabriel and the Spirit, he kindled a dynamic faith through those inspired words, which fuel the new faith as their holy book, the Qur’an.

The Qur’an admonishes Muslims to abstain from eating, drinking, smoking, and sex during daylight of the holy month of Ramadan:

Oh ye who believe!
Fasting is prescribed to you
As it was prescribed
To those before you
That ye may (learn)
Self-restraint,…
      [S.II.183]

Even the few exceptions to this strict observance, such as cases of sickness, must fast for the prescribed time later.

In Islamic tradition, denial of physical needs teaches a person to share the poor’s hunger and, thus, be more willing to give to those less fortunate. Furthermore, fasting – combined with prayer – brings one closer to God. Keeping Ramadan faithfully, some believe, forgives all past sins.

During this holy month, Cairo’s daily life adjusts to meet the fast’s strict requirements:

…eat and drink,
Until the white thread
Of dawn appears to you
Distinct from its black thread!
Then complete your fast
Till the night appears;…
      [S.II. 187]

One of the Five Pillars of Islam, fasting during Ramadan becomes a communal exercise which includes every family and neighborhood in the city.

Family members gather for the 2 a.m. suhour, the last meal before dawn breaks and the fast begins. Right hands tear off pieces of millet and wheat ’aish to dip in communal bowls of refried fava beans, white cheese, jam, and fresh water-buffalo cream. Sips of dark, strongly brewed tea complement the meal.

Roosters crow habitually from their perches on Greater Cairo’s sea of stucco rooftops. Around 3 a.m. the day’s first of five calls to prayer is sung by the muezzins from the spires of Cairo’s thousands of mosques. Millions of Egyptians lay out red and green tassled rugs facing Mecca.

Secular Cairo, with its long history of European influence, is notorious among other Arab countries for its worldliness. Yet, during Ramadan a noticeable air of purity pervades the city. Even Egypt’s most nonchalant, Westernized Muslims fast. Many girls put aside the latest oversea’s styles for ankle-length galabiyas and modest prayer shawls. Previous neglect of their piety obligations gives way to certain faith that God hears them now:

…I listen
To the prayer of every
Supplicant when he calleth on Me.
Let them also, with a will,
Listen to My call,
And believe in Me,
That they may walk
In the right way.
      [S.II.186]

Daily rituals of the most ordinary kind keep each family’s females busy. Their collective cooking effort becomes more taxing during Ramadan. They must prepare elaborate dishes for the sunset meal, the futour, to reward hunger and fatigue.

Daughters are sent to the open-air market, the suq. Among the especially crowded knot of bodies, bicycles, Fiats, and horse-drawn wagons, shoppers complain about the price of limes since the universal demand for limeade during the fast has raised their cost five-fold.

Meanwhile, on a rooftop five stories up, with sharpened butcher knife flashing in the blinding sun, a grandmother singles out two geese and a duck from her family’s pen. As her quiet prayer acknowledges that the animals are a gift from God, she quickly slits their throats – the prescribed method of slaughter in Islam – allowing for thorough drainage of their blood.

Soon the woman and her daughters are vigorously rubbing down off the birds’ bellies. A grandmother rocks a two-handled chopper over a pile of moulikheya, an Egyptian green sauteed with garlic and coriander and boiled with meat stock. Together they roll steamed grape leaves around a mixture of meat, rice, and seasonings. Backs ache and tongues are dry, but bonds of love, kinship, and faith give them energy for laughter and talk.

Ramadan has fallen in mid-May on the Western calendar, and afternoon temperatures scrape one-hundred degrees. The work, heat, and fasting eventually slow Egyptians down. Businesses and the government dismiss employees early. Villagers tending fields and vegetable plots woven through Cairo’s southern and western borders also return home before usual.

