Once upon a time, people celebrated the Holy Month without TV and other technology
by Farah Al Akkad
Next to the spiritual blessings of the Holy Month, Ramadan in Egypt is about gatherings of friends and family. Nowadays, those gatherings often take place near a TV, and togetherness means agreeing on which soap opera or talk show to watch, and we find out about those programs from the internet and social media constantly pinging on our smart phone. It’s hard to imagine life before all this technology.
Unless you’re my 80-year-old grandmother, who is always telling me, “You lead such a busy overwhelming life. You should have lived in my time.” Back then, she says, life was generally much less complicated and “marked by simplicity.”
Gamal Hemdan, author of the 1993 book Shakhsiyet Masr (Personality of Egypt), must have listened to Grandma, for he wrote, “Egyptians of middle-higher social classes led a simple, easy lifestyle.” Egypt had much less traffic and many more places for outdoor outings. Egyptians had a lot more free time, with work and school days ending at 3pm, and it usually did not take more than 15-20 minutes to arrive home.
Hemdan notes how time has even changed our traditions and approach during Ramadan.
Even though the Holy Month still is a sacred time to Egyptians, the author asserted in his book that Ramadan’s purpose —
refraining from many of life’s indulgences and focusing on praying and getting closer to God — has “switched to being more of a custom than a duty towards the Holy Month.”
Hemdan continued, “When it came to Ramadan [...Egyptians] were more in touch with their surroundings and close knit relations. Neighbors and friends would help each other cook food and large tables were set in each street for the poor.”
Dokki resident Aisha El-Essily, 89, describes Ramadan in the 1930s as a time of joy and bliss. “Ramadan was always the best part of my childhood. Me and the children of the neighborhood used to knock on all our neighbors’ doors [and ask for] money to decorate the streets with long colorful ribbons and lamps. We also painted the street walls with colorful Islamic paintings.” El-Essily, who proudly says she started fasting when she was 10, recalls that the only means of entertainment in Ramadan was listening to her elderly neighbors tell stories about the Prophet’s companions and other religious tales. On the weekends and after praying El-Taraweeh, her family would all go watch a tanoura show in Al Orman or Al Andalus parks.
Seventy-year-old Ashira Sultan, from Heliopolis, remembers Ramadan as a time for family to come together. “I do not recall a day that passed without an iftar with my cousins and relatives eating with us, even if they had been there the day before. It was either we have iftar with them at their place or they at ours,” she says. “Nowadays people hardly take their time to eat at the iftar table. They finish eating quickly and cannot wait to get back to watching a mosalsal or checking their Facebook.”
Sultan’s family also listened to radio programs such as Fouad El-Mohandes’ famous series Saa’a li Albak (An Hour for Your Heart), which aired from 1953 into the early 1960s. “We used to gather around the radio most weekdays and drink mint tea and enjoy listening to it,” she recalls. She also fondly remembers the misaharati who memorized the names of all children in the neighborhood and called out to them to wake up for sohour.
On the weekends, Sultan didn’t need to be woken up for the pre-dawn meal. She and her relatives would go to Al-Hussein after iftar to sit in Al-Fishawy café until dawn, “We used to go to Khan El-Khalili every weekend to eat sohour and leave after praying fajr.”
Many from my grandparents’ generation say that strong family and religious ties were the most significant ingredient of the Holy Month during the 1930s through the 1970s. People dedicated much of their time to reading and reciting the Quran during Ramadan, and children competed to see who could memorize the most verses, especially in cities in Fayoum and Upper Egypt. “The most famous competitions took place in Ramadan, and children of all ages participated. The first-place winner usually got a big Ramadan fanous [lantern] as a prize, while the second and third-place winners would receive sweets,” noted Hemdan in his book.
Ahmed El-Adawy, 64, recalls that his dad used to take him to Ramadan competitions every year in Fayoum. “I still have the prizes I won as a child” he says. His mother was in charge of feeding the poor people of Al-Khaldeya village, and El-Adawy says, “I used to go out with her every day precisely an hour before iftar, with boxed food to distribute to people.”
Traditions like storytelling and Quran reciting still survive outside the urban centers, but TV and internet have replaced the radio programs, and pre-iftar charity now often consists of young volunteers handing out dates and juice to harried motorists running late for their breakfast.
Some who lived through that tech-free era try to hold on to and share that simplicity. “I try as much as possible to focus on the spiritual side and refrain from watching TV or doing the other things that people do nowadays,” El-Essily says “I try to recall and teach some of those forgotten traditions to my children and grandchildren.” et