Egyptians come together to maintain Ramadan charity banquets amid increased costs

Mohamed Soliman , Saturday 2 Apr 2022

Ibrahim Hisham, a 64-year old environmental consultant, was preparing free takeaways as fast-breaking meals for the less fortunate in his Giza neighbourhood, as he has done over the past two years in lieu of the suspended Ramadan Iftar banquets due to the coronavirus related precautions.

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. Reuters

His plans, however, changed last Sunday after the Egyptian government announced a lifting of the ban on the communal charity meals, ending a two-year suspension on the popular tradition.

"I was over the moon because this means the spirit of Ramadan has returned," Hisham, who had been responsible for a charity banquet near his house in the Dokki district before the ban, described how he felt when he heard the Egyptian government's decision.

During Ramadan, Muslims around the world usually hold public banquets known as Mawaed El-Rahman (“Tables of [Allah] the Merciful) in streets or near mosques to offer free fast-breaking meals for the needy and passers-by.

The tradition – which started in Egypt around 11 centuries ago and are currently held on a large scale by charity associations, civil society organisations, and Zakat (almsgiving) committees at mosques countrywide – inspires observant Muslims like Hisham to be charitable during the holy month and hold small or medium scale tables.

However, this year, fulfilling such a costly obligation over consecutive thirty days is likely to be challenging amid the current price increases for food commodities all over the world.

Egyptians are now facing an increase in the price for foodstuffs, including vegetables, eggs, poultry, meat and cooking oil, with experts attributing the rise to the post-pandemic impacts and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Hisham, who has held Ramadan banquets for 19 years in a row, finds such habits difficult to break despite the current economic circumstances because it "manifests the Egyptians' joy of the holy month."

"The whole world is witnessing hikes in prices, but we, as Egyptians, ought to act differently by showing the real meaning of social solidarity to pass through this period," he stressed, calling for holding Ramadan banquets in each and every district nationwide to help the poor.

"These tables bring together Muslims and Christians and thus boost positive vibes in the society," added Hisham, who began on Wednesday to prepare the long wooden tables on which the meals will be served for guests on Saturday and the whole month.

Hisham's tables – which accommodate up to 180 guests every Ramadan – had been set up in the past with the help of donations mostly from his close friends, with the meals having been cooked at a nearby restaurant.

However, over the past two years due to the economic blow of the pandemic, Hisham, to reduce the cost, limited his dependence on the restaurant's meals and decided to prepare nearly two-thirds of the meals at home for takeaway, with the help of his family members.

"I, my wife, and my sons work all day long to prepare around 200 meals every day at home," he said, adding "This year, we will follow suit as well."

Describing how he deals with prices challenge, Hisham said that he keeps looking for shops and stores that offer special discounts and asks them to offer an additional discount for such charity acts.

Once he reaches a proper deal, he bulk-buys commodities – including meat and poultry – to capitalise on wholesale prices.

A home-cooked meal, which always includes pieces of meat or chicken and vegetable dishes in addition to the beverage, costs EGP 20-22 instead of at least EGP 30 for a ready-made one, he pointed out.

In Giza's Fisal district, where residents usually collect money to share the cost of the Iftar tables, Ahmed Al-Bardisi, a 29-year old chef, had spent the past few hours putting up banners in his street advertising the return of the tables and encouraging well-to-do people to participate with him.

For free, Al-Bardisi works as a chef alongside his four-member team to prepare the tables and meals themselves to accommodate over 100 guests.

In Ramadan, Egyptians' charity activities typically focus on giving money or food to those suffering from poverty. However, because of Russian-Ukranian war and post-coronavirus inflation that are affecting Egypt's economy, people are donating less in 2022.

Al-Bardisi said the number of donors somewhat declined this year, compared to the past years, but he stressed that he is "pretty sure that the residents will be encouraged to take part in this charity act when they see the tables set up in the first day."

Calls for donations have been posted on social media since the government announced the return of Ramadan banquets, urging donors to help maintain the act of piety in several districts countrywide.

"This is the first time for me to publish such a post, but this year prices are soaring," wrote “Ahmed” on his Facebook, adding that he has been responsible for a charity banquet in his neighbourhood in Cairo since 2015.

He urged the residents to cooperate to maintain the annual tradition amid the current hiking prices.

Tables of the Merciful, Hisham assured, provide – in these exceptional circumstances – "economic security" for low-income workers, who pay nothing for the fast-breaking meals for 30 days and therefore save up to EGP 900 by the end of the month.

The sum could help them fulfill other life needs, he added.

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