The glowing streets of Ramadan in Egypt

Sarah Elhosary , Saturday 6 Apr 2024

The streets of Egyptian cities are transformed by traditional lanterns and decorations in the holy month of Ramadan.

The glowing streets of Ramadan
photos:Mahmoud Bakkar


Ramadan transforms the streets of Egypt into a colourful canvas of tradition and celebration. Every corner seems to be the place for centuries-old rituals and vibrant decorations, symbolising the holy month’s rich cultural legacy and spiritual significance.

Abdel-Rahman, a Cairo resident, climbed a long wooden ladder carrying the end of a colourful decoration to hang from a first-floor balcony. Meanwhile, children were tying other decorations together, intending to decorate the entire street before the holy month began.

Everyone in the street had taken part in the decorations, Abdel-Rahman said, with both children and adults joining forces. They decorated their shops, side streets, and alleys together. Someone would climb up a ladder to hang decorations on a balcony on the first floor, or the balcony owners would hang the decorations themselves.

Balcony owners can receive decorations attached to a rope-tied basket known as a sabat and used by many people to send down money or collect products from their balconies or windows without going downstairs.

After a volunteer ties decorations to a sabat, the balcony owner will raise it, releasing the end of the decoration and reattaching it to the balcony. Decorations should be hung no lower than at the level of first-floor balconies to avoid interfering with passing vehicles and to ensure a clear view of the street.

On the first day of Ramadan, Abdel-Rahman hung decorations outside his shop in Cairo. The next day, he extended them to a nearby square and the streets on each side of it.

“I still have two lanterns to install. I will put one in the square and the other one in the opposite street. I’ll leave the lanterns up throughout the month of Ramadan, while the decorations can remain hanging even after the holy month ends in celebration of the Eid,” Abdel-Rahman said.

“This is how I remember the streets during Ramadan and the Eid, adorned with colourful decorations and illuminated lanterns. I began hanging up decorations when I was a child, assisting adults in the streets. Today, I am hanging them myself while both children and adults are helping me. The decorations do not cost much at only LE1 per metre, but they are very precious to our hearts.”

Before hanging up the decorations and lanterns in the streets, Ahmed Abdel-Radi and his workers in Gammaliya district of Cairo worked tirelessly to complete brass decorations and Ramadan lanterns.

“We create lanterns with fresh designs every year. We make different sizes or fully redesign the products to offer clients something new. The lanterns vary in size and shape: some are small, while others can be three metres high as we specifically design them for streets, parks, restaurants, and squares.”

In addition to Gammaliya and Al-Sayeda Zeinab districts of Cairo and other areas specialising in producing and selling lanterns during Ramadan, lanterns of various sizes and forms can be seen stacked and hanging on almost every street corner during the holy month. Regardless of their main business, many stores set aside a section to sell lanterns during Ramadan.

“Besides selling brass lanterns in Gammaliya, we also offer them to retail traders across Cairo. Workers making tin lanterns work with us to produce and display lanterns for customers,” Abdel-Radi said.
“Our work offers delight to people as it decorates streets and homes. We make lanterns, brass decorations shaped like crescents and cannon replicas to hang up during Ramadan. The Ramadan cannon ornament reflects the tradition of firing the cannon at sunset during the holy month to announce the time for Iftar, the fast-breaking meal at sunset.”

During Ramadan, the streets not only mark the holy month with the bright glow of lanterns but also with the enticing attraction of traditional desserts. Local bakeries meticulously create these delightful pastries, with each piece being a testament to long-standing traditions.

The practice of purchasing dough to make qatayef and kunafa, types of traditional pastry, from local bakeries is deeply rooted in Egyptian culture, as mothers would send their children to get the dough to make sweets before Iftar.

The habit of purchasing dough from surrounding bakeries is a treasured Ramadan memory. Walking to the bakery down “the narrow alley”, as the present writer used to call it, served as a nostalgic reminder of those moments.

However, upon my arrival on this occasion I discovered that the former owner had closed his bakery and returned to his hometown. Seeking another source, I found a nearby family-run bakery that has been baking Ramadan dough for over 66 years.


Mohamed Radwan worked alongside his family for decades selling Middle Eastern pastries. Now, he oversees the bakery himself.

“The bakery has been our family’s livelihood for decades. I inherited the profession from my father and grandfather, and my son will join the bakery in his turn. The qatayef and kunafa dough that we used to produce by hand has earned the trust of our clientele, who continue to purchase it even now that we have implemented automated processes,” he said.

“Two days before Ramadan, I finished preparing the Ramadan sweets. We neatly placed and wrapped the qatayef on plastic plates before displaying it on an extended counter in front of the bakery, along with the kunafa dough. The workers also finished preparing the pastry sheets, which are later assembled into ready-to-use bags, each sufficient to serve a family.”

During Ramadan, qatayef enthusiasts flock to bakeries and sweet shops where these pastries are readily available. However, outside the Ramadan season, it disappears from the shelves, leaving many people anticipating the return of the holy month.

Radwan dedicates Mondays and Thursdays to crafting and selling qatayef all year round for his regular customers. Throughout the rest of the year, the bakery also offers other beloved pastries, including phyllo dough sheets and feteer meshaltet, a delectable Egyptian pie made from thin layers of dough and ghee.

For weeks, Radwan has been preparing for the bakery’s orders by purchasing and stocking up on essentials. He has stored nuts, coconuts, peanuts, and 20 sacks of flour to ensure the bakery can fulfil its orders.

Workers rise early to prepare the dough and bake the pastries. They must roll out the qatayef dough in the open air before filling and wrapping it to prevent it from drying out. Despite setting up a tent and arranging display tables in front of the bakery, the workers bake the pastries just a few hours before Iftar, ensuring that the customers receive them fresh and hot.

