Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Romanticising Ramadan, Or Anything Else

I think of romanticising as creating a prettier face for something than actually is there. You know, "the noble savage" and all that. I don't believe that I romanticise. I don't think that the life the fellaheen live is better or more noble than the life that the urban poor live. Both lives are grindingly difficult, both involve not being able to have many of the pleasures that other people have. But if I were to choose, I would rather be poor amongst the fields than in concrete., I don't believe that there is anything intrinsically more moral about a life spent here as opposed to a life spent in Toronto either. It is a life that I've chosen to live and it gives me an extraordinary amount of pleasure which I enjoy sharing with others.

Do I try to show others the beauty that honestly is around me? I do and it is there. It is around all of you where ever you are. You simply have to go look for it. You have to take the time to wander and watch. You have to stop and listen to the songs around you, to the games of children, and the barking of dogs. Our canals are often filled with old plastic bottles and that most mysterious of Egyptian objects, the rubber flipflop...but only one. No one knows where the other one is. Perhaps it will be found halfway up a wadi somewhere. How can I see past the refuse? When I ride along the canals at dusk they are like quicksilver reflecting the trees on their banks in sharp black. The song of the curlew and the grunt of the egrets as they fly to roost in the evening can be heard over the thumping of the diesel pumps. We choose what we want to see and hear. If you only want to see the dirt, the disorder and the pain, that's what you will see, but it doesn't mean that there is no beauty there as well.

All of the great social holidays in the world have been hijacked by the media, by advertising, by groups with axes to grind. We need to see beyond the media, the axes, the advertising to the soul of the event. A friend of mine commented to me today that Ramadan was presented differently to her when she lived in Kuwait. There it was a trial, a period of difficulty, while her Egyptian friends begin to explain Ramadan with the joy of family gatherings and companionship. I don't know if she was given a skewed perspective while in Kuwait. I've never been there. But for her the difference was vast.

Television programming looks on Ramadan as a gold rush. Families are staying up to visit, to eat, to watch entertainment. Yes, the commercialisation is there, but not everyone is sucked into it. You have the choice. I, for example, don't have a television. Not everyone does. The traditional lanterns were imported from China one year, much to the concern of many newspapers. Yes, but is it that important where they are made?

Look beyond the skin. Try to see beneath the surface. There is no need to romanticise anything if you can take the time to see the true value of the complex life around you.

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.