It was last year on September 15 at two o`oclock in the morning when my plane, this was already my second time, was landing in Cairo, descending over that sea of glittering plankton which seems to expand as far as the eye reaches. A night landing in Cairo has its charm. I passed the customs and waited for a friend in the hall of the first terminal. I waited for an hour because the airline wrote the wrong arrival time on the boarding pass – an hour timezone difference was not taken into account.
Ahmed and J. came just before three o`clock, J. with the traditional headgear and a burgundy shirt. As we kissed on the cheeks I smelled the freshness of a recently taken shower and soap. We shook hands with Ahmed. Ramadan started but a day earlier and the young men suppered the last ramadan meal – suhur in a large shopping mall in Nasr city before coming to pick me up. Ahmed drove me and J. to Agouza (a district in Cairo). I stepped out of the car in the street, where J. and his family were living at the time and where I also found boarding for a few days, and I grew numb. Above me in the trees, from one side of the street to the other: strings of golden and silver strands. „J., What`s that?” „That`s specially for you, to mark your arrival.” Of course I did not believe him but it was the only explanation I was given at that time. In the flat the young men greeted me kindly. They had just suppered suhur and I received my share as well.
Before experiencing my first Ramadan I did not have much of a clue, what this particular holiday means to the Moslems. Naturally I had read about fasting as I had read about Marocco and Egypt. In both cases I felt as nothing could have prepared me for the experience which followed as nothing and nobody can prepare us for life.
In the snug atmosphere of the improvised room the habits and customs started unravelling before me. J. started: „Before Ahmed and I came to pick you up at the airport, he asked me, whether I was going to kiss you. I said I wasn`t allowed to because it`s Ramadan.” We laughed, especially at the way J. imitated Ahmed`s shy gentle voice. J., however, did not dare to kiss me on the mouth in front of his friend. In the days that followed I found out that the silver, golden and sometimes colourful strands hanging from one side of the street to the other were put up to honour Ramadan and not my arrival. I also found out that there is such a thing as a Ramadan lamp- fenus, that only during the time of Ramadan Kairo quietens before six and becomes irrecognisable, there is almost no traffic, it is quiet, no crowds, no hunking horns ... People can only be spotted in those streets where (during Ramadan) tables are set for the poor and the belated passers-by to eat iftar, the evening breakfast, plainly in the street. During Ramadan people eat particularly delicious and rich dishes. Ramadan is the month in which nobody is supposed to be hungry after sunset.
Tamarhindi is even sold in barrels during the few hours before six. During the day all the traditional cafes and restaurants are closed. The bakeries fervently make a threadlike material for konefa – one of the numerous (too) sweet Arabian sweets and circular meat ravioli kind of dish called ataif. All month long work finishes between two and four o`clock causing traffic before five to be even more congested, jammed and impossible to bear.
What is more difficult to describe in words and should be experienced are not the habits and customs itself but the whole atmosphere. The atmospehere is reflected in the excitement of the people only a few days or even weeks before Ramadan. It is their joyful expectation and as the first day of fasting is briskly approaching even their fear of forbearing. „The food isn`t the problem,” Soraya, my fellow worker who generally does not eat much during the day, tells me. „The problem is that I cannot drink my coffee in the morning. ” And some days before the onset: „I won`t come to work the first day, because the first day is really the hardest.” The atmosphere around five o`clock is marked by the haste and frenzy in the air and after a while by a festive serenity when hearing mahreb, the evening call to prayer, 90% of Egypt can finally sit at a table and feast on the first meal of the day –iftar. The atmosphere is enriched with numerous evening concerts, taking place around nine o`clock in the evening in culture and educational centres, parks also, in charity fairs, it is embodied in shop assistants and restaurant workers distributing packets of food and meals to the poor, in volunteering and abundant alms given away, in exclamations and signs „Ramadan karim” – generous ramadan. During Ramadan the good and evil doings count twice as much. Ramadan is the month which brings the most abundant baraka – god`s blessing to the loyal believers.
