Ramadan Karim!

10 Oct

This weekend is Eid el-Fetr, which is the feast celebrating the end of Ramadan. And what is Ramadan? I’m glad you asked. Ramadan is the holiest month in the Islamic calendar (officially Egypt is on a Western calendar, but there’s also a parallel Islamic calendar based on a lunar cycle that goes back to the beginnings of the religion). One of the five pillars, or main beliefs and practices, of Islam is fasting, so during Ramadan all Muslims are supposed to abstain from all food, drink, smoking, and sex from sunrise to sunset. This is in remembrance and imitation of the Prophet Muhammad when he received the revelations that became the Qur’an.

Remarkably, people actually do it, this all-day fasting for a month. How do I know? Because people are very grouchy during the day, and stay up partying all night. This makes for a very interesting society. Picture it if you will. Start with a very hot, very busy, very crowded city of 18 million people. At least 17.5 million of those people smoke like chimneys. Now factor in severe sleep deprivation, because everyone is up all night eating and drinking. Now take away nicotine for about fourteen hours a day, so that they are going through alternating tobacco withdrawal and binges every day for a month. Those people are also very hungry, because they haven’t eaten in 12 hours. And very thirsty, because they live on the edge of the Sahara Desert and haven’t drank anything for 12 hours. I’d be grouchy most of the time too.

One would think that people would lose a lot of weight during Ramadan – after all, you’re not eating every day. But Egyptians more than make up for it at night. In fact, food consumption goes UP by 40% during the month of Ramadan, and most people GAIN weight! Cairenes in particular are famous for their Ramadan parties lasting late into the wee hours. Apparently other Arabs in more conservative Muslim countries look on them as heathens because they treat Ramadan, at least the nights during Ramadan, as a big party – imagine Christmas plus Easter plus Thanksgiving plus July 4th (lots of firecrackers) plus spring break – rather than as a solemn month of pure religious devotion.

The bottom line is that throughout Ramadan Egyptians are very very happy during the night, and very very tired and grouchy during the day. That means a couple of things. First of all, worker productivity and efficiency goes down. This is difficult to believe, since worker productivity is something of an oxymoron here, and efficiency only describes the quality and competence with which they approach inefficiency. But apparently they spend all their remaining strength during the days of Ramadan finding ways not to do their jobs, or if they absolutely have to do them, to perform their tasks as slowly as possible.

Also, daily fasting means that people get just a little temperamental. With the end of Ramadan I’ll miss counting how many fights I see outside my shuttle bus on my way home from work every day. (I also saw a bus up on two wheels after crashing on to a concrete barrier, but that may or may not have been Ramadan-related). Shouting and pushing and shoving is something of a national sport, I think, but the really good stuff is only a limited-time, one-month engagement.

But aside from the grouchiness and tiredness and fisticuffs, there is a real beauty here during Ramadan. Homes and businesses and mosques are lit up with colorful Ramadan lights (it took us a little while to stop calling them Christmas lights). The nightly parties are a time when family and friends spend lots of time together. The streets are virtually empty every evening at sunset as people are at home sharing an iftar (the evening meal which breaks the fast). Mosques and well-off people set up tables outside on the street with lavish feasts for the homeless and poor and others who have nowhere else to go, or for any passerby who wants a bite after fasting all day. At sunset you see people running through the streets with food and drink, offering it to complete strangers. On the Metro, young men rush in and out of the cars giving away dates, the traditional food that Muhammad ate when breaking his fasts. As the sun sets people share whatever food they have with the people around them, with a smile and an exclamation of “Ramadan Karim” (meaning literally, generous Ramadan). And many people do treat the month as a time of self-purification and gaining greater self-mastery and spirituality.

One of the reasons I love the Christmas season is that—despite the materialism and shopping malls and incessant Muzak butchering of songs that were perfectly fine to begin with—it’s an extended period when people get outside themselves and think about family and friends and the poor and, ideally, God. Ramadan works a lot the same way, just with a lot more people who really, really need a smoke. So Ramadan Karim to all, and to all a good night!


8 Responses to “Ramadan Karim!”

  1. Aunt Yvette October 12, 2007 at 1:51 am #

    I didn’t figure out how to write a comment on Flickr, I figure you have to register, and I don’t like to register for much.

    I think ya’ll are living here in the Valley, doing so sort of CIA stuff, and you super imposed yourself on the other photo’s.

    The Nilometer? is very cool, and the architecture is fabulous. I wish I were there so I too could wear the beautiful green graduation gown.

    Seriously, I am extremely happy that you two are able to experience such an incredible place with such a rich history. All my love,


  2. Stacy October 12, 2007 at 2:34 am #

    Thank you, thank you for the pictures. Incredible.

  3. mom October 12, 2007 at 3:05 am #

    I can’t decide which is more beautiful…the inconceivable cliffs of insanity in Ireland (did you see any rodents of unusual size or the pit of despair?), the incredible color of the Red Sea in Egypt, or your two gorgeous faces! Well done.

  4. Melissa October 12, 2007 at 7:45 am #

    Unfortunately, we only found the ROUS’s here in Cairo…in our ceiling boards. As for the pit of despair…well, Patrick’s students took their first exam on Tuesday, so his classroom might qualify.

    After this weekend we may have a new contender for beautiful pictures. We’re headed out to Nuweiba in a couple hours, a beach village on the Sinai/Red Sea to spend the weekend. We’ll be back Monday night.

  5. Jeff October 12, 2007 at 8:03 pm #

    On registering for flickr: If you have a yahoo email account, then you just need to activate your flicker account. Yahoo owns flickr.

    Way cool pics. We were thinking of Japan or London for our next big trip. Egypt may be working it’s way onto the list.

    Nilometer! That word is just great. Is that what they really call it?

  6. uncle Joel October 14, 2007 at 7:49 am #

    Hi Patrick & Melissa, I have to say, that after your father told me that the THREE of you were going to move to another country, I flipped out! Whatever!. You are young and adventurous, what the heck, DOIT. Anyway I am proud to say that my neice and nephew had the cashews to go forward and relocate to Egypt. The photos are great and the blog is awesome! Keep up the good work. Uncle Joel

  7. Cody October 16, 2007 at 7:47 am #

    Pfft. If you really wanted us to believe that you were swimming in the “Red” Sea, you probably shouldn’t have included pictures. Red Sea indeed.

  8. Kay October 17, 2007 at 12:22 am #

    Thank you for all the wonderful pictures. But that picture of Patrick with the snorkel mask tends to remind of another picture of Patrick that was passed around church a year or so ago –the big red glasses pictures. I’m sure you know the one I mean.

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