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Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Ramadan, Egyptian style

The spiritual and celebratory sides of Ramadan go hand-in-hand together in Egypt

Azza Radwan Sedky , Friday 17 May 2019
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Ramadan Gana is the name of an Egyptian song that is now about 70 years old. It celebrates the arrival of Ramadan, and it is still played many times a day during the holy month in Egypt and most probably in many other Arabic-speaking countries as well.

“Ramadan is here, and its arrival brings joy. It hasn’t been around for some time, so sing along and ‘welcome Ramadan’,” the song goes.

Ramadan started this week, and it can be a gruelling sunrise-to-sunset fast: no drinking, no eating, and no bad behaviour.

It revolves around asking for repentance, seeking forgiveness, and doing a lot of good. It is not an easy feat to fast in the heat with no water and no nourishment.

And in all fairness, summer is the worst time of year to fast when the heat is at its worst.

You might think that Muslims in Egypt would dread the holy month, fear its restrictions, and shiver in anticipation of the draining and debilitating fast.

And yet Egyptians, both Muslims and Christians, await the month’s arrival with anticipation, sing in its glory, and love its ambience.

The atmosphere is convivial and merry, with traditional Ramadan lanterns hanging everywhere and Happy Ramadan photographs adorning Facebook, Twitter and social media.

This juxtaposition between Ramadan’s restrictions and the delight on its arrival is not always easily comprehensible, but the giving and the goodness associated with Ramadan transcend limitations and turn it into a wonderful month.

In Egypt, the month of Ramadan also goes beyond what any other Muslim country can offer. In its own way, it resembles Christmas festivities in the West, a time when parties take place in the middle of the week, baking is part and parcel of the festivities, and gift-wrapping and gift-giving dominate the month.

More than anything, it is a time to remember those in need.

Ramadan is just as festive, lively and giving. After breaking their fast, people enjoy every moment in the window of time allowed. It is an ongoing, month-long celebration when people eat to their heart’s content and meet friends at night, stay up late until the small hours of the morning, and most probably do not produce much.

All this may not be what Ramadan is really about, but it definitely keeps people going and loving every moment of it.

Many people stay up until they sit down to their hearty early morning meal. They go to bed at sunrise, have a little sleep, and then off to work they go.

Although Ramadan enforces leniency in the workplace, during daytime hours those who fast are often lethargic and unable to function, arriving at work later than usual and going home earlier.

In Egypt, no one breaks his or her fast alone, and it may be the one time of the year when the whole family sits down for meals together. Lavish dishes that someone has slaved over for hours are consumed by friends and relatives in one sitting, but the party is just beginning.

Three or four rounds of tea and desserts make up for the lost consumption and caffeine-free hours.

Indeed, much of the best and of what matters most are saved up for Ramadan, including the best television series, the most generous donations, and the most elaborate get-togethers.

Ramadan is also a time of year when people are on their best behaviour: they complete their reading of the Quran, they pray diligently, and they help those in need and commiserate with the underprivileged.

Some, because they can’t fast for medical reasons, give to charity instead. Others give generously because it is the time of year when according to Islam God listens most keenly to prayers and acts upon them. Many more apply Islamic guidelines and donate zakat, a portion of their income similar to a Christian tithe, to charitable causes.

The giving transcends wealth and class as everyone sits together to break the fast. Streets and squares around the country are filled with “tables of mercy” providing free breakfasts. This manifests the social solidarity that Ramadan is known for, with the wealthy providing for those in need.

Ramadan in Egypt has an exceptional atmosphere about it, which is why many Arab and Muslim tourists visit Egypt during the holy month. The spirit of Ramadan is also exemplified at the Al-Hussein Mosque in Cairo, where the square is packed with people until sunrise when the fast begins. Visitors roam around buying knick-knacks, praying at the mosque, drinking tea and coffee at cafes in the square, and having their early meals.

Growing up in the late 1950s in Heliopolis in Cairo, I used to await the cannon firing with anticipation that announced the end of the fast in Ramadan.

I treasured the lavish meals and our sitting down to them together during Ramadan, something we didn’t often do. Then we listened to the radio as it broadcast one glorious soap opera after another. I cherished my Ramadan lantern and showed it off to the dozens of visitors who came and went throughout the night.

Ramadan is an exceptional month everywhere, but most of all in Egypt, and it exudes joy, warmth and love. A Happy Ramadan to all.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Ramadan, Egyptian style

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