Knowing all this it is difficult to avoid comparisons with our Merry December and the atmosphere surrounding Christmas and New Year in general. Consequently, it is not a lot of work to discover that in our country everything is more obviously commercialised and that we have, somewhere along the way to the capitalistic millenium, lost the essential values imbuing the holiday with depth, honesty and resolute kindness. The Copts, the Egyptian Orthodox Christians, fast for 44 days in a row before Christmas. We, the Europeans, are mostly too lazy to do something like that and too comfort loving. Even religions can be suited to the needs of every individual.
I have learnt to tell people in Egypt that I am a Christian and a Catholic because it is useless to explain to them that I believe in God but in my own way. I have come to terms with the fact that faith and religion as values in Egypt are not questioned, regardless of the particularities of the religious belief itself. But that does not mean that I stopped asking questions and objecting. „Your manner of fasting is not particularly healthy because you do not drink during the day and in the evening you overeat fatty food.” And: „I will certainly not fast with you. Why should I? I do not belong to your religion.” Nevertheless I ate and prepared a delicious iftar each evening and apart from a cup of tea and some fruit I did not eat during the Ramadan days.
The greatest dispute, however, was that with Soraya. It started some time before when my hygienic towel landed in the waste bin at our workplace. Soraya noticed it, drew me to the side and pointed out to me that I must not leave hygienic towels in the waste bin just like that. It is not a pretty sight, it is not fitting and that all men in the company will start wondering which of the girls has her days and in general will have too much to talk about. I was outraged: „Should I just carry the hygienic towel home in my purse, or what?”
Moslem girls and women hide their days of the month in front of their brothers, fathers and even husbands, in front of the colleagues at work and friends. In the menstruating days they are not allowed to pray because they are impure and during Ramadan they do not fast during those days. But they will hide all this, if possible, in front of their male colleagues, so the men would not find out that they are menstruating. My objections that menstruation is a natural process and that it really is not something they should hide in front of the men at every expense failed completely.
And so Soraya had her days in the second week of Ramadan. She was moaning about how she would love to drink Nescafe and in fact could do that but was ashamed of doing it in front of everybody. She would rather wait. Our discussion, at some point expeditiously broght to an end, reopened. „Oh, why do you care so much about what other people will say? Why do you never doubt several centuries old religious dogmas? Stupid, really.” I said too much and I apologised to her for what I blurted out. I was not the one to judge what is insightful or stupid in a certain religion or culture of this world. What makes rationalism and Cartesian doubt about everything better that religion? Or the postmodernistic plurality of stories, veiwpoints and philosophies? When we calmed down, Soraya said to me: „I love my religion, I know it and I respect it. It is a demanding religion. I take what suits me and what I can handle. If I turned myself completely to it, it would break me.” Throughout the Ramadan Soraya was getting up before dawn for the first morning prayer, was distributing food to the poor at the weekends, was regularly praying five times a day and, when low levels of blood pressure and blood sugar did not make her too tired and sleepy, even read the Quaran, which Mohammad received in the month of Ramadan.
This year I came to the same conclusion as last year: Leaving certain personal objections aside, it still seems to me that Ramadan lasts too long. People become tired and irritable at the end of the month due to daily fasting and preparing food in the afternoon, there are numerous extra activities and evening visits, expenses increase .... So what is the point? I would shorten the month somewhat and would modify the fasting. For many foreigners and Christians in Egypt Ramadan is an especially unpleasant month. This year I was driving in a minibus together with J. and other passengers to Feysal, a district in Cairo, just before six o`clock. Ramadan was already coming to an end. We were invited to iftar at some friends`. We were extremely late and the call to prayer and evening breakfast caught us, together with other passengers, on the street. The minibus stopped, some passengers got off, some got on the bus. Among them there was a boy who started distributing dates. An old man by the side of the road offered each of us a plastic cup of tea. The atmosphere among the passengers filled with solidarity and bonding. There was something good and beatiful in the air. I was struck by "ramadan karim" as well.
From here onwards I can only remain speechless. I cannot criticise, I cannot object or question the sense of it all. I can only show my respect.
Andreja Stajnko, prevod članka Radodarni ramadam