The holy month of Ramadan is here again, the most important time of the year for Muslims worldwide, when Egypt turns into a kaleidoscope of lights and glitter.
For Muslims everywhere, the sacred month of Ramadan is a time when people fast from dawn till sunset, read more Qur’an, perform more prayers, give more sadaqah or voluntary charity, and worship more than they do at any time during the year.
Ramadan customs do vary from one country to another. When it comes to Egyptians, the holy month of Ramadan is the most special occasion of the year. The saying goes, ‘You haven’t seen celebrations if you haven’t seen Ramadan celebrated in Egypt.’
Egypt is always special in its very traditional way. Ramadan starts when the new moon is born. If the new moon is seen on the 29th day of Shabaan, then Ramadan starts the next day, and Taraweeh Prayer (calls) is performed in all mosques.
A few hours later, the first Sohour begins, with a special man called “Messaharati” – or drummer – banging on a drum in the streets calling for Sohour to each and every person in his neighbourhood, especially kids.
A small confession, I used to hear him call my father’s name or my brothers’ name. Just imagine, it’s 3.00 in the morning and a man is drumming your name, one of the coolest things ever!
This tradition dates back to the Ottoman era when people didn’t have alarm clocks to wake them for Sohour, and drummers would walk through the streets beating their drums.
And we certainly are used to listening over and over again to the very old famous song: “Ramadan Gana” which means that “Ramadan is Here” by Mohamed Abdel Muttaleb.
Egyptians after all wouldn’t be Egyptians if they didn’t find a reason to celebrate, and Ramadan is no exception. Ramadan lanterns or “Fanoos” in all forms are hung over big buildings, restaurants, entertainment venues and thousands of paper lanterns are draped on string over streets, plus houses and mosques are decorated with many small colourful lamps.
Many stories of the origin of Fanoos have been told. One of the popular stories is that a Fatimid Caliph wanted to light the streets of Cairo during Ramadan nights, so he ordered all the sheikhs of mosques to hang Fawanees (lanterns) that could be illuminated by candles. As a result, the Fanoos became a custom that has never been abandoned.
Ramadan has its own traditional cuisine in Egypt. To break the fast, many people eat dates and drink milk, the customary meal of Prophet Mohamed (PBUH*). Normally, the fetar meal is a massive feast of several kinds of meats, potatoes and rice, heavy on the fat and protein, light on the vegetables.
There are innovative and artistic pastries, cakes and cookies such as the Basbousah, Atayef, and Konafah, of which the mango version is a popular choice for Ramadan in the summertime. "Kammruddin", or apricot juice or "khushaf", sweetened Karkadey (hibiscus rose petals), Erq Sous (licorice), Humous (chick pea drink), minted tea, Kharoub (carob), Tamr Hini (Tamarind), crown every table in almost every home.
To add to this are Zabadi (yoghurt), Medamis (fava beans) and delicious and colourful jars of Torshi Baladi or home-made pickles in Sohour meal.
Ramadan tents are set up for fetar and sohour. If you want a more authentic Ramadan experience, then head to Islamic Cairo and have fetar on the streets of Khan El Khalili.
Faith and positive vibes are everywhere. The streets are blocked because of the amount of people going to mosques for Taraweeh prayers, which is an occasion when extended families can meet, if they live close to each other. Praying in the same mosque, neighbours socialize, children play, and friends can be made.
Ramadan is all about giving. Zakat is very much respected and practiced during Ramadan, and there’s a well-known custom called “Ma’edat Al-Rahman”, or “The Merciful’s Table” where someone provides a tent with tables and chairs and starts distributing food and drinks for the needy; this is mostly done in what are called “Ramadan banquets.”
Suddenly, the roar of four primitive cannons from the Saladin Citadel shakes the entire city, announcing Iftar as the sun sets. Thousands of mosques call the faithful to prayer in Maghreb. The adhaan ringing out of radios loudspeakers and televisions to shatter the silence.
Mosques are filled with worshippers during the five times of prayer and especially during Taraweeh prayers. You can hear the soulful sound of ‘Allahu Akbar’, which means God is the Greatest, everywhere you go.
Midfa Al Iftar, or literally the Cannon for breakfasting, is an ancient tradition that started in Egypt and spread to several surrounding Arab countries. The tradition was started by Ottoman ruler Khosh Qadam by coincidence. While testing a new cannon at sunset, Khosh Qadam accidentally fired it. The sound reverberated across Cairo alerting locals and indicating the end of the fast for the day.
Finally, you can spend Ramadan on the Nile enjoying fresh open air with a spectacular view. Fishawy Café and Al Hussein in Al Azhar may be an experience on its own, walking through the area with the shops open all night, watching people enjoying life after breaking the fast and experiencing at the pancake shop the taste of feteer (Egyptian pancakes) served with sugar and honey or with several cheeses.
Ramadan is a perfect month in Egypt: actually, it's a month-long festival!
*Peace Be Unto Him