Nabil and Thoraya were planning to have their traditional large Iftar meal for family and extended family in their spacious garden during the first sunset of Ramadan this year.
But the inevitable worry over the new coronavirus forced a cancellation of a gathering that used to assemble no fewer than 30 people, sometimes 50 if some overseas relatives happened to be in Cairo for Ramadan. Instead, the couple are planning a much smaller get-together with their three sons and their spouses and five grandchildren in the garden later in the month.
The Iftar was supposed to be in the garden of the house to benefit from the distancing and open air. However, with the weather forecast projecting a possible sandstorm for Friday, the first day of the fasting month, Thoraya then decided to take it to the dining area of her house “with some windows partially open and no air-conditioning on” in keeping with the guidelines on good air circulation to avoid infection.
“The children were reluctant to come, and they kept telling us that we should be safe. But the fact of the matter is that the grandchildren have been staying at home for more than two weeks, and two of my daughters-in-law are housewives. In the end, we agreed to have it, but no hugs and no kisses. We would just gather for Iftar that I would be serving on separate plates from the kitchen with no large serving dishes and bowls on the dining table,” Thoraya said.
She and her husband, both medical doctors, decided that this should be safe enough. “Anyway, this is not a long get-together given that Iftar starts at 6:30pm and the curfew starts at 9pm. The children don’t live in the same residential compound, and each of them has a 30-minute drive back home, so we were talking about a couple of hours only,” Nabil said.
For this couple, this may be the only family Iftar this Ramadan, a disappointing arrangement since ordinarily they would be going to at least 15. “This year we are missing the essence of Ramadan,” Thoraya lamented.
For her, like for many other Egyptians across the socio-economic, urban and geographical spectrum, Ramadan is the month of get-togethers for Iftar, for prayers, for entertainment, and for Sohour.
This year, despite the decision of the government to reduce the curfew hours by 60 minutes to allow families to move more comfortably during Iftar, the scope of gatherings seems set to decline significantly if only due to the fact that usually an Iftar takes around 90 minutes.
Families that will still observe traditional Iftar gatherings will not have the following long talks over traditional sweets and tea either at home or in cafés or after communal prayers.
This Ramadan, cafés and restaurants will not be open to receive customers and will only be allowed to serve take-out or delivery items. Mosques will also continue to be closed during the holy month for fear of a higher infection rate of Covid-19.
photo: Hassan Ammar
ATYPICAL TIMES: “Everything is really different. The menu for Iftar is much shorter, the setting is very strict as we decided on a seat for everyone away from the rest, and all over the reception area from the entrance to the dining/sitting rooms I am putting hand sanitisers, alcohol and tissues. This is where I used to put bowls full of dates and nuts,” Thoraya said.
Ahmed, a manager of an outlet of a large Cairo supermarket chain, agreed that things are “very different this year.” The customers of the Nasr City branch of Ahmed’s store still came in large numbers for their shopping before Ramadan, however.
He said that some days were really crowded to the extent that he had had to ask customers to stay out of the store to avoid having more than 50 people inside at the same time. “We needed to lengthen the space between one client and the other by the cashiers and to have enough time to disinfect the shopping trollies after each customer,” Ahmed said.
Moreover, he added, Ramadan shopping this year was also “different”. Ahmed said he had never seen detergents of all types as a fixed item on the shopping bills of almost seven out of 10 clients. “They buy hand detergents of different types and sizes, and they buy surface detergents and detergents for the floors, and they enquire about detergents for wooden surfaces,” he said.
Detergents, he said, were the one thing that his store would be short on for a day or two until it restocks. “Our sales of detergents must have doubled or more during April. We had to order more restocks of detergents than of dates,” he said.
According to Mustafa Zamzam, chair of the board of trustees of the charity Sonaa Al-Kheir (Do-gooders), detergents were an integral part of the parcels that his organisation distributed this year in Ramadan.
“We started giving out parcels of detergents when we started our donation programme late in February and early in March,” Zamzam said. “We thought it was part of our work to help with the consequences that society was facing due to the coronavirus. We continued with these parcels during the Ramadan distributions, and we hope we will have enough donations coming in to keep the parcels going for Ramadan and hopefully for a month afterwards,” he added.
Nadia, a volunteer at a small charity in Minya in Upper Egypt, said that her organisation had decided to reduce the amount of dates it would distribute to the 300 families that benefit from the charity in order to allow for a package of detergents. It has also decided to distribute a set of six plates and six glasses to every family.
