Newcomers to Egypt are often bedazzled ― and confounded ― by the holiday season in the capital
By Dominika Maslikowski
“I remember how there was concern for those fasting to endure in the heat and work through the day. I liked how water was made available everywhere at iftar and how the streets just went empty at sundown. People would stop their cars and leave buses to go into the nearest place and get a drink of water. I understood their customs and tried to help by not aggravating their suffering.”
―Jelena Babic-Erleman, 74, retiree living in Belgrade, Serbia who lived in Cairo from 1974-78
“My favorite part of Ramadan has always been the lanterns. I have always hung out my Ramadan lantern early and enjoyed lighting it every night as the others in my neighborhood light up the balconies near me. The colors, the creativity in design, and the history of the lamps and their mission to alert every member of the community to the arrival of Ramadan have long been the best part for me. I [also] celebrate by giving money to selected people throughout the month, and accepting any invitations to iftars. Iftars are a special event that I enjoy sharing with special friends. One tradition I try to [keep up] is to break the fast in Islamic Cairo with friends and spend time sitting in Fishawy in the evening to watch the crowds.
As Ramadan has moved through the calendar into the summer months it has become an annoyance of enormous proportions. Long, hot days, short-tempered, thirsty, hungry people. It is not a happy combination. It just seems if the point of fasting and going without water is an exercise in feeling how the poor feel, then I want to know why air conditioners running nonstop during the day are ok.”
―Debbie Senters, 60, American living in Cairo
“[What I love most about Ramadan] is the sense that throughout the Muslim world, throughout Egypt and especially throughout my neighborhood, families and friends are sitting down together at sunset to break their fast. The calm and quiet is charged with a feeling of people coming together.
I don’t like the hardships the religious traditions put on the elderly, especially in these hot summer months when the days are so long, and especially since the poor elderly are most likely to try to keep the traditions. I tried fasting early on ― it was late fall then, and it was so much easier. But now I only fast if I’m awaiting breakfast in someone’s house.
The one thing I do love to do is shop for a lantern in the street that runs from the Bab Zuweila to the Islamic Museum. Shopping has to be at night to see all the lanterns at their best. Years ago I used to find wonderful lanterns made from old oil cans. They were locally handmade in the shape of airplanes, boats, and so many things. But those have disappeared now.
I used to love watching “Candid Camera” with Ibrahim Nasser and “Zakiya Zakariya” right after iftar. Even if I didn’t understand much of the Arabic, both programs were pretty easy to understand. It was nice that everyone watched pretty much the same programs.”
―Bonnie Grover, an American editor and graphic designer living in Heliopolis
“Ramadan is more relaxed in terms of work, but still that doesn’t compensate for all the inconveniences. And although it is more relaxed, people are unable to work normally without food and water. Ramadan is an excuse for them not to work and some people simply abuse this Islamic holy month. … I feel sorry for those people who put their bodies under such stress; falling unconscious, starving during the day and eating too much at night.
The streets are overcrowded in the evening ― everybody is eating everywhere and everything. Endless traffic jams all over the city. After 8pm, I find it very difficult to move around by any kind of transport. Many places were just closed during Ramadan. To my every “why,” I get only one answer: ‘Ramadan.’”
―Natalie, 28, teacher from Russia living in Cairo
“I loved the feeling of celebration, happiness and kindness. I didn’t expect that at all, I thought that the lack of food and water would make people feel stressed and grumpy. But I loved to see how people go to the street to offer water to the drivers who are still working when the fasting hours finish. I had a friend who even drove for one hour to my flat to bring me food because I was sick. And he was fasting and it was extremely hot!
But the worst experience I ever had concerning sexual harassment also happened in Ramadan. And I was shocked. I was in my bubble of happiness and kindness, and I didn’t expect something like that at all.
I try to avoid [drinking] when I’m in the street. I got dehydrated twice because of this. My reason for fasting was first my own curiosity, but it also happened by chance: The family of a friend invited me to have iftar. I didn’t have breakfast that day and I decided to wait. I also thought that it would be respectful to “share” their fasting, because they were so nice to invite me. And since that day, I just continued. This year I will do the same.”
―Andrea, 29, teacher from Spain living in Heliopolis
“I love spending spiritual nights and concerts in Old Cairo. I don’t fast because of health reasons, and some supermarkets and restaurants refuse to deliver food. Some Muslims want to spread their rules and that’s kind of annoying.”
―Sarah Rais, 27, a writer from Morocco living in Cairo
“The only good thing is that you finish work earlier and you can go to the pool and you will find it empty. I don’t like that everybody is so lazy and you can’t do anything normal: you can’t meet anybody before iftar. Everybody stays home and sleeps. I don’t like the traffic after iftar and especially just before. Everybody drives like crazy and there are many accidents on the road.”
―A 31-year-old teacher from Poland living in New Cairo
“What I love about Ramadan is the quiet. Everything is in slow mode, and time has a different meaning. What I don’t like is that when people are hungry and thirsty, their aggression rises and their ability to focus declines. And then there’s the bad conscience on my side if I am going to eat or drink something, and how many people seem to have no idea why they are fasting, apart from the fact that the date tells them to do so.”
―Nikolai Burger, 38, a lecturer from Germany living in Maadi
“I think it’s the hospitality and care for foreigners that makes Egypt so awesome, especially during Ramadan. It seemed like everyone was a bit calmer and a bit more relaxed during Ramadan. Probably due to fasting. But our Egyptian friends were really understanding and proud of us since another Austrian friend and I were fasting with them. It gave us a feeling of being welcome and at home.”
―Nura, 21, medical student from Austria living in Vienna