When I realized the month of Ramadan fell into my vacation time in Egypt, I was overcome with excitement. This is the biggest holiday in Islam. Due to its lengthy duration, it is unlike any other holiday in the world. My excitement grew as I watched shopkeepers help each other string long, colorful garland between their stores and down the streets. Jewel toned lanterns, some as large as an adult, illuminated cafe doorways and porches. Markets and bakeries displayed dried fruits, nuts, and sweet goodies in heaps. Society, as a whole, seemed more than ready to welcome this month long event.
The first week was met with pure determination. Everyone seemed hell-bent on making it through each day with no food or water. They were so focused on not breaking their fasts that there was no time to think about anything else. From dawn until dusk, Muslims abstained from ingesting anything, including medications. They also refrained from having sex, kissing, swearing, and anything else deemed impure. This was a time to cleanse the body. When 7:00pm rolled around, it was time for Iftar, a feast fit for a king. Chicken, beef sausages, duck, pasta, rice, vegetables, soup, and bread covered the table. The beginning of the feast was signaled by adhan, the Islamic call for prayer. For the rest of the evening they carried on as they would have done during a normal day. Then they would end their day by eating a pre-fast breakfast, sohoor, at 2:00am. This traditionally consists of a vegetable omelet, beans, white cheese and tomato, potatoes, falafel, and pita bread. They would drink tea, smoke sheesha, and wait for the first adhan of the day to signal that it was time begin fasting.
As the second week rolled around, attitudes began to change. Temperatures soared to 106 degrees fahrenheit. Deprivation throughout the sweltering days began to take its toll. The once bustling streets began to thin down during the day. The smiling, friendly faces of shopkeepers faded into apathetic, somewhat stern expressions. By week three, people were fighting in the streets. I witnessed seven street brawls during Ramadan, something I did not see at any other point during the duration of my stay. Grown men became physical over something as simple as a parking space. Children ganged up against each other to decide who got to use the territory for ball that day. Once the fast was broken, people began to act civil again. It became apparent that avoiding the public during the day was the way to go.
One early morning, I was with a group of friends celebrating my love’s birthday. We went to a cafe on El Mo’az Street in Old Cairo. The crowd was biblical. It was over an hour before we got our food. However, this was the perfect opportunity to observe. El Mo’az Street is one of the oldest places in Cairo. It was made of stone and has been preserved through the centuries. Cafes, kiosks, and storefronts lined the way. It was similar to Khan el Khalili, the world’s largest and most famous bazaar, but much more localized. To the left of the main entrance sat an enormous, white mosque. The piles of litter surrounding the mosque grew as the crowd moved. People left their half empty water bottles, threw their soda cans, and let their chip bags blow away with no concern. The trash was so extreme that one could not find a clear path to walk on the sidewalks. Young men gawked at foreign women. A rude comment by a young man about myself almost caused another fight. It was obvious that the high moral standards of Ramadan were nowhere to be seen at this time.
Then I saw something that left me shocked. When it came time to begin fasting and the first adhan of the day sounded, everyone in the massive crowd dropped what they were doing and filed directly into the mosque. Sheesha was left burning, hoses thrown onto the ground. Food and drinks were abandoned, never to be cleaned up by the ones responsible. I watched hundreds of people file inside like a line of worker ants. It was a steady stream of people. I was left wondering just how much room was actually inside. I shared my discomfort at this strange phenomena and expressed my wish to have caught this on video. “No one will be believe this unless they see it,” I said.
The last three days of Ramadan, people began referring to it as if it was already over. They began preparing for the celebration of Eid, a three day feast directly following the conclusion of Ramadan. The determination was back. Everyone wanted to end their month of fasting strong. Throughout the month, I listened to multiple arguments about how healthy this holiday was. I can’t help but disagree. Dehydration and deprivation takes a hard toll on the body. As an unbiased onlooker, the drastic change in the behavior of the people was quite clear. While I did not participate in the fast, I am very thankful to have spent this holiday in Egypt, surrounded by loved ones and friends. It was interesting, to say the least.