“In poorer areas, people tend to share food from the same dish, and sometimes they will not have enough glasses for individual use. Of course, we cannot change habits, but we did distribute glasses and dishes to encourage people to use separate ones,” she said.
Nadia admitted that this introduced an “unwelcome” change to the content of the Ramadan parcels. “People were telling us that they would rather have beans and pasta instead, but we explained the purpose behind the change this year,” she said.
photo: Hassan Ammar
LESS AND MORE: The management of a Ramadan charity is perhaps one of the most influenced by this year’s lockdown Ramadan.
The pre-Iftar handouts of hot meals are one traditional feature of Ramadan food-related charities. Individuals typically cook and pack meals, typically of rice, vegetables and chicken and some Ramadan sweets, and they then load these packages and drive through the streets to give them away.
Street cleaners, security guards at some private and public buildings, and stranded workers who have failed to make it home for Iftar usually wait to get the packages.
Ghada, a Cairo housewife in her 40s, decided to drop the practice this year for fear of direct and unprotected contact with crowds, and instead she decided to donate to one of the large charities that will be distributing dry and frozen foods to economically challenged families.
A veterinarian in her 30s, Sherine has decided to keep her tradition of giving away hot meals for Iftar. She does not underestimate the contamination fears that have prompted some to opt to give away money to charities instead. However, she is anxious for “those who will not be able to do without the hot meals”.
“Think of the street cleaners who hang around Salah Salem Street. They live really very far away from their work in the city,” Sherine said. “If these people do not get a hot meal, they will go to eat at the Mawaaid Al-Rahman, but those too are not happening this year,” she added.
The Mawaaid Al-Rahman, literally the “tables of the Merciful”, are charity street pavilions that serve free Iftar and sometimes also Sohour meals. Typically, they are organised either by individuals or charities in agreement with the municipal authorities. This year, as part of the safety measures that the government has introduced to reduce the chances of infection with Covid-19, the tradition has been suspended.
photo: Mohamed Shaalan
Hassan, a security guard in Maadi, said that he would “sorely miss” the Iftar pavilion that used to be held by the Al-Farouk Mosque. Hassan’s everyday main meal is traditionally koshari, pasta with tomato sauce, fuul and taamiya or white cheese and tomatoes. When he goes home to a village on the outskirts of Giza once a month, he gets to have a hot meal, but chicken or meat would not necessarily be available each time.
For Hassan, Ramadan used to be the only month when he got to sit at a table and have a hot meal served to him with a piece of chicken or meat and a bit of konafa and qatayef every day. But before the beginning of Ramadan, Hassan, along with other guards around the neighbourhood who used to go to the same food pavilion, was notified that instead this year they would be getting packed cooked food in boxes an hour before Iftar.
According to Mohamed Al-Akabawi, spokesman for the Ministry of Social Solidarity, distributing properly packed hot meals under careful hygienic measures will be allowed for those who wish to do so, whether individuals or organisations. The ministry, he said, would be doing so, especially for the homeless and those who have no permanent residence where they could cook their meals or have nobody to cook for them.
However, Al-Akabawi said that most food donations this Ramadan were set to be of dry food. The ministry and the charities it is working with have been giving away meal components for families and individuals who have been rendered jobless as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
This year, Al-Akabawi said, the programme of Ramadan donations came as part of the wider assistance that the ministry has been working on to help with the impacts of the pandemic. “The ministry is working with big and small NGOs to make sure that our outreach scheme is as thorough as possible,” he said. And in addition to giving away parcels of dry food, the Ministry of Social Solidarity has also been temporarily expanding the number of families eligible for social solidarity programmes.
This expanded assistance, Al-Akabawi said, would continue throughout the month of Ramadan and at least for a month afterwards to help the most vulnerable, including daily temporary workers and families headed by women who work in the informal sector in addition to children, the elderly, and individuals with special needs.
photo: Hassan Ammar
Al-Akabawi argued that while there might be fewer handouts of hot meals and no food pavilions this year, there will be more parcels and more financial assistance.
Ahmed Labib, a director of operations at Egypt’s Food Bank, also talked about more Ramadan parcels this year.
“I think for this Ramadan we are talking about close to triple the number of boxes of dry food that we would have been normally giving away,” Labib said. This was partially due to the fact that the month of Ramadan this year fell at the centre of a three-month assistance programme that his charity has been working on to reach out to people who have suffered economic challenges as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to Nevine Moghazi, public relations manager at the Food Bank, her NGO has been working in cooperation with the Ministry of Social Solidarity and charities all over Egypt to reach out to as many families who require assistance as possible.
