Ramadan and Firecrackers

What happens when a normally mad city decides to stop eating during daylight hours, stop smoking and drinking and sexing while it’s light out? A report from Cairo, a vibrant city alternately united and crazed by hunger.

Imagine if 90 percent of New Yorkers agreed to give up eating, drinking, smoking, and sex during daylight hours for an entire month. I can see the city flooded with an impenetrable cloud of frustration and exasperation, people racing to destinations faster than usual, no coffee carts in the morning, no groups of smokers at the doorways of office buildings. But in Cairo—Egypt’s teeming capital, a quilt of disparate neighborhoods, with the largest Muslim population of any city in the world—approximately seven million citizens are currently observing a daytime fast, because until Nov. 14 it is Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar, which is devoted to contemplation and putting aside the concerns of daily life.

The principle form of Ramadan observance is fasting—a fasting Muslim does not let a morsel of food or a drop of liquid pass his or her lips from sunrise to sunset throughout the month. Smokers don’t smoke. No jokes about religion. Those who are sick, those who are traveling, and those who are pregnant are excused from fasting, though people in all those categories can still choose to keep the fast. Women having their periods may not fast, since they are unclean, and God will not accept their fast, according to Hadith—the sayings of the Prophet, gathered and verified after his death. If you don’t fast some days during Ramadan, you can make them up before Ramadan or after. Spelled out so explicitly, these stipulations and rules may sound contrived, but when they take hold of a vibrant city, they become the manners of daily life, and since I now live in Cairo, in the middle of downtown, and work at an office nearby, I have made them my rules as well.

Though I’ve never been a practicing Muslim, I technically am Muslim by birth. I was trying to explain it to my British boss last week and mid-sentence, he shushed me, looking out the open window just behind his chair, as if someone might be listening in from the street. “Don’t say that kind of stuff around here,” he said, only half joking. Religion is a big deal in Egypt, and in order to avoid questioning, it’s easiest to always declare yourself either Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. Other religions or ideas aren’t commonly tolerated or understood. Nor is being born Muslim and not feeling entirely Muslim, yet still having an appreciation and an affinity for Islam, despite admitted ignorance. (That’s me.)

My mother grew up in a small, conservative Muslim village in southern Lebanon, and since we moved around for my father’s job, I’ve lived a good part of my life in Muslim cities. When I was 14, in America, I fasted for the entire month of Ramadan. We lived outside of D.C. then, and I was taking an Arabic class two nights a week at an Islamic center nearby, in which we read some simple Koran, which I thought was beautiful. Ramadan’s appeal to shed our most basic comforts attracted me, so I got my mom to fast with me. I don’t remember how I explained it to my buddies in my suburban middle school, and I have no idea what I did during lunch period, but I remember breaking fast every night in our kitchen, eating dates over the tiled counter with my mom, after she had recited a prayer and I had repeated it after her. Ten years later, I am fasting again.

A few nights ago, as I passed a restaurant on a nearby square, all the outside tables were filled and full meals—grilled chicken, potatoes, kebabs, salad—were sitting out, waiting to be eaten. And down another street, a man stood outside a building, offering a plate of dates to passersby. The Prophet Mohammad, it’s written, broke his fast with dates.

“I’ve got to tell you, this whole Ramadan business breaks my balls.” This from an Egyptian—albeit a Christian, and a bit of a cynic—who has spent most of his life in Egypt.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it messes up the whole city’s schedule and it’s just bizarre. There’s some decent stuff going on at night. But the days are terrible. It’s more impossible than usual to get anything done.” Telling me this, he truly looked exasperated. We were sitting in the empty garden of a restaurant around midnight, normally a very busy hour, drinking tea. We would have been drinking beers, but only a small handful of restaurants serve beer and wine during Ramadan, and those require proof of citizenship other than Egyptian before they’ll sell it to you. It’s one of many laws members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood got President Mubarak to pass in the early ‘90s, as they tried to nudge Egypt along in a transition from a secular to a Muslim state.

My friend was intrigued as to the details of fasting. “What do you think about all day, anyway?” he asked. “How hungry you are?”

I do think a lot about how hungry I am. I talk about it with the guy who sits behind me at work, too. Every once in a while, one of us sort of yelps, “I’m hungry…” and the other agrees. But it’s more than that; It’s an out-of-character proposition for most humans to go about the business of trying to be productive without at the least a small dose of morning caffeine and some food every once in a while, and to know this is life for a whole month. It’s bizarre enough to do work in a quiet office where ordinarily, all day, people are smoking cigarettes and drinking cups of tea, laughing and chatting, but to walk down a Cairene street without cigarettes dangling from most mouths or cups of tea steaming on random ledges is otherworldly. Each fasting person is living another version of his or her daytime life—a version without physical satiation. Sunset is a relief. Things can be normal again, and the whole city’s mood lifts.