With one of the lowest per capita incomes in the Middle East, Egyptians lack many of the modern conveniences that make fasting easier in the oil-rich countries. Air conditioning, up-to-date kitchen appliances, and private cars are luxury items beyond the means of more than half of Cairo’s residents. Muslims look to the Qur’an for strength in the last couple of hours before sunset:

Allah intends every facility
For you, He does not want
To put you to difficulties,
(He wants you) to complete
The prescribed period,
And to glorify Him…
      [S.II.185]

The devout turn on the daily sermon televised from Al Azhar Mosque, Cairo’s thousand-year-old university and the Muslim world’s center of religious study. A bearded sheikh implores listeners to fast cheerfully and give generously to the poor, comparing the faith needed during Ramadan with the faith of Adam, Abraham, Moses, and Mohammed.

At 6:45 p.m. cannonfire from the Citadel, the twelfth century fortress above the city’s sea of towers and minarets, announces the maghreb, signaling the end of the day’s fast. “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! Il illah il Allah!” the a capella song of the muezzins cry exaltantly: “God is the greatest! God is the greatest! There is no god but the one God!”

In crowded apartments the futour begins. Women spread pots and dishes out on floors and pass glasses of fatty broth. Parched Cairenes quickly down pitchers of limeade. Ravenous families devour the prepared geese, ducks, chickens, and pigeons and sop up beef and lamb stew with flat pita bread. Chunks of watermelon and cantaloupe, apricot pudding and apricot-date nectar, and gallons of water top off the meal. Sipping finigeen of cardamon-laced coffee follows. “Praise be to God,” Egyptians exclaim after eating.

With the same devotion with which they fast during daylight, Muslims here celebrate Ramadan after dark. The futour injects Cairenes with the energy for a vibrant nightlife. From Giza’s villages to downtown Cairo, people fill the streets where gas-lit carts sell kenafeh, atayif, and basboosa: sweet holiday pastries. The black-and-white televisions of sidewalk merchants let passers-by pause to watch stories from the Arabian Nights, Egyptian soap operas, and Pharaonic plays.

Nightclubs selling alcohol – forbidden in Islam but tolerated in Egypt – are closed during Ramadan. Still, colorful hand-sewn Egyptian tents on sporting club grounds, outside hotels, and in the bazaar of Khan el Khalili offer acrobatic and folk-dancing acts, new singers, and comedians: the centuries-old Islamic family entertainment during Ramadan.

In the “Khan,” kebaberies stay open until 2 a.m, Sidewalk “coffees” bulge with men smoking waterpipes and playing dominoes, chess, and backgammon. Boys pass by with waving censers, releasing pungent frankincense and myrrh, burned to ward off evil.

Throughout the festivities, Egyptians remember the essence of Ramadan as they stroll by the mosques of Sayidna el Hussein and Al Azhar. Here Cairo’s poor receive meals and shelter paid for by the tithes of the fasting faithful.

By 2 a.m. the streets are empty. Ablutions are made. Some in the privacy of their homes, others spilling out of crowded mosques into alleys, rise and fall prostrate, committing themselves “in the name of God, the most gracious and the most merciful.”

After about 28 days of back-to-back fasting and feasting a new moon appears. With it Cairo explodes into a three-day-long holiday, the ’Eid Il Fitr. Rejuvenated by the holy month, the people of Cairo celebrate their annual renewal of the spirit of Islam.

Pedestrians, primped in colorful new clothes, fill the streets on their way to relatives’ and friends’ homes. They greet each other with warm kisses on both cheeks and the blessing, “May you be fine every year.” Grandparents, uncles, and aunts slip money into children’s hands. Everyone enjoys plates of cookies and ca’ak, a short-bread filled with honey. Boys throw homemade firecrackers. Many flock to the Great Pyramids of Giza for cart, camel, and horse rides in the desert. The picnic-loving fellahin “camp-out” at the zoo, in El Urman gardens, and on every inch of the grassy medial strips dividing Cairo’s main streets.

To a visitor, Cairo is bedlam. Survival seems precarious. But for millions of the fasting faithful, the boisterous celebration is God’s reward for humble obedience. It also is a healthy diversion from the rigorous work schedules that weigh heavily on Egyptian shoulders throughout the year. Ramadan and the ’Eid Il Fitr have envigorated the bodies and spirits of Cairo’s Muslims for another year.

Lucinda Kidd is a photojournalist recently returned from living in Egypt.

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