“We merged our databases, and we also established a user-friendly portal to allow for possibly non-eligible citizens to apply for assistance starting in mid-March,” Moghazi said. “Very generous donations” have helped organisations like the Food Bank and Sonaa Al-Kheir to stretch out their distributions of parcels and boxes of food.
“We have received big donations from the business community, which has shown a great deal of social responsibility,” Labib said. “People have been very responsive to our appeal for donations since the beginning of the crisis and more so in Ramadan,” Zamzam said.
Some smaller-scale charities have suffered a decline in their revenues as individual donors’ incomes have been affected by the economic slowdown imposed by the pandemic, however.
For the last three years, Hala, a tour guide, gave a small charity that she is associated with LE5,000 a couple of weeks ahead of Ramadan to help with the distribution of parcels. This year, as tourism has been one of the most hit industries by the coronavirus pandemic, Hala has only managed half of her usual donation.
photo: Hassan Ammar
According to Moghazi, however, the drop that some individual donors might have suffered has been compensated by the fact that more people seem to be forthcoming with donations and more companies have increased their donations.
Opting to reach out to more donors, Sherine said she had been putting appeals on social media to encourage more people to step in. She has also resorted to buying the food items she needs for her parcels from the discounted outlets of the Ministry of Supply that have increased their discounts this year.
The ministry has also increased the number of its outlets that provide discounted food items with the advent of Ramadan. It has launched a food vouchers programme that allows individuals who wish to make donations to buy anything starting from an LE100 voucher and leave it at a store to be collected by eligible individuals at the same or another store affiliated to the ministry.
Overall, Al-Akabawi said, the coordination within government quarters and between government bodies and NGOs has been designed to make sure that the largest number of individuals eligible for assistance will be reached.
Meanwhile, in rural areas Ramadan donations seem to be more rather than less observed this year. Abdel-Basset, a landowner in Minya, said he was going to observe the yearly tradition of providing Iftars on weekends for underprivileged families in some villages in his governorate.
The Thursday slaughter of a cow and distribution of its meat will be observed as usual, starting on the eve of Ramadan. The Friday serving of hot meals, he said, would also continue because the tradition for the villages was not to have a special pavilion for people to come and eat, but for the food to be cooked and distributed to houses a couple of hours before Iftar.
“Keeping the traditions is part of the Ramadan spirit,” he said.
A PLACE FOR FESTIVITIES: The fear of the spread of the coronavirus, Abdel-Bassat argued, would not strip Egyptians of their passion to celebrate the holy month.
In small villages, he said, people will gather to perform the extended Ramadan night prayers (taraweeh) in the open air. They will still observe the dawn prayers in the same way, and they will also socialise in the way they are used to doing.
Mohamed, a taxi driver from one of Cairo’s popular districts, Dar Al-Salam, said that this would apply to his neighbourhood. “Ramadan festivities are sacred for us. It is considered an ill omen to try to break the traditions of communal prayers, at houses if not at mosques, and of the exchange of visits with family members and of course with putting up decorations in the house and on the streets,” he said.
On the eve of Ramadan, Mohamed had to finish work early to go back to help other young men who live on the same street to put up decorations for Ramadan, including a large lantern hanging from cords tied to balconies and other lighting ornaments.
However, Ibrahim, a seller of Ramadan lanterns, said that this year had been perhaps his worst since he started over 20 years ago. Ibrahim’s sales spot is next to the Mosque of Al-Sayeda Zeinab in a district that is at the heart of many Ramadan prayers and festivities.
Ibrahim said his sales this year would not amount even to half of his average annual sales in Ramadan. “Of course, some people come to get lanterns for their kids — the traditional ones with a place inside for a candle — and some people get the big ones that are lit by electricity, but this is nothing compared to last year,” Ibrahim said.
He understands that this has to do with the slowdown in the economy that has forced people to reduce their expenses and the fact that cafés and restaurants are closed for the month of Ramadan so there is no real demand for decorations.
Radwan, a deliveryman at one of Al-Sayeda Zeinab’s most popular restaurants, said he was “only hoping” that there will be enough demand for delivery orders this Ramadan for him to keep his job and his income with it.
Already, Radwan said, some of the waiters at the restaurant had been sent home “temporarily with half their salaries”.
Salaries are not essential income for people like waiters and deliverymen, however. “It is the tips that we all count on, and Ramadan used to be a good month, with so many people coming in to eat or ordering, especially after the first week that is generally dominated by home-cooked banquets,” he said.