So far, I have not broken fast alone. The meal of breaking fast, called iftar, is taken just after sunset, as the city’s mosques echo the call for prayer, and it typifies the high value of community here. There is a terrible rush hour about an hour or two before iftar, when everyone is fleeing home. Then, in the final hour before the sun sets, the world changes, and the bustle of the city is replaced by something almost magical. Stores close their gates, and the few cars on the streets zoom quickly down the barren asphalt. Instead of risking my life each time I crossed a perpetually trafficked road, there’s now a quietness that gives me peace to enjoy the fading light on the old, beautiful, tarnished buildings that make up the blocks between my apartment building and my office. Down streets and alleyways, people from the neighborhood sit at long tables, each in front of a piece of bread and a date, waiting for sunset to be official. These are charity meals, provided by a neighborhood benefactor to anyone, no questions asked, each night of Ramadan. A few nights ago, as I passed a restaurant on a nearby square, all the outside tables were filled and full meals—grilled chicken, potatoes, kebabs, salad—were sitting out, waiting to be eaten. And down another street, a man stood outside a building, offering a plate of dates to passersby. The Prophet Mohammad, it’s written, broke his fast with dates.

Each iftar of this Ramadan has been something of an occasion. The second night, I went to a cheap Egyptian restaurant with my friend from work. Trying to order, we were both crestfallen to learn that there was a set menu, as opposed to the multi-paged tome of food the restaurant usually offers—on the long walk there, we had talked about exactly which favorites of ours we would order. We wordlessly ate mediocre chicken, barely touched the platter of sad pickles, and avoided the weird creamy salad, in a dining room crowded with so many others devouring the same exact thing. Another night, a group of us from work went to the home of one of our office’s maintenance men. We walked 45 minutes down a deserted main road and then crossed the Nile to get there. Packing us into his small dining room, he served us piles of amazing food—including grilled chicken, okra and beef stew, and rice-stuffed peppers and eggplants—his wife had cooked. Then we sat for a spell in his living room, overdosing on sweets, drinking tea, and looking at his old photographs.

Sometimes things get a little out of hand. One night, my roommates and I were invited to iftar at an Egyptian restaurant. We arrived to a table covered in food; 20 minutes later we were stuffed though some food still remained. That same night, I was invited to a sohour, which is a late-night meal intended to stave off morning hunger. I was told to come around 10, but food wasn’t served until about one, and though I wasn’t at all hungry, the spread looked too amazing to pass up. I can’t decide if the crowning glory was the row of nice European cheeses (an expensive commodity here) or the cardamom and cinnamon date tart (one of six desserts). Eating ended around 2:30 a.m., and my stomach was not a happy place when I woke up the next morning. The next day was my hardest day of work yet.

Unhappily full stomachs aside, Ramadan nights are peaceful endings to surreal days spent trying to survive without basic comforts that many of us take for granted. Running errands a few days ago, I went from one stationery store to another, frustrated to find no one had the exact labels I needed for work. The one store I knew had them had closed early for iftar. The air was heavy—it’s been oddly hot this past week. In the last store I tried, a woman dressed head to toe in black helped me out. She took me to the back of the store and, as she began to shuffle through a stack of old boxes, I looked down at her plastic sandals. Her feet wobbled a little and I thought, she’s fasting, too. She slowly read the label of each box out loud, and it was obvious they didn’t have what I needed. I thanked her and left, empty-handed, but that thought at that moment, like a little bolt—she’s fasting, too—was sublimely comforting.

Some people have told me that just as soon as you get used to Ramadan’s daily cycle, it ends. There is a feast for a few days and life goes back to normal. Right now it’s hard to imagine. Though Ramadan is meant to be a serious and pious time, there are already a few celebratory elements in play. Colorful lanterns are hung for the month in front of shops and buildings all over town. And everywhere you go, you hear people greeting each other, saying, “Kul sanah wa anti tayibah,” which literally means, “May you be well each year,” and is also used on other occasions, like birthdays. This greeting is used throughout the entire month. And all day long, whether at work or at home, I hear firecrackers going off in the streets. The sudden blasts are starting to get on my nerves. I’ve been told that as the month continues, people go more and more out of their minds, that at certain moments, on the streets, the hunger becomes palpable and erupts, making trivial spats turn incensed or inspiring traffic jams. I wonder if the firecrackers have anything to do with it.