Ramadan starts today, Wednesday, but when you walk around the streets of Cairo it is hard to tell. Normally at this time of year they are filled with throngs of shoppers, stands that spill out from storefronts filled with dates, nuts and packages of apricot paste. Twinkling, garishly coloured fawanees, the traditional Ramadan lanterns, light up nearly every entrance of buildings. This year it is a very different story.
The first Ramadan I experienced fell in the middle of winter, and in the weeks leading up to it everyone around me was remarking on its imminent arrival with excitement and anticipation. I thought they had all lost their minds.
I knew that the month has a profound religious significance, and celebrating that I could understand. But what about fasting from sun-up to sun-down merited such merriment? Being a strong proponent of coffee-before-communication, I was hard pressed to understand how anyone could face the day without caffeine. Without anything, actually, for a complete month. And look forward to it. Just one thing that had me doubting my friends’ sanity.
At that time I shared a house and worked with people who would all observe Ramadan. Their shared enthusiasm, the colourful tents going up on pavements and in front of restaurants and the special ingredients that suddenly flooded the stores all made me feel a little wistful. It looked like there was fun to be had and traditions to be shared while I was looking at it from the side-lines. So one day close to the start of the month I bravely announced to my friends I would join them in their fast. As they beamed at me with smiles full of welcome and a little derision, I immediately wanted to take it back, but pride prevailed. And so for 29 days I observed the rituals of the fast.
The first few days were difficult, but once the caffeine deficiency had taken its toll and opening my mouth no longer meant biting off random heads, which would have made fasting a moot point, I slipped into a pattern that was surprisingly comfortable. I enjoyed the sense of belonging and I revelled in the elaborate Iftars we shared and I eventually cooked. My foray in molokheya-making and forgetting the garlic has been retold many times since.
Of course not everything was wonderful. The traffic congestion before Iftar was nerve wracking, the volatile tempers that were kept badly in check and the overall impossibility to get things done because nobody answered the phone tested all the patience that I had. But I liked the celebratory sharing of meals with friends and strangers and the self-discipline and unexpected humility that comes from observing a month of fasting, even without it having any religious connotations for me. It made me join in the fast year after year.
But the happy anticipation is nowhere to be found these days. When I walk around the city now I can still see small signs of preparation, but they are in short supply. I am sure preparations are on-going inside people’s houses but they are kept close to home.
What fills the streets now are not harried shoppers running their last errands but large groups of demonstrating citizens, divided by a chasm of opposing convictions. In several neighbourhoods roadblocks trump roadside eateries and on squares green lasers have taken over the lanterns. The faces around me are tense and sombre at best. Anticipation has been replaced by worry and fear and many families all over the country are in mourning for loved ones lost to the violence that has swept through all strata of society.
It is not for me to say who is right or wrong; I am simply heartbroken for the loss of life and humanity that we have seen over the past days. And I cannot but hope that if a foreigner like me can experience patience and humility from observing the fast of Ramadan, that others will as well, and that frayed tempers will cool and the violence will stop.
So to all of Egypt: Ramadan Kareem.