Monday, October 18, 2004

Ramadan Nights

A couple of nights ago I took a friend for a ride in the countryside. The horses were feeling lazy, we were feeling lazy, so we were just sort of wandering around enjoying the evening at iftar. She and I weren't fasting, although my grooms were, so we arranged to leave just before iftar and come back after. This way they could go eat with their families at iftar. The boys who work with my horses live in the neighbourhood and one of them is always there at night in case of emergencies.

As we moved out into the fields we could hear the muezzins calling out the Arabic prelude to iftar from the local mosques. A few late farmers were still bringing their water buffalo, cows, goats and sheep in from the fields, but as we clopped through the village by the corner I saw friends of mine who work at the local country club sitting on mats watching television with the children while the most astonishingly delicious smells wafted forth from every home. Garlic, onions, chicken roasting, rice cooking, vegetables in tomato was incredible. Like riding through a restaurant.

The call to prayer echoed across the canals as we moved away from the village into the farmland and a stillness that was hard to fathom settled over the land. Egypt isn't a quiet country usually. We have about 70 million people crammed into a tiny strip of land along the Nile and the basic noise of living beings can be deafening. During iftar, however, virtually everyone in Egypt is sitting down to a meal of some sort, whether they are Copt, Muslim, or any other ethnic flavour. The logistics are simple: For a month nothing at all can be done for the hour before iftar or the hour after, so you might as well plan a family dinner during this time. No cars travel. No vendors call out their wares. No donkey carts rattle. No football games take place in the empty streets. Everything is utterly still.

I've experienced this stillness in the cities over the years and it's always been a miracle of peace. The difference is utterly stunning to most newcomers. In the countryside, it is easily as extraordinary. Bird songs that might have to harmonise with radios or children's shouts now assault the ears as though to say that finally they have the center stage. Somehow even the dogs don't bark. Iftar comes just as the last of the sunset dies from the sky leaving streaks of colour behind the silhouettes of black palms. It looks like those old hand-tinted 30's postcards and you have the sense that somehow you've left your own time behind.

On our way back to the paddocks we began to encounter those folk who had risen early from their table and were off on errands or visits. Children began to venture out of their houses, having had sticky fingers and lips thoroughly washed to remove the syrup that covers the Ramadan sweets. A gang of adolescent boys had set up a football (soccer) game under the lights in the street at the end of my dirt road, and cheerfully called time out as cars began to pass again. We left the horses to have a quiet snooze and headed back to Maadi to have a later dinner with my son.

As we drove past the mosque the call for the Aisha (evening) prayer was beginning (the Maghreb (sunset) prayer is the one that signals iftar) and boys and men from the area were congregating for the prayers after iftar. Grandfathers bent from years of hard work in the fields were laying out the mats with the aid of boys as young as five or six. The women would be cleaning up after the meal and doing their own prayers at home. My neighbours raised hands and called out to us in greeting and we returned the blessing; Salaam Aleikum, Wa Aleikum Salaam. Peace be with you, and with you peace.


Shafaki said...

Lovely. Your closing words are touching.

Julie D. said...

Thanks for painting these word pictures about Ramadan. I almost feel as if I were there.

Terri said...

You paint beautiful pictures with your words. Lovely.

Kimberly said...

Beautiful! Although it is a Muslim holiday, Ramadan is such a time of reflection and thanksgiving for everyone. I really enjoy this time of year - everything slows down and people are given time to realize all their blessings. My husband just returned from a business trip in Cairo where he stayed with our friends. He fasted with them and will try to continue now that he's back in Dubai. We'll see how it goes... Ramadan Mubarak!

Anonymous said...

I have never seen Ramadan being romantisized so well by a non-Muslim before. It was truly touching, that the spirit of Ramadan still survives, despite it becoming something of a bastard child to an overzealous media machine and a world-wide culture of consumption.

Thank you for instilling hope in an Egyptian caught in the tide away from home.


ألِف said...

I'm sure you know this and had gone through it many times in what you wrote here and elsewhere in your talks, but I can't not say it: Copts and Muslims do not fall into two distinct ethnical groups. The boundaries of ethnical and religious groups in Egypt intersect, rather than match.
In fact, the two words cannot appear on the same side of the equation, since the second denotes a religion, while the first a nationality.
It is true however, that even the government-owned media makes the same confusion sometimes.
It is even evident in the church's name: "Coptic Orthodox" as opposed to "Coptic Catholic" and in par with "Syriac Orthodox", for examples.

Marta said...

Nice words. I am almost introducing to egyptian culture (thanks to a man, as you did) and I am feeling so romantic (the rebel and touching way, the european way) that i almost can't recognize me anymore.
Posting from Barcelona, Spain.