by Michael Bociurkiw in Cairo
(HN, August 16, 2010) - It's always a joy to return to Cairo during the holy month of Ramadan, which debuted last Wednesday and continues into September.
The streets seem calmer, without the usual impossible traffic and choking fumes. In the moments leading up to iftar - the meal that marks the end of the daily fast - a frenetic atmosphere takes hold as people rush to set up dining areas for impossibly large feasts.
This is a time for large, festive gathering of families and friends - with tables groaning under the weight of traditional dishes. Into the late hours of the night, many companies treat their employees and partners to large, elaborate, pre-dawn receptions known as Suhoor. One that I attended by the telecommunications giant, Mobinil, on the banks of the Nile River, even had a small shooting gallery to keep guests entertained!
With all the family and corporate gathering in Egypt, it is said that the country is the only spot on the map in the Muslim world where people actually gain weight during the holy month of fasting!
I will remember this year’s Ramadan for an iftar I shared with a dear Egyptian friend at the El Sit Hosneya Restaurant in Cairo’s Dokki district. Aside from the food being outstanding, there was so much served that I took the leftovers to my friends at my next destination - it was enough to feed three adults and one toddler!
When I think of the Ramadan table I think of energy-packed dates, a milk drink filled with dried fruits and almonds, lentil soup, kubbe, moutabel, fattoush, babaganoush, hummus, labaneh, fresh salads and stews, falafel - and of course freshly-baked bread and kataiaf - or filed pancakes.
With the special dishes that fill a traditional Ramadan menu, it’s easy to see why people cant resist over-eating. But many say people have gone overboard.
Said an editorial in Egypt’s Al -Ahram: “Public consumption dramatically rises during Ramadan...it poses a huge financial burden on the average citizen and forces him sometimes to borrow to be able to buy the goods he wants, and satisfy the consumption culture which now controls our behaviour in Ramadan.
The consumption culture in Ramadan is not only in consuming more food, but also in wasting time and forgetting that Ramadan is the month of virtue and worship. It should not be the time for amusement and spending time in matters that distort the minds of our nation.”
Local observers say this year, Ramadan has been more subdued as families cut back on festivities due to the spiraling cost of meat and other products. Some critics say that opportunistic food traders deliberately raise prices during Ramadan as they know families have an obligation to feed their friends and the poor. Basic commodities such as sugar, rice and eggs are reportedly up by more than 40 percent over the past year in Egypt.
Combine sticker shock at the markets with unbearable heat, lack of power and growing disenchantment with government officials and you get some seriously unhappy people.
Spiraling costs have also reportedly forced soap opera producers - who vie for the peak viewing hours of Ramadan - to dump first tier talent for less expensive stars. For example, Donya Ghanem and Maged El-Kadwani will co-star in El-Kebir Awi (The Biggest of All) - a comedy about a village mayor who marries and American woman who gives birth to twins. It features humorous encounters between the two, one brought up in Upper Egypt and the other in America.
Also a surprise for visitors coming to Cairo this month is that huge swaths of the city are darkened at night due to electricity load management by the power authority. Due to a record-setting heat, the surge in demand for power has put a huge strain on the Egyptian capital’s creaky power system. The new system means that there are far fewer fanouss - or Ramadan decorations - to be seen in the middle of alleyways or by the doors of businesses in Cairo.
The lack of power will undoubtedly darken the TV screens of millions of television addicts who flock to their sets during Ramadan to watch the hundreds of hours of extra programming laid on by Arab terrestrial and satellite TV channels. Egyptian columnist Mohamed Sultan says that for one person to watch the 120 Egyptian and Arab TV series scheduled for the month, he would need 2,500 watching hours - leaving not much time for prayer and reflection.
Speaking of prayer - Egypt’s Minister of Endowment introduced measures this year to unify the five-time-a-day call to prayer by the start of Ramadan - by linking all of Cairo’s 4,500 mosques by a call transmitted from a radio station. The move is designed to reduce noise pollution but some see it as running against tradition.
Another change this year was brought about by a controversial, last minute move by the Government to ease the strain of fasting on the faithful - and on the electricity grid - by introducing a special one-month time change. The move was done to make Iftar - the traditional breaking of the fast - an hour earlier during the most hot and humid time of the year.
Al-Ahram columnist Youssef Rakha criticized the move, saying that once Eid al-Fitr - the feat that marks the end of the holy month - comes, Egypt returns to summer time for 20 days only, before switching again to winter time. “Who came up with this brilliant plan, nobody knows,” wrote Rakha.
In past Ramadans - whether here or in Jerusalem - I have sympathetically observed friends and colleagues struggle to adjust to the new sleeping and eating schedule. The faithful awake before daybreak to dine before beginning their daily fast. The first few days of Ramadan are difficult for those who work regular hours as their bodies adjust to the new regime.
Three years ago, during a visit to the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, a recall listening to a radio talk show where the manager of a large factory chastized his staff for using Ramadan as an excuse to decrease their output. While the manager said he sympathized with their plight, he stressed that it hurt his company’s standing with overseas buyers. Some offices - including many UN offices in the region - deliberately shorten the workday during Ramadan to allow those with families more time to prepare for iftar.
HUMNEWS' Michael Bociurkiw is Founder and Editor of Savvy Traveller - a member of the HUM CSR Co-op