Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Ramadan Kareem

Ramadan Kareem is the normal Ramadan greeting, similar in a way to Merry Christmas. Kareem (or Karim) means "generous" and generosity is a paramount virtue during Ramadan. People who do not fast are expected to donate meals for those who are fasting. This can be done directly by feeding someone his/her iftar or by a donation to a mosque that is feeding people. In addition, you will see long tables set up in the streets at the time of iftar all over the country where anyone passing by may sit down to eat at the time to break the fast. The tables and the food are provided by families who can afford to feed people and are a Ramadan tradition. It is also traditional to have company iftars at which the workers and the management of the company break their fast together.

Ramadan is a great leveler as someone fasting who is rich is just as miserable without his tea and cigarettes as a poor person is. There is something very special about the month. Part of the tradition is that you should not get into arguments with others, you should behave especially kindly to others....someone should tell the cab drivers about it though. Traffic during the hour or half hour before iftar is a nightmare. Everyone is rushing to get home, have something to eat and drink and get that first bit of nicotine and caffeine of the day. There are A LOT of smokers in Egypt, and no smoking sections are still something new here. So the addiction suffering is pretty intense.

After iftar, which will be about 5:30 to 6 pm this year, people go to the mosques for special long Ramadan prayers, or they go out to visit, shop, or do all those things that they just felt to horrible to do earlier in the day. Shops are open until midnight or later, theatres run all night, the streets are full of people. I usually stay home for exactly that reason. Most Muslims will have a snack before they go to bed and then many set an alarm to go off just before dawn to be able to have a bite to eat and some water. I used to do this for my children when they were fasting at home. The traditional sohour (the name for this meal) is fava beans (called foul although they taste great) cooked soft and mixed with onions, garlic, tomato, pepper, olive oil and eaten with cheese similar to feta cheese and bread. This provides a good basis for getting through the day without food because these are complex carbohydrates that can keep the body going a long time. Foul is the traditional food of Egyptians of all classes. There is another interesting tradition of an individual that families will pay to come around a neighbourhood with a small drum which he will beat to wake them for sohour. If it sounds like sleep is a bit fragmented even if you go to bed early, it is indeed.

Towards the end of Ramadan, women begin baking cookies called kahk, which are a sort of shortbread often filled with date paste or ground nuts. They are really yummy when done well and could be used as slingshot ammunition if not. The feast after Ramadan, Eid el Fitr, is called "the lesser feast" or around here "the cookie feast". The first day of the feast after Ramadan, families wake up very early, everyone dresses in new clothes (a thing that is getting harder every year with inflation) and the men (and sometimes the women) go to the mosque to pray. It's impossible to sleep that morning because all the muezzin are chanting, the men and boys going to mosque are chanting as they's quite extraordinary. After prayer everyone goes home to enjoy a MORNING cup of tea and some kahk, and then they go to visit family. It's often traditional as well to have a meal of fish for dinner, at least in Alexandria where fish is always traditional.

I'm looking forward to Ramadan in the countryside this year. There will be a lot of new things for me to discover. And I'm going to make sure that I'm home good and early so that I don't have to deal with the traffic. One of the things that city residents find rather wonderful and astounding is the fact that the city is utterly still for the hour after the call to prayer (and iftar) during Ramadan. Everyone is somewhere eating, buses stop and the drivers join one of the public tables with their passengers, trains stop so that the passengers and employees can eat and drink, everything stops. It's amazing in a city like Cairo where there is so much activity to see such stillness. The only other time you see this is during the World Cup.


rowena said...

The posts for Reaching Ramadan and Ramadan Kareem were an absolute joy to read... Certainly enlightened me on a subject that I had no idea of, much less ever learn about on a quickie tour group. I notice that you haven't posted photos lately? Would be nice to see something related to Ramadan!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your site. you are a ife saver. I just got married to an Egyptian Muslim and I was raised in a christian home, so I know practically nothing of his customs or what to do on Ramadan. You're site gave a lot of great insight and will help me to better care for my hubby. Thanks again