A look at those seemingly age-old Ramadan practices we take for granted
by et staff
However spiritual, festive or serene you prefer your annual Ramadan experience to be, it is almost impossible to live in Egypt without taking part in the traditions that have become synonymous with the month of fasting.
Perhaps that’s because many of these traditions originated right here. The children’s fawanees, the mosalsalat of modern television and after-iftar sweets blend together each year annually to create an atmosphere unique only to this time of year and this place on earth.
Each tradition, of course, is mired in its own set of circulated stories about its origin. The fanous (singular of fawanees), for example, was brought to the country, it is said, with Fatimid rule. One story claims the lanterns were used by Muslims to light the night as they walked in a procession to greet the Holy Month. Another tells that the plastic toys now adored by children and adults alike during the Holy Month used to be made of scrap metal and glass and ― with candles inside ― used to light the front porches of the houses of the rich during that time.
Still another prevalent account claims the lanterns were used by young boys to escort women out into town in Ramadan, as they were not allowed to leave their homes during any other time of year. The lantern, it is therefore said, was used to inform the men of Cairo of the arrival of a woman so that the sexes could remain separated ― and so women could enjoy what little time they were granted outside without harassment.
If you choose to travel up the Nile this holiday into Saeedi territory, and the time for iftar just happens to arrive while you’re still in a car, you might be faced with another deep-rooted tradition that may seem frightening at first: Every Ramadan, the residents of the many villages that line the river block roads daily ― in both directions, using tree logs ― precisely at sunset. All drivers and passengers of all intercepted traffic are then invited to break their fasts with the villagers either on the roadside, or at a nearby facility. Muslims and non-Muslims alike tell stories of literally being forced to eat in order to be allowed back on their way. And while the ritual may scare first-timers, the people of Saeed have proudly maintained it over the years to showcase their famous hospitality.
Another tradition strictly associated with Ramadan is the messaharaty, the man responsible for waking people up to eat before dawn, when fasting for the next day begins. Anyone’s parents, grandparents and great-grandparents will surely remember hearing the ‘drum and call’ of the messaharaty as a child.
Although the messaharaty continues to appear each year, making many people happy by adding to the Ramadan atmosphere, he is of little practical use for most people, who now have modern alarms and mosalsalat to keep them company until the wee hours. The mosalsalat are a relatively recent tradition born right here and sparked, most probably, by the smash TV serial Layali El-Helmiya, which went on for an epic seven years or so. Earlier generations remember being glued to the TV set to watch Fawazir and 1001 Nights and guess the answers to riddles that have since gone out of fashion.
The messaharaty is not the only Ramadan character who makes an appearance from year to year. There’s the zabadi man, a vendor of fresh yogurt who roams the streets selling his product. Zabadi is likely to have originated as early as the Prophet’s (PBUH) time, for he advised fasting Muslims to consume milk and its products at breakfast. There’s also the ubiquitous pickle man (pickles are perfect condiments and great appetizers) and the qatayef lady, whose origins are chronicled in two legends. One holds that the Fatimids, who were mostly Shiites, wanted to impress Sunnis and as a goodwill gesture offered them kunafa and qatayef. The second tells that as Fatimid men ate so much, they asked someone to invent a filling dish so they wouldn’t go hungry the next day. A baker came up with the idea of feeding them mounds of kunafa and qatayef, both of which are extremely rich and filling, for sohour. Either way, qatayef ladies are usually perched outside corner supermarkets.
Then, of course, the bane of every fasting motorist’s existence: the street beggars. Zakat is encouraged during Ramadan, and there is a mandatory zakat el-fitr (equivalent last year to LE 5 per person) payable to the poor. The concept of fasting itself is to promote solidarity between different social classes by forcing Muslims to experience what it is like to be needy and hungry. That’s all well and good, but today’s breed of beggar is often a cajoling, conniving specimen not worthy of your donations, as they may make more money than you do through their scamming.
The best advice would be to give indiscriminately ― your reward is with God ― and more importantly, don’t shut out the ones who seem truly in need. Although change is the easiest form of charity to give (some street urchins may scoff at anything less than a LE 5 note, mind you), why not give them what they need most: food and clothes. Cash money is also better put into orphanages and mawaed rahman (charity iftar tables) or into the hands of those who make a pittance but who are too proud to ask for alms, like that traffic warden who misses out on iftar with his family trying to free up traffic so you can make it home on time.
For those of you witnessing their first Ramadan this year, don’t be baffled by the following: persistent invitations to iftar (the month is a family and friends special where no one is left to eat alone. When you get to the feast, expect it to be just that and know that it is considered rude not to eat everything put on your plate.
Traffic: Everyone leaves work around the same time and everyone needs to get home at the same time. It’s a bit of a conundrum given Cairo’s congested streets and nightmarish jams. If you’re not fasting or are not going out to iftar, stay at the office until the stampede is over, then venture out. Otherwise, you’ll just have to brave the gridlock with the rest of us.
Songs: Get used to children singing “Wahawi ya Wahawi” at the tops of their voices any time of the day or night, especially during the first couple of days of the month. The song is a traditional bidding farewell to Shaaban (the month preceding Ramadan) and greeting to the Holy Month that youngsters chant while swinging their new lanterns. Other tunes you’ll likely pick up from TV or radio are the disparate notes of “Ramadan Gana” (Ramadan has Come to Us) and, toward the end of the month, Om Kolthoum’s glorious rendition of “Ya Leilet El-Eid Anisteena” (Eve of the Feast).
Religiosity: Ramadan is a time of prayer and observance, so you’ll see more people performing gama’a prayers at work, and almost everyone reading from a small Qu’ran on the bus or underground and as soon as they get in to work. Some women also take up the veil as a sign of respect.
For even the biggest history buffs, Ramadan might just be too exciting to spend investigating the roots of its traditions. And perhaps some of those stories have gained acceptance more for their romantic appeal than for supporting historical fact. Yet, for most Egyptians, it hardly seems to matter as long as these rituals continue to aid spirituality by making this month of endurance and physical hardship the one they look forward to all year.