“We are Christians with an Islamic culture” is one of the most common phrases used by Christians in Egypt, since whether Muslim or Christian, all of us are equally Egyptians.
Many Christians repeat the phrase on various occasions, declaring the religious identity to which they belong, but at the same time feeling proud and appreciative of the Islamic culture in which they live, one that urges tolerance and calls for family bonding and social cohesion. This culture combines matter and spirit and intermingles religious values with the requirements of daily life.
Those who observe the customs and traditions of Christian brotherhood will find that they are already greatly influenced by Islamic culture and religious values. They share with Muslims the use of many religious phrases that are in their origin Islamic phrases, and they carry out the same behaviours that Muslims do and that do not conflict with what they believe as Christians.
Since the holy month of Ramadan has its own special religious and social rituals, Egypt’s Christians are also affected by it and interact with it. They exchange congratulations and blessings with Muslims in the holy month, viewing it as a month of obedience and closeness to God. It is a season for family bonding and solidarity in which the whole family gathers daily to have the Iftar meal, with all that this carries with it in terms of psychological dimensions and emotional connotations.
“It’s one of the best seasons in Egypt, like Christmas time. It gives me amazing feelings. Ramadan has a special atmosphere that affects the whole of society, including family gatherings, special foods, going out at night, TV series and more,” said Maged Michel, a 35-year-old pharmacist in Cairo.
“I used to wait for the holy month. My father taught us to help our Muslim friends and neighbours to hang up lights and decorations in the streets in preparation for this special time,” he added. “A typical day in Ramadan starts with the mesaharati waking us up before dawn. And in the morning at work, I try not to eat or drink in front of my Muslims colleagues.”
“It’s also a privilege for me that working days are reduced in Ramadan. And I enjoy it when guys stop my car on my way back home from work before Iftar to give me dates or juice,” Michel said.
He also enjoys watching Ramadan TV series with his family, family gatherings and having Sohour with Muslim colleagues. “This year, Christians and Muslims are fasting at the same time, and this means even more feelings of love and equality between us. Even my little daughter knows about Ramadan, and she expects to get Ramadan lantern every year,” he said.
Egypt’s Muslims and Christians live in a unique state of religious harmony every Ramadan, with the whole society sharing in the fasting, especially this year when the Christian fast has overlapped with the holy Muslim month of Ramadan. The methods, means and rituals may differ, but the goal is the same.
Eve Emad, a 31-year-old former Cairo resident, said that it had been fun fasting together this year, “as now we have the same thing to joke about.” She described Ramadan in Egypt as a celebration. “I live in Dubai, and I really miss Ramadan in Egypt, especially as the whole society starts almost two months before the holy month preparing for it. I wait for it eagerly as my best friend is Muslim, and we do everything together, like Iftar with her family and inviting her family to my place too,” she added.
Nada celebrating Ramadan with her Muslim friends
“We used to have a church service during Ramadan where we would hand out dates and water to Muslims in the street before Iftar time.”
According to Christians, the month has a special sanctity, so it is very rare to find a Christian eating and drinking in public or violating the sanctity of the month out of respect for the beliefs of Muslims and appreciation for their rituals. Christians will voluntarily refrain from eating and drinking in public during the holy month, even though it is not part of their religion.
Nada Safwat, a 33-year-old Cairo resident, said that “Ramadan in Egypt is full of joy and a unique spirit in every detail – the calm during Iftar, the taraweeh prayers, the outings and Sohour, all these things make it a special time.”
“A typical Ramadan day for me is divided into two parts. The first part is for work, and the second part is for the Ramadan TV series. I like the idea that we live this experience together, as if it were a consolidated feast for all of us. It’s right that we care about each other’s feelings, I love Iftar outings, and I almost fast with my Muslim friends until Iftar time.”
Many Christians are keen to invite their Muslim friends and neighbours to Iftar meals, and many Christian families change their diet during the holy month. As their main meal turns into dinner in conjunction with the Muslim Iftar, Ramadan foods, drinks and desserts are also their favourites in the holy month.
Ingy Sabri, a 32-year-old pharmacist in Cairo, said Ramadan was the month of goodness and giving. She has many Muslim friends whom she spends time with each Ramadan. “I love Ramadan weekends when going out at night and staying up late outside is different and joyful,” she said. “To me, Ramadan is the decorated streets and the amazing colourful lanterns. There are also the delightful fruit juices of Ramadan, and katayef [a traditional sweet] is a whole different story.”
“Gatherings are always different and more cosy in Ramadan,” said 28-year-old Abanob Samir. “I always wait for Ramadan since it’s my most relaxing month of the year. A typical day for me in Ramadan is usually very smooth, as I go to work in the morning and later after Iftar I gather with my friends and we usually go out to enjoy the festive atmosphere. This year, since everyone is fasting in their own way, I can’t really tease my fasting friends anymore either.”
Muslims and Christians in Egypt have been able to create a unique state of coexistence in which they practise diversity in unity, although they are religiously different. They never disagree on the love of the homeland and the concern for its unity and cohesion, rejecting anything that could disturb its cohesion or upset its harmonious mood.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly