One of my besties was over in Cairo recently and her visit coincided with the holy month of Ramadan. A Franco-Geman with Moroccan roots, she loves traditional Arab and Moorish celebrations and was the perfect partner for us to explore the beautiful Cairo Ramadan. We were already halfway into Ramadan when she arrived and the Egyptian capital city was abuzz day and night with the excitement of the holy month. Though it was very hot during the day, the evenings were fantastically pleasant and a lovely breeze made the city breathe a sigh of relief. People came out of their houses after the Iftar (the sunset meal that breaks the fast) and cafes, Khan-al-Khalili market, malls and parks were filled with merrymakers. There was a general sense of cheerfulness and Cairo was decked up like a bride.
The beauty of Cairo Ramadan lies in lanterns and special tents
The joyful festive atmosphere pervading through the streets of Cairo was fascinating and hundreds of lights sparkled like jewels. Cute colourful tents for fanous (lanterns) were set up everywhere and every sweetmaker stocked delicious Ramadan specialities like Konafa and Qatayef. These are traditional Egyptian desserts that are filled with different fillings varying from cream to nuts and are two Ramadan staples that are wildly popular. Being with Tarek in Cairo at this time also made us experience Cairo Ramadan in a very special way and although I had seen the festivities in Dubai, this was the first time I had actually participated in one.
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Cairo Ramadans are peaceful festive moments after the Iftar
Tarek, who spent a few years in Cairo with his parents as a teenager remembered the city quite a bit and he took us to his “secret” spots where we experienced the celebrations in the best possible way. One was our long walks with him in the Old City, where cafes, concerts, and street carnivals livened up the evenings. Those were really fun places where historic monuments got splendidly decorated with lights, strains of music filled the air and cafes bubbled over with sheesha smoking citizens. People shopped, ate huge cotton candies, played dominoes, and chatted over endless cups of Chai Naena (Mint Tea) or Qahwa Mazbut (Turkish Coffee).
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The learning experience of Cairo Ramadan
This relaxed atmosphere is a stark contrast to the dullness of the morning and the restless aggression with permeates Cairo streets just before sunset. Here in Egypt, with Cairo Ramadan being so up, close and personal, I learned to understand the nuances of this festival, read its moods, and empathize with the ones who are fasting. I learned to go by the clock, rush to get Iftar dinner ready for the domestic help, who are fasting and be prepared for their Suhour (the meal consumed before dawn in preparation for a day of fasting) the next dawn. Kind motherly aunts from Tarek’s Egyptian family enveloped me into their family Iftar meals and thus Cairo Ramadan turned out to be a learning experience for me.
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Age old Egyptian Ramadan traditions
I learned that Ramadan in Egypt comes with its individual traditions and quirks and all of them are equally mind-boggling to me. In Egypt, young children are exempted from fasting and they receive their new Ramadan lantern (fanous) after joining their parents for the Taraweeh evening prayer. This is a quintessential Egyptian ritual which dates back to the Ottoman period and lantern makers work in frenzy for three months preceding Ramadan to keep up with the fanous demand for the holy month. It reminded me of the Diwali paper Ravanas of North India and to share the festive spirit we also bought a beautiful blue and red lamp for our house. There were so many beautiful details of Cairo Ramadan that I could probably make a series on them and to keep things short and sweet, I have compiled a brief overview of Egyptian Ramadan celebrations. Hope you enjoy it.
The special wake-up service of drummers of Cairo Ramadan
There are few things that mark the holy month in Egypt and Cairo Ramadan has some really quirky lifestyle adjustments. The drummers, for example, are of the oldest Ramadan traditions of Egypt and every morning an hour or two before dawn, mesharati or drummers roam the old Cairo streets beating a repetitive beat to wake people up for their sohour (pre-dawn meal). This is yet another Ottoman era tradition and in olden days, I am told that the drummers would also sing rhyming couplets along with their beats. the tradition dates back to the Ottoman era when people didn’t have alarm clocks to wake them for sohour, drummers would walk through the streets beating their drums. Just like dhakis in West Bengal in India, the mesharatis, at the end of Ramadan go to houses in their street to ask for money for their wake-calls.
A melodious prayer carpet rolls out over Cairo to mark the Iftar
For a very long time, I was confused as to how the city keeps the Iftar time check. In Cairo, this phenomenon became clear and during Ramadan, as my friend beautifully quoted, a magical carpet of mellifluous Ramadan prayer call unfurls over the city. Cairo drowns in beautiful prayer calls and from our terrace, we could literally feel the city calming down as it was time to break the fast. This is something we experienced for the first time (first hand) with Tarek at Hussein Panorama Hotel near Khan-el-Khalili market. We had not eaten much after a light breakfast and had gone exploring the old city during the daytime. Sometime around 2 PM, Tarek took us to the Hussein Panorama Hotel for rest and as luck would have it, there was no food or drink available until Sohour. So we waited with the rest of the Cairenese, experiencing their thirst, hunger and fatigue and felt us getting harmonised with their feelings as well.
The powerful communal harmony called Ramadan
The Hussein mosque being one of the major mosques was buzzing with people and we watched the movement of Cairo Ramadan from the top floor. We saw the listless crowd swelling with the passing of time, and restless aggression taking over as Iftar time drew closer. Soon the area around Hussein got choc-a-bloc filled with tables laden with food and we felt a hushed silent anticipation as it was a few minutes away from breaking the fast. It was an incredible feeling to see everybody despite being hungry and thirsty, sitting in front of food without touching it and this kind of self-restraint literally sent goosebumps down our skins. It was a sight so powerful that even we waited in anticipation with them and finally when the prayer broke the fast at the sound of a cannon shot, people ate in absolute unison.
The accidental cannon shot which is a Cairo Ramadan tradition
The firing of the cannon from the top of the Citadel is an age-old Egyptian tradition which is followed till today. Though it is not audible throughout the city, the firing is widely telecast and according to the legends, this tradition was started by Khedive Mohamed Ali (1805-1848) when he ordered a number of cannons for the Egyptian army. It so happened that one cannon was accidentally fired during sunset in Ramadan and people at that time mistook this as a new tradition introduced by the Khedive. Another strange Cairo Ramadan lifestyle adjustment is the change of timings of schools, offices, museums, and archaeological and religious sites. So, while they all shut early keeping Ramadan tradition alive, the Egyptian tv blasts off up to forty tele series especially aired for the holy month afternoons.
Half days at work, museums, and Ramadan special television soaps
One of the pillars of the Cairo Ramadan culture is the Ramadan soap operas that are aired exclusively for the holy month. These are huge hits throughout the Middle East, where millions of Muslims spending hours watching TV during and after their fast. These shows aim to tackle social or historical issues and during Cairo Ramadan, one is expected to spend a lot of time on the couch putting the feet up for some serious TV binging. Since no festive celebration is complete without a mention of its food, Cairo Ramadan also deserves a special section. So stay tuned for the next mouth-watering post dedicated to Egyptian food, especially Ramadan dishes. This one is long pending and until then enjoy the photo essay on Cairo Ramadan. It’s magical.
P.S – This blog post is part of the weekly series called the Cairo Chronicles. Every week, Maverickbird will try to focus on a new theme, emotion, and beauty of an expat life in the exciting, maddening city of Cairo.RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE