The word ‘Ramadan‘ originally meant the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar, also known as “Hegira”. … A semantic shift means that the word is now also used to refer to the month of fasting that accompanies it.
My first post in the Middle East was in Cairo, a vast metropolis straddling the Nile River surrounded by the Sahara Desert. From the night I arrived in Cairo on the flight from Paris, I had stopped there for 48 hours, Egypt was an adventure, with some funny and exotic twists. The day I arrived was at the end of Ramadan and the First Day of the EID ul Fitr marking the end of the Holy Month. It was late July, temperature was 28 C., the streets were full of people celebrating, bright colourful lights strung everywhere.
As my car drove through the streets of Old Cairo the stench of blood was overpowering and nauseating. I asked my Muslim driver about it and he explained the significance of what had taken place. Lambs had been sacrificed as is the tradition from the Old Testament and also from the Jewish tradition of Passover. The story as you can read it goes this way;
That night, God sent the angel of death to kill the firstborn sons of the Egyptians. God told Moses to order the Israelite families to sacrifice a lamb and smear the blood on the door of their houses. In this way the angel would know to ‘pass over’ the houses of the Israelites.
This is a bit confusing since Muslims are not Jews but observe the exact same traditions, Islam being part of the 3 great Abrahamic religions. The Coran is a re-affirmation of God’s Commands given to Abraham and Moses and Jesus. But there was another meaning to all this, roasting the entire lamb, a good portion of the meat must be given to the poor. It is a religious duty and practicing Muslims must observe it. Charity and good works towards the community is an important part of Ramadan. Those who can afford it even in a small measure must give alms. Many families will prepare food dishes at least once during the month and bring it to the Mosque to be distributed, call it a Soup Kitchen. Ramadan puts the emphasis on the community and on sharing. You never hear this unfortunately unless you have Muslim friends or live in a majority Muslim country.
I had never experienced Ramadan or the great holiday following the end of the month, EID ul Fitr. What was impressive was the cuisine and specialty dishes. During Ramadan at Sunset the IFTAR is the meal shared with others. At least as important as what is eaten is the fact that it is shared with family and friends. The prophet Muhammad instructed his disciples to “eat together, and do not separate, for the blessing is in the company.”
The dishes are numerous and so are the sweets served Sweets are particularly popular. Iraqis make a rosewater-scented, date-filled pastry called klaicha. A similar cookie called mamoul served in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, is filled with dates or ground walnuts. Palestinians make a butter cookie with almonds or pine nuts called ghraybeh.
The streets are strewn with what looked to me like Xmas lights and colourful tents are set up for meals and entertainment. After the meal there will be traditional music, singing, folk dancing, story telling and games like cards. Coffee scented with cardamon and sweet tea is served usually in glasses.
Egypt and Cairo is seen as the centre of many Islamic traditions. Cairo has always been a centre of culture and learning. Egyptians cherish their past since the Pharaohs and into the Muslim period. So much of what you see in the Middle East comes from Cairo, in the 1940 to the 1980’s Egyptian television and radio dominated the airwaves in the region. This is part due to the greater liberty to create, be it films, theatre, literature or political discourse. Something you would not see in neighbouring countries. So when it comes to Ramadan, Egypt is the place you want to be. I remember Ramadan in Jordan and Syria, it was a much more staid affair.
Observance of fasting from Sunrise to Sunset depends very much on each individual, same for prayers. At the Office we had staff who were Muslims and out of respect we either went home for lunch or have a small bite to eat in our offices with doors closed. However I did notice that after the first week, many colleagues would cheat and have a little coffee or tea or a cigarette. Few actually observed the fast as it is prescribed, also it is permitted if you are travelling, pregnant, sick or working full time in an Office to avoid fasting. Children under the age of 12 do not fast. There is a lot of nuance in the way one practices his religion.
Egyptians love a party and Ramadan was treated as such. Finding in a month of fasting a meaning to enjoy yourself with friends and family.