Charity at a distance: Egyptians rethink Ramadan traditions amid coronavirus restrictions

Mohamed Soliman , Thursday 23 Apr 2020

Egyptians who would normally mark the holy month of Ramadan with public acts of charity are having to think of new ways to honour these traditions

Egyptian Food Bank volunteers prepare food boxes on 8 April 2020, Cairo, Egypt (Photo courtesy of Egyptian Food Bank)

In the days leading up to the fasting month of Ramadan, Abdullah Ahmed, a 45-year-old accountant, had expected to be preparing to set up long wooden tables loaded with fast-breaking meals in a Shoubra street, as he has been doing in every Ramadan for the past 16 years.

Never had he thought that this act of piety would have to be cancelled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

During Ramadan, Muslims around the world usually hold public banquets, "mawaeed al-rahman," or “tables of mercy,” near mosques to offer free fast-breaking meals for the needy and passers-by.

The tradition is based on Prophet Muhammad's teachings that a believer who provides a fasting person with something to break their fast will earn the same spiritual reward as someone who has fasted.

But this year, the Egyptian government has implemented strict rules against public gatherings in order to contain the pandemic, and as a result, observant Muslims like Ahmed have had to go back to the drawing board as they work out how to fulfil their obligation to be charitable during Ramadan this year, which begins on Friday.

Egypt, like other countries, has adopted a raft of measures to control the spread of the coronavirus, including closing mosques and churches.

The ban on religious gatherings will extent to communal public meals and the Taraweeh prayer services that occur after the fast-breaking iftar meal during Ramadan.

The country's religious endowments ministry, which is responsible for mosques countrywide, has urged people and charitable bodies that normally provide public charity banquets during the holy month to give donations ahead of Ramadan to the poor instead, in the form of cash or food.

Ahmed and another four volunteers who supervise the charity banquets have decided to follow suit.

"This year, the free meals will be delivered directly to needy people's homes, like takeaways, to avoid possible gatherings, which have become a real danger," Ahmed told Ahram Online.

Egypt has so far recorded 3,659 confirmed coronavirus cases, including 276 fatalities, but Ramadan poses a particular risk, as the holy month is typically a time for gathering with family and friends, as well as for communal prayer.

File photo: A volunteer carries food to tables as people wait to eat their Iftar meal to break their fast at charity tables that offer free food during the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Cairo, Egypt. These mawaeed al-rahman have been banned this year among several measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus (Photo: Reuters)

Free meals on the doorstep

Ahmed and his companions used to prepare an average of 500-600 free meals a day during Ramadan.

This year, in a kitchen in the vicinity of El-Khalafawy mosque in the working-class Shoubra district, the volunteers, alongside four cooks, are helping prepare food for needy families in the area, passers-by, and for those in hospital.

"Usually our task includes reaching [fasting] people who are involved in mishaps and are transferred to hospitals prior to iftar," he added.

With the usual crowding prior to sunset in the populous Cairo neighbourhood, Ahmed and his fellow volunteers have decided to give an early heads-up about their new approach on their official Facebook page.

This year, the recipients of the free meals are expected to include new groups of people particularly affected by the new precautionary measures, such as seasonal labourers, he noted.

Those who work in shops and cafés in the district will also be covered.

"We already asked all of them to register their names, in order to be included," Ahmed said.

Under the new rules, shops and malls close their doors to the public every day from 5pm and completely shut on weekends under the rules of the nighttime curfew implemented in March. Additionally, all coffee shops and entertainment venues have been completely shuttered, while restaurants are restricted to delivery only.

President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has urged Egyptians to follow public health measures during the holy month.

“If we achieved success during the recent period, we don’t want to lose what we succeeded at during the next few weeks,” he said in a speech broadcast on TV on Wednesday.

“Please be alert with us and help us more with the culture of distancing, disinfection and keeping away from gatherings.”

An Egyptian woman walks by traditional lanterns known in Arabic as "Fanous" sold during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Cairo's Sayeda Zainab neighbourhood, on April 19, 2020 (Photo: Reuters)

In Ramadans past Ahmed would wake up at 12pm to start his mission, giving him enough time to set dishes on the street tables prior to the sunset prayer. This year, he and his team will roll their sleeves up nearly two hours earlier, to pass out the cooked meals to volunteers, who will be responsible for delivering sacks of food to fasting people.

“We have to consider the curfew times,” he said.

The nighttime curfew, which was set to expire on Thursday, one day before the holy month starts, has been extended into Ramdan to begin at 9 pm instead of the 8 pm.

“Many people every year show up offering a helping hand … this year we have registered about ten delivery people who have offered their services to convey the sacks of food to destinations around the neighbourhood,” said Mahmoud Hamdy, another supervisor at the Shoubra table.

All of them are required to comply with the health ministry’s precautions like wearing masks and gloves and keeping a safe distance while dealing with people, to minimise the risk of viral transmission, he noted.

In a different area of Greater Cairo, another group of observers have decided to take a new path this year in order to preserve Ramadan traditions while also maintaining social distancing.

In previous years, the 6 October city district where Amr Samir lives was a popular location for iftar charity meals, and the long wooden tables would fill the streets during Ramadan.

This year, Samir, the owner of a media production company, has had to rethink the public feasts, and has instead created a WhatsApp group to coordinate with residents of the neighbourhood in order to prepare home-cooked meals for fasting people.

"Since the iftar tables are not allowed this year, we will prepare all meals for iftar and [the second night-time meal] sohour at home and designate a number of our private cars to distribute them," he said.

Although it marks a departure from a fond tradition, Samir has noticed some positives.

“Distributing meals directly to people has an encouraging aspect, since we have always noticed that some people feel shy about coming to eat their iftar,” he said.

In another attempt to mark the special time of year despite the unprecedented limitations, most residents of the neighbourhood have scrambled to decorate their buildings and balconies with the characteristic Ramadan lights and decorations, the entrepreneur said.

“Many people have been shut up at home due to the virus, so we are trying to keep the month's spirit alive.”  

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