During Ramadan, two types of tables can typically be seen on the streets of Egyptian cities — one prepared at sunset and the other arranged a few hours before dawn. Fasters frequent both the Sohour and Iftar tables. At the former, visitors eat a meal before commencing their fast at dawn. At the latter, fasters break their fast with a meal around sunset after refraining from eating and drinking during the day.

Some Sohour places are extravagant, featuring music performances and traditional tanoura dancing, a folk dance where the performers whirl round in colourful skirts. Other Sohour places offer experiences centred on Ramadan chants and religious prayers. Quieter arrangements are set up by restaurants, providing extra tables, chairs, and sometimes tents on the street to accommodate more diners.

“Every year, a restaurant in the Shubra area of Cairo sets up a Sohour table, welcoming fasters the night before Ramadan begins,” says Mohamed Sami, one of the restaurant workers. “We’ve been organising the Sohour tent to receive fasters for over 20 years. It has six tables stretching along the street and in front of the restaurant, with a seating capacity of up to 20 people.”

“Between midnight and dawn, diners gather at the Sohour tables of the restaurant, where we serve dishes like fuul, eggs, potatoes, cauliflower, and yoghurt,” Sami explained.

“While some customers are regulars, others visit only occasionally during Ramadan. Some stumble upon the restaurant and choose to dine in, fearing they will not reach home in time before the start of the fasting. However, this year has seen a decrease in Sohour attendees due to a 25 per cent increase in food prices.”

“We begin preparations for Ramadan at least a month in advance, stocking up on double the quantities of foods we use in the restaurant such as fuul, due to increased demand during Ramadan. In addition to these preparations, we procure fresh ingredients daily, such as aish baladi, the local bread.”

With the changes affecting stores selling lanterns and sweets specifically for Ramadan, traffic on the streets also fluctuates between congestion and tranquillity. Before Iftar, vehicles and pedestrians rush to their homes. Once Iftar time arrives, the streets clear of pedestrians, except those gathered around the tables in the streets.
For the Iftar tables, everyone collaborates. Some cook food, others set up tables and chairs and distribute it, and some purchase ingredients in advance. Still others provide financial assistance to purchase food items for the tables.



Before setting up the Iftar tables in front of the old church alley in Boulaq in Cairo, Mahmoud Gamal used to provide free Iftar meals that he prepared himself at home.

“I began by preparing and distributing Iftar meals using only two cooking pots, one for rice and the other for vegetables and meat. Today, I employ a cook to prepare over 200 meals, including those for the tables and others distributed to pedestrians and needy individuals from nearby houses,” Gamal explained.

“The Iftar tables that I manage today consist of six tables and around 50 seats,” he said, adding that “in addition to pedestrians and fasters, we make sure to distribute meals to those we know are in need.”

“We may go to the nearby bus station to provide travellers with food for Iftar. Workers from nearby workshops also visit the tables, and we never turn away any visitors and welcome everyone. We also ensure diversity in the Iftar meals by changing the types of vegetables and meats offered daily, in addition to rice, pickles, and juices.”

“The cook and his son diligently prepare the food for a modest fee, most of which they graciously waive as their contribution to the tables. Meanwhile, my friends meticulously sweep and tidy the place before laying out the food. Others generously donate the gas cylinders that are essential for cooking.”

“We all collaborate tirelessly to prepare the meals until we reach the final days of Ramadan, when we joyously invite all those who have contributed to the tables. This gesture includes an array of delectable dishes, not only for those who have assisted with the tables throughout the month, but also for people who visit on just this day,” Gamal said.

“Our Ramadan tables express the spirit of participation and collaboration, where each individual contributes according to their means without any imposed minimum or maximum requirements.”

“Some may donate substantial sums, while others may contribute a more modest amount. We welcome every contribution equally. For instance, a friend who owns a furniture factory in Warraq district generously volunteered to manufacture the Iftar tables, eliminating the need to borrow tables from a nearby café as we did in the past.”

“In addition to utensils, many people bring food items to share. We provide essentials like rice, oil, sugar, and meat for the tables, while one particularly generous participant even donated an entire calf for the Iftar meals.”

“This year, a calf costs approximately LE90,000 and has around 240 kg of meat. The price is nearly three times higher than the previous year. Despite the rising prices, we are delighted to see an increasing number of people eager to participate in acts of kindness and provide Iftar for fasters, thus upholding a cherished tradition that has endured for centuries at least.”

Just a few steps can be enough to find an Iftar table during Ramadan. In every neighbourhood, you can find multiple tables scattered across the adjacent streets, as a tradition that began as solidarity with the needy has extended into an annual ritual observed by many.

Entire neighbourhoods collaborate to uphold such traditions, like the Iftar tables in Mataria neighbourhood of Cairo, held annually on the 15th day of Ramadan, where the whole area participates and attracts thousands of people.

As the appearance of the streets changes in Ramadan, so does their sound. On the night preceding the first day of Ramadan, you may hear five familiar beats on a drum accompanied by the chant of a mesaharati, a person who wakes up others to eat before their fast during Ramadan.

The mesaharati’s famous chant is “wake up sleeper, rise from your slumber, for we have entered the month of fasting,” prompting people to wake up and partake of food before the dawn call to prayer.

Every night during Ramadan, the mesaharati’s drum resounds along with his chant at Sohour time. He walks beneath people’s balconies, striking his drum and reminding everyone to eat before fasting.

The mesaharati call to Sohour is a tradition ingrained in Egyptian culture, and he will often even add children’s names as he passes their homes, especially if people ask him to mention specific names.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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