Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Ramadan is welcomed in Egypt with overwhelming joy. Weeks before the holy month begins, the country prepares for the fasting month by following the example of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and fasting certain days in the month of Shaaban that precedes Ramadan.
Dried fruits, nuts and dates are essential to Ramadan in Egypt as well as the ‘Fanoos Ramadan’, the ‘Ramadan lantern’ that adorns the balconies and streets. The ‘Fanoos’ perhaps is one of the most important symbols of Ramadan in Egypt and is loved particularly by children especially when it is lit up. It is common to see children carrying the lanterns as they sing Ramadan songs such as “Wahawi ya Wahawi” [meaning the light of fire]. However, the older generation prefers the traditional lanterns that are more expensive than the newer kind that are often manufactured abroad.
Ramadan celebrations differ from place to place in Egypt. In Cairo, for example, the entire city is decorated in honor of the holy month. Large tents and stalls are set up that sell Ramadan staples such as dried fruits, dates, nuts and ‘Amaraddin’, [sheets of dried apricot]. Moreover, families help adorn houses and streets with Ramadan-related decorations. In the countryside, on the other hand, celebrations are more modest, where Ramadan lights, known as ‘Anwar Ramadan’ are hung on the minarets of mosques.
In Egypt, during the month of Ramadan, one can hear people greeting each other by saying “Ramadan Karim”. It has two meanings: the first is related to the divine generosity that Muslims enjoy in this month as Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) described the month of Ramadan as “the month in which the sustenance is increased”, and the second is related to the Egyptian dinner table, which is full with all kinds of delicious foods at Iftar time, when the fast is broken.
Everyone spends according to their financial capability. In spite of the different lifestyles within Egyptian society, everyone enjoys the advent of the holy month. As soon as the beginning of the month is announced, the markets become densely populated and business is markedly active, where the Egyptians compete to serve Suhoor [the last meal before the fast begins at sunrise]. After the canon is fired at Maghreb time to indicate the end of the fast, the fasting nation opens its fast with the traditional dates. In Egyptian markets, different kinds of dates are nicknamed after famous figures. It is a marketing ploy that differs every year. The fasting Egyptians will then drink ‘Amaraddin’, a kind of syrup made of dried apricot or eat ‘Khoshaf’, which is a made of dried dates, raisins, figs, and apricots. But some Egyptians prefer to drink fresh juices such as orange, mango, ‘Ersoos’ [licorice] or ‘Tamerhindi’ [tamarind] juice. Iftar, the meal eaten at the point of breaking fast, in Egypt, usually includes meat, fish, vegetables, soup, and Egyptian dishes such as Molokhiya or Bamia [Okra]. However, the Egyptian dinner table at Iftar will never lack one of the most popular side dishes in Egypt, that is, pickles.
Of course, Iftar differs from house to house; some families of limited income would eat ‘Ful’ and eggs for Suhoor or Iftar, and these foods are dubbed “the poor man’s meat”. However, such class is able to enjoy Iftar in one of the “Mawaid Arrahman”, which are large tents set up in squares and districts in Egypt, that offer free Iftar to the poor to break the vicious circle of poverty. No one goes hungry in Ramadan, during which the Egyptians compete to do good and be compassionate towards less affluent members of society.
Some of the most popular deserts during Ramadan include ‘Kunafa’ and ‘Qataif’ that are both of Fatimid origin, and Baklawa and Omm Ali [a pudding made with bread, butter, raisins, and nuts].
Another notable feature of Ramadan is the Tarawih prayers that many Egyptians take part in to the extent that mosques are overcrowded with different-aged worshippers.
It is common to see people in the squares and cafes after Tarawih prayers, chatting to one another. In Cairo, Ramadan is replete with diverse artistic and cultural activities. Cinemas, theaters and clubs used to be closed during Ramadan; however, this is no longer the case. Moreover, artists choose to celebrate the holy month in their own special way that is suitable to the greatness of this holy month.
As for the Ramadan-themed tent, it is a new phenomenon to contemporary Egyptian society. Most of these tents are set up in major hotels. There are two different kinds of tents: environment-friendly tents that do not serve Nirgileh [the water-pipe] and the religious tents that are used to give lessons on religion, and conduct other religious activities. Perhaps parallel to these in the local districts and villages are the “Saharat” during which there is Dhikr [literally the remembrance of God by repeating His names and supplications] and listening to Quran and religious songs.
Another characteristic of Ramadan is the ‘Musaharati’ who passes by houses before sunrise to wake people up for Suhoor. As he bangs his drum, he shouts “Wake up o sleepers, praise God, Ramadan karim,” [Esah ya nayim, wahad dayim, Ramadan karim]. However, this tradition is slowly fading due to modern technologies used to wake people up such as alarm clocks or mobile phones. Therefore, the ‘Musaharati’ is more popular in villages and poorer districts.
In Egypt, during Ramadan, families and friends get together frequently to break fast and share food. It is an opportunity to meet with relatives and strengthen family ties. In many rural parts of the country, rather than setting up one of the large tents, people give food to the poor and contribute to the efforts of charitable organizations.
Ramadan in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, is distinguished by the celebrations, decorations, large tents and the family get-togethers. The tents in particular, draw in people from all walks of life such as clerics, intellects, politicians, writers and prominent figures of society who meet and discuss religious and social issues.