It’s that time of year again, and Egyptians, like Muslims around the world, have been preparing for the start of the holy month on Monday. As a relative alien to the historical and cultural aspects of Ramadan, it has been fascinating to talk to Egyptians young and old, hip and traditional – and all those in between – about the importance of the month, how they have been gearing up for it and what to expect.
Perhaps the most obvious change in the last couple of months has been the emergence of these beautiful Ramadan lanterns. The legend goes that on the fifth day of Ramadan in the year 358 AH (969 AD), the Fatimid Caliph Muezz El-Din El-Allah was entering Cairo for the first time. He arrived after dusk, and the residents appeared en masse with lanterns to welcome him and celebrate his arrival. Since that day, the fanous has become one of Ramadan’s great symbols for Egyptians. They come in all sizes and in different colors. From walls of them in shops to big solitary ones used as décor in people’s homes, and even little children playing with them and singing special Ramadan songs, they are everywhere and are to Ramadan what Christmas trees are to Christmas festivities.
Light it up, light it up
With the fanous invaders come the elaborate lighting up of streets, houses, cafés and mosques, which give Egyptian cities and towns a truly magical feel at night.
Food and drink extravaganzas
While Ramadan is a time of fasting, it will not come as a surprise that as soon as the sun sets and iftar begins, food is on everyone’s mind. And this takes a lot of foresight and planning. For the last few weeks, many Egyptians have been shopping for extra food and stocking up on delicacies for Ramadan. The first day often marks the first gathering of friends and family over iftar or sohour, which sets the standard for all remaining gatherings. As everyone will now be scrambling to add the final touches to their preparations, let us hope that you readers are ahead of the curve.
There are special platters and sweets that are related to the month of Ramadan. Arguably the most famous are Qatayef and Zalabia, as well as Konafa.
But there is also Khoshaf, a kind of fruit salad made out of a mix of dried figs, dates, raisins and apricots soaked in water. And it is absolutely delicious!
And last but not least there is Amar El Din, which is the famous Ramadan drink made out of apricot fruit leather and a real feast for the senses.
Although this might not apply to all Egyptians, gyms are usually packed during the last two hours of iftar all throughout the month. It’s a little crazy, but understandable. Ramadan is associated with people tending to overcompensate their daily food intake after iftar, but many Egyptians use this month to jump start weight loss, or at least stop excessive weight gains. For all those concerned with their health and physique, there is no reason to let your year-round work go to waste, or for those of you who dread the idea of putting on a few kilos – try to find a spot at an overcrowded gym!
Sort yourself out
Ramadan is a time of piousness, modesty, charity and self-restraint. If you are a coffee lover or a smoker, or even both, you are about to embark on a month of withdrawal and temptation. And I feel your pain… With Ramadan upon us, the more reasonable Egyptians will have weaned these out of their daily routine as much as possible, but for those like me, who think that a coffee and a cigarette are a match made in heaven, bite the bullet and deal with withdrawals when they hit. You’ll be ok.
Swear it out
And in case you were hoping to verbally release all those frustrations, be careful! While swearing is a large part of the Egyptian language, during the month of Ramadan one swear can break your fast. So if you are so inclined, swear it out while you still can!
Charity is paramount
The holy month is a special time in Egypt where people transcend their differences. Doing charitable deeds is of paramount importance, and there is no better example of the country’s generosity than after sunset during Ramadan.
Mosques and local communities provide food for the poor, setting up big dining tables or for them and anyone else who wants to join. And if you are running late, never fear, as there is always an Egyptian on the street handing out water and dates to those looking to break their fast.
Many of my Egyptian friends have spoken at length about their religious habits during Ramadan. But one that stuck with me is the khatma, which represents a full reading of the Qu’ran over the month. There are 30 chapters, so that’s one a night, or perhaps more if you feel up to it.
Binge on TV series
One of the pillars of the Ramadan culture in Egypt is the Ramadan soaps that air exclusively during this month and are a big hit throughout the Middle East, with millions of Muslims spending hours watching TV during and after their fast. It’s during Ramadan that commercial TV channels get their highest ratings for the year. They tend to tackle social or historical issues in a very reachable manner. I was also interested to learn that there is a daily show that poses a Ramadan riddle. Expect to spend a lot of time on your sofa, put your feet up and get ready for some serious TV binging.
Get together with family
Last but not least is the association between Ramadan and family. Egyptians invite close family, friends and distant relatives to break fast together in a lovely warm atmosphere that is not quite so intense outside of the holy month. They sit and chat over rounds of delicious food, watch TV together, and generally enjoy the sense of collective spirit that comes with Ramadan. So prepare yourself for a family experience, and if you are anything like me, enjoy your personal space while you can!