“These are holy days,” said Sherif Samaan, an Egyptian Coptic Christian who is preparing for the holy week of Easter with his family in Cairo.
Samaan, who works in publishing at the American University in Cairo, is keen on going to church every day during the holy week as a ritual that brings him and his family closer to God. The holy week is a string of eight days that starts on Palm Sunday and allows Christians the opportunity to reflect upon Jesus’ sacrifice during the Crucifixion.
This year, both Egypt’s Muslims and its Christians are living through highly charged spiritual days at the same time, as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and Easter fall together for the second time this year.
“Each of us is trying to celebrate our fast, our beliefs, and our rituals” at this time of year, Samaan said. “I always invite my Muslim co-workers to gather in Ramadan for Iftar,” he added, as many Christians also enjoy these days.
“The only problem is that when Muslims break their fast, we can’t break it at the same time. When we eat altogether, it is difficult to apply all our dietary restrictions at the same time, and then there are our different timings for fasting and breaking the fast,” he said.
“I feel that these things make us all closer to God, when we are all doing charity work, all praying, all controlling our desires, and all thinking less of our appetites,” he added.
“Despite some recent incidents, I believe these are individual ones carried out by fanatics,” Samaan said. “The question that appeared in a newspaper about whether it is permissible to offer food to Christians in Ramadan was appalling,” he added. “It was strange to put this on the front page of a newspaper. Everyone involved should be investigated.”
Ahmed, who works as a cleric in a youth facility in Alexandria, agrees with Samaan, seeing this month as a great blessing for all Egyptians. “We should think of our similarities rather than our differences as everyone is competing for God’s grace,” he said.
“Our faith teaches us to respect the religion of others. To claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience obliges us to allow all men the same privilege,” he added.
Ahmed teaches Muslim students the diversity of religion and to recognise other religions and accept differences. He encourages them to read about Christian rituals and the traditions of their celebrations. “When we think that we have a lot in common, we surely won’t mind minor differences,” he said.
“We share charity work. We share fasting. We share praying. We share acts of goodness. We share learning more about spirituality that will help us to get rid of any pre-existing assumptions or inherited prejudices.”
Fasting demonstrates the depth of one’s desire when praying. It does not mean only abstaining from drinking or eating for Muslims during daylight hours in Ramadan, or avoiding butter, meat, fish, milk and dairy products for Orthodox Christians, but also abstaining from bad habits and committing oneself to a high spiritual level.
“We fast to purify our hearts and souls of desires and appetites. Some of us stop smoking cigarettes, or close Facebook pages, or stop posting on social media. We try to become closer to God,” said Felomena Nagi, a freelance photographer in Cairo.
Nagi and her family celebrate Easter by going to church, praying, and doing lots of charity work during the holy week. They celebrate the Easter holidays starting from Palm Sunday, which commemorates the entrance of Christ into Jerusalem. This is the day on which palm branches were strewn across His path as He entered the city, before His eventual arrest and crucifixion on Good Friday. It marks the beginning of the holy week and is the final week of Lent.
Nagi is keen to celebrate Ramadan with her Muslim friends as she loves eating konafa and qatayef, kinds of deserts, during the Iftar meal. She is preparing to celebrate Easter with her family and friends. “When it comes to Easter, we will definitely be buying new clothes,” she said.
“We will break our fast after the Paschal [Easter] Vigil, a service which starts around 11:00 pm on Holy Saturday, and then we will enjoy eating red dyed eggs and magiritsa, a traditional soup of meat, lettuce and spring onions, and of course turkey, lamb, or goat is the meat of choice,” she added.
Egyptians are also celebrating the spring festival of Sham Al-Nessim during Ramadan this year. It falls on 25 April, right after Easter and in the last week of Ramadan. However, Sham Al-Nessim may be different this year.
“I don’t think anyone will come and buy salted fish this year during Ramadan as it will make them feel thirsty the next day,” said Mohamed Hussein, a fish stall owner in Alexandria.
“We had people buying ringa and fesikh before Ramadan, however,” he said, referring to types of salted fish. “I believe people will come and buy from us right after the month ends, maybe even in the Eid,” he added.
People generally celebrate Sham Al-Nessim by eating traditional meals of salted fish, onions, and eggs. They also go out to parks and gardens, whether in Cairo or in other governorates.
“I myself will celebrate Sham Al-Nessim by colouring eggs with my children so that they do not miss the oldest spring festival in the world that has been taking place since 2,700 BCE,” Hussein said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.