Ramadan: Vagaries of the season

Niveen Wahish , Wednesday 8 May 2019

Between fasting and feasting Ramadan offers both challenges and opportunities

Ramadan lanterns
Traditional Ramadan lanterns called "fanous" are displayed for sale at a stall, ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Cairo (Photo: AFP)

On Monday Muslims in Egypt began their Ramadan fast. Although the timing of the holy month was known many people felt that it had arrived sooner than they expected. Pensioner Fathi Mohamed’s response was typical. “I cannot believe a year has gone by already,” he said.

Given the time pressures many people face today such responses are to be expected, says life coach Amal Mahmoud. Ramadan, she said, is not just another month but one loaded with expectations. It is a time when people feel they have to meet particular responsibilities and often “they feel they are not ready to perform at their best.”

During Ramadan Muslims abstain from drinking and eating from dawn until dusk. But the month is not just about abstinence from food and other worldly pleasures.

There is also an emphasis on spirituality through prayers, reading the Quran and good deeds.

Although the fast that underlies the month ideally means less food is consumed, paradoxically the opposite happens. Panic-style food shopping peaks immediately before Ramadan and continues throughout the month.

Minister of Supply and Internal Trade Ali Moselhi said in a television interview last year that food consumption during Ramadan is 50 per cent higher than in other months.

That is because Ramadan is a family affair, a time of frequent extended family gatherings for Iftar. On these occasions families put out their best and tables are laden with dishes that rarely make an appearance during the rest of the year.

“People scramble to buy everything before Ramadan because they feel they will not be functioning properly because of their fasting,” says Mahmoud.

They also rush to get whatever errands they can out of the way before the holy month begins, resulting in horrendous traffic jams. Work hours are cut short to allow employees enough time to get home for Iftar while shops have before and after Iftar working hours that extend into the early hours of the following day.

The changed routine and festive mood offer opportunities of several kinds. Darine, teacher and mother of two, recently set up a business with a partner selling customised party decorations. Her business so far has depended mainly on friends and family ordering decorations for special occasions.

She sees Ramadan as a clear opportunity to expand, especially given the popularity in recent years of customised Ramadan decorations. The items she sells are hand-made by herself and her partner.

The important thing, she says, is to offer an alternative to the kinds of decorations available on the market, and to add extra value by allowing customers to select their own colours to tie in with their own taste and decorative schemes.

The month’s preponderance of food trucks and pop-up restaurants offering Sohour, the meal consumed early in the morning before fasting, is evidence that others see the month as a business opportunity.

Amina, a Nile University finance major student, decided with two of her colleagues to try out their luck offering Sohour this year. For LE8,000 they rented an open-air, licensed pitch to run their seasonal business.

The project will employ seven people, including Amina and her partners who will wait on the customers since they admit their cooking skills may not be up to it. It is Amina and her colleagues’ first attempt at running their own business and she hopes that they at least break even.

“Either way, the experience is what matters,” she says. The biggest challenge, she thinks, will be the late hours given she will have classes and, on some days, exams in the morning.

While summer makes outdoor Sohour venues appealing Ramadan moves forward 11 days each year so will soon fall in the winter months once again. This year the holy month coincides with the exams of primary school students.

Getting children to fast during school is one of the hardest things, says Mona Magdi. “Waking them up in the middle of the night to eat Sohour makes it difficult to rouse them later for school.”

Magdi comes from a middle-income family determined to secure a decent education for its children. With the floatation of the pound in 2016 Egypt’s currency lost half its value and the prices of many products doubled.

This has meant prioritising spending, giving up unnecessary items and cutting down on others. A 2017 study by market research consultancy, Marketeers, found that post the floatation many Egyptians stopped buying dried fruits and nuts, cut down on meat and chicken and switched to cheaper options when it came to other goods such as rice and pasta.

Although inflation has cooled from the 20 per cent average of 2017 to around 14 per cent this year, prioritising what money is spent on remains the trend.

Magdi buys much smaller quantities of dried fruits and nuts than she once did. She also shops at government outlets which provide discounted food commodities, especially in Ramadan.

The fairs, called Ahlan Ramadan (Welcome Ramadan) are in every governorate and include items from yameesh to chicken and meat. (see p.4)

The floatation of the pound was part of a package of reforms that sought to stabilise the economy and jumpstart growth. The reform package implemented with the backing of a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) ends this year.

An IMF team is currently in Cairo to review the government’s implementation of reforms before the sixth and final $2 billion tranche of the loan is disbursed.

The Finance Ministry is forecasting GDP growth of 5.6 per cent for fiscal year 2018-19.

While Ramadan should be a month of selflessness and abstinence it can easily become one of over-indulgence, says life coach Mahmoud, and that extends to entertainment. While greater time should be dedicated to prayers the month brings with it a lot of distractions.

The number of soap operas produced specifically to be aired this Ramadan hovers around 30. In previous years almost 50 soap operas debuted during the holy month.

Ramadan is also prime time for TV advertisements. Companies go all out with their ads: a 2018 study by global market research firm Nielsen showed that in Ramadan the number of TV viewers in 11 major cities increased from an average of 5.9 million per day to seven million, with the greatest concentration around Sohour time.

Advertisers take advantage of this to pipe their messages. This year, as in previous years, the top advertisers were hospitals and charity organisations pleading for donations, real estate companies, home appliance manufacturers, food producers and mobile phone companies.

Egypt’s three mobile telephone operators compete for attention annually. This year they have employed high-profile singers Amr Diab, Nancy Agram and Tamer Hosni, actor Mohamed Ramadan and Belgian action film star Jean-Claude Van Damme.

The cost of producing these lavish ads, and the sums paid for placing them on prime-time TV, is the million-dollar question that viewers ask every year.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Vagaries of the season

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