But this year Radwan is not certain of his chances of getting even half the tips he got last year. It is not just about stressed order budgets for many people, as the economy has been slowing down, but it is also about the fear that people have about getting infected from deliverymen and packages.
Some upscale restaurants and cafés have promised to attend to this concern through “Ramadan safe packages and deliveries”. This means that the food is double-packaged “under strict conditions of hygiene” and parcels are put on doorsteps while payment is done online or in cash left in an envelope sent with the package and put for the deliveryman on the doorstep.
Nermine, an engineer, is planning to use this service in the holy month. Since the start of the coronavirus scare on the registration of the first positive case in Egypt in mid-February, Nermine has declined deliveries to avoid contact with deliverymen.
However, by the second half of March, Nermine found that it was safer for her to opt for deliveries than to go to crowded supermarkets, where she would have to be in contact with the cashier. She does not feel the pressure of wanting to rush out to a store to avoid contact with people when she does her shopping, she commented.
CURFEW CROWDS: In Ramadan, she will have to ask for delivery meals.
“We work long hours in our offices and on construction sites. I know that when I come under pressure with long hours, I will have to order Iftar,” she said. Nermine’s plan is to wear gloves to receive and unpack the parcels and then “just put things in the microwave for a couple of minutes and that is it”, she said.
In April, the government announced a plan to get construction work fully back on track since this is a main component of the economy and its work force would likely suffer severe economic consequences if work continued to be suspended.
Shortly afterwards, the government announced that factories would continue to work to spare the economy from a painful recession. It said that to facilitate the movement of workers, it would reduce the curfew hours to start at 8pm.
Hamed, a deliveryman at a Heliopolis branch of a well-known fuul and taamiya chain, said that at that point he had hoped things would pick up for him as he had suffered since the “coronavirus scare” started in “around early March”.
At that time, he recalled, people’s reaction was to drop ordering food. This had happened during Coptic Lent, which would have otherwise been a very good season for Hamed and his co-workers. Regrettably for him, things did not really pick up, however.
With the advent of Ramadan, he was again hoping that things would relax for people to be ordering more, especially after the reduced curfew hours that the government had announced. “Maybe this time round, we will see,” he said.
At a press conference last Thursday, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli announced the reduction of the curfew hours and the expansion of working hours for markets and shopping malls “to allow people enough space to do their shopping away from large crowds”. Madbouli then shortened the curfew hours one more time to make it start at 9pm.
The new regulations prompted an outcry from some commentators, who argued that they would encourage people to drop social distancing. Ziad Bahaeddin, an economist and former minister, argued that the new regulations were giving the public the wrong message after a restrictive schedule on the long weekend of Easter and Sham Al-Nessim.
On their social media pages, several medical doctors warned that the new regulations could bring a spike in the number of positive coronavirus cases in Egypt and put medical teams and the medical system under pressure.
Egypt’s first 1,000 cases of Covid-19 were recorded in the 50 days following 14 February, when the first case of a foreigner testing positive for the virus in Egypt was verified. In the following eight days, Egypt doubled its number of cases, and in the following six days they tripled. By the first day of Ramadan, Egypt had recorded 4,000 cases.
The number of daily recorded cases went up from an average of 150 to an average of 200 plus. This increase was already forecast in the Madbouli press conference.
Some medical sources who spoke on condition of anonymity warned that the new regulations could double if not triple the number of cases by the end of Ramadan. They argued that already before the announcement of the new hours, the capital and almost all the big cities in Egypt had been consumed by a shopping frenzy that had brought enormous traffic jams in upscale neighbourhoods and in more popular districts.
A couple of days before Ramadan, Midan Al-Gamea, the commercial district in Heliopolis, was packed with shoppers rubbing shoulders to buy vegetables, fruit, poultry and konafa and qatayef. The concept of social distancing seemed simply absent.
Fareh, a vegetable-seller, laughed at the idea of getting his clients to stand away from one another. “This is an open market. People come here to hand pick their vegetables and fruit, and there is no way they could observe any particular distance from one another,” he said.
In Tanta in the Delta, a couple of large open markets that were closed three weeks before Ramadan to avoid the crowds were slowly but surely resuming business with the advent of the holy month.
Amal, a civil servant who spoke from Tanta after a visit to her in-laws on the eve of Ramadan, noted that “the crowds are picking up again.” Meanwhile, a government source said that the authorities could not have been more restrictive during Ramadan.
“There are already so many things that have been suspended, and it was not possible to call everything off. People have to observe social distancing as much as possible, and it is up to people to refrain from joining large crowds,” he commented.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly