Monday, October 11, 2004

Reaching Ramadan

Either Thursday or Friday the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, will start. The uncertainty is due to a quaint custom that certain people must sight the new moon to announce the start of the fast. The fact that there are umpteen thousand computer programs and sites that can tell you the exact phase of the moon anywhere on earth is irrelevant. It has to actually be sighted to declare the start and/or the finish of Ramadan.

When Ramadan begins, Muslims who are not traveling, nursing babies, ill, or females in their menstrual period will be fasting from first light (marked by the call to dawn prayer) until dusk (marked by the call to evening prayer) for a month, refraining from eating or drinking all day, living without cigarettes, coffee, tea, any alcoholic beverages, or daylight sexual activity. Sounds like fun, doesn't it? The premise is good, that everyone should spend some time thinking about the tribulations of the poor and his/her relationship to God. There are extra-long prayers in the mosques in the evenings and many more devout Muslims will make an effort to go to the mosque at least once a day for prayers. Even the less strict Muslims will refrain from drinking any alcohol for the month, and those who are not fasting for some reason will be careful not to eat or drink in front of others. When my children were young, before they were considered old enough to try fasting (about 12 years), we had a rule that they would not ask the housekeeper to prepare food for them, they should drink before leaving the house, and not eat outside during Ramadan. Since they were in a French school in Alexandria, they were free to eat at school and the times when eating was avoided were not so long, so for them it was an exercise in consideration.

I've suffered from a hypothyroid condition since my daughter was born, which leads to hypoglycemia and problems with my blood sugar, so until the children were old enough to try fasting I didn't fast, but I followed the same rules as I set for my children. Once my son was about twelve and wanted to try fasting, I fasted with him, despite my doctor's suggestion that it wasn't the best idea. Since the date of the onset of Ramadan moves backwards in the year's calendar by about two weeks per year, it's been in spring, winter, and now fall pretty much the entire time I've lived in Egypt. The days have been short and made shorter by the need for a shorter working day to get people home to their families by the time of iftar, the breaking of the fast, so fasting really wasn't very stressful. In fact it was rather a pleasant change not to have to stop the day's activities to prepare meals.

The best way to explain the emotional sense of Ramadan to non-Muslims is to ask them to imagine that Christmas lasted a month and was somehow combined with Lent. It is a time (at least theoretically) of somewhat somber reflection and at the same time a time of joining together of family and friends. Egyptians are not somber by nature so the more festive aspect of Ramadan always wins out. People make a special point of entertaining friends and families at iftar or sohour (the meal late at night before the dawn prayer). With the advent of television, Ramadan is the prime viewing period for shows, serials, special game shows, and the like.

What this means to daily life in Egypt is rather intriguing. The first two weeks of Ramadan there are a lot of very cranky people wandering about with headaches from the withdrawal of caffeine. One of the most important things about Egypt is that it runs on sweet, strong tea. Take that away from morning to evening and you have some VERY unhappy folk about. Add to the equation the fact that they are also giving up cigarettes during the daytime and the word "irritable" takes on new meaning. But iftar comes at dusk and for many people they break their fast with a cup of tea and a cigarette, becoming kinder gentler people for the fix of nicotine and caffeine. The iftar meal traditionally begins with dates, which replenish sugars and electrolytes, soup, and usually light grilled meat, rice, and salad. Dessert is the killer though. Ramadan desserts go from the healthier dried fruit compotes to artery-clogging pastries filled with butter, sugar, nuts....Talk about sugar highs.

Each year the newspapers note that food consumption actually increases during Ramadan, with sugar, butter, and meat most notable in the menu. Combined with fasting, these items aren't exactly healthy, but so far not too many people are taking notice of the articles on staying healthy during Ramadan.

The last two weeks of the month, people have adjusted to the nicotine/caffeine double whammy, but by then they've been sucked into the television shows that run all night long, and we have a population of blood sugar-depleted sleep-deprived zombies. Many people never sleep all night, a fact that plays utter havoc with productivity and driving. Never install a nuclear reactor during Ramadan and don't try to drive during the half hour before iftar. Not everyone follows this pattern however. We were not the only family that didn't have sweets to end iftar and that made a point of maintaining normal bedtimes during Ramadan. If you are a serious worker, there is no way to stay up all night and function during the day. We would celebrate iftar with my inlaws once or twice during the month and usually gave a huge iftar for the Sudanese branch of the family once during Ramadan. In return we might accept about two or three invitations to iftar and we tried to avoid sohour invitations. My husband had more demands on his time due to business invitations, but since I was the one who would be getting up early to get kids to school I could avoid them.

Tonight I was driving one of my son's friends home to her apartment in Maadi after dinner and we passed a midan that was filled with hundreds of Ramadan lanterns suspended from the branches of the huge ficus trees in the garden in the center of the circle. They were sort of like Christmas lights in a way, but the brass and the coloured panes in the lanterns cast a special light unlike anything else. Egyptians outside Egypt during Ramadan get very homesick as Europeans and North Americans don't understand the magic, very much as European and North American partners of Egyptians miss the magic of Christmas. The religions involved are different, the traditions are different, but the feeling is very much the same.

Ramadan Kareem


J-Birds said...

Thanks for the wonderful insight about Ramadan. When I lived in Houston, Kareem Olajuwan, the basketball star was muslim and fasted during Ramadan during the middle of the basketball season. Of course, everyone in Houston had some understanding of what this time meant. He would lose up to 30 lbs. during the fast and everyone would speculate how it affected his play.

Your writings have become a must read for us. Don't ever tire of it. One day you may decide to write a book. I'd buy it. - Craig

Anonymous said...

Is 'Ramadan Kareem' a special greeting for the month of fasting?

Terri said...

Very interesting. Thank you for sharing this. I enjoyed every word!!

Eyes said...

Thanks for sharing the meaning of Ramadan. I didn't totally understand it. Now I do. Many thanks.

Allan said...

thanks for your contribution.