Ramadan is a movable fast/feast. Back in 2008 it was in August and September. Here is a letter that I wrote to my extended family back then, before I started blogging. I did not think it was appropriate to blog about places where I was working. But in honor of the start of Ramadan I dug out the family letter an went through my pictures. I took those before I had a DSLR, on a little pocket camera, but I think they reflect what Ramadan was like then, in Egypt when Mubarak was in power, and in Kosovo, which was just beginning to awake to its Islamic heritage.
Ramadan Mubarak. (Blessed Ramadan)
September 7, 2008
I had always thought of Ramadan, the Moslem month of fasting, as kind of an Islamic Lent. I was wrong. After all, what luxury hotel in Christendom would advertise having its Omar Kahyyam Casino and Empress Show lounge ready for Lent? But the casino and show lounge at the Marriot advertise that they are ready for Ramadan.
In Egypt Ramadan is the holiday season. People fast from Morning Prayer until sunset and then party much of the night. Iftar, literally “break-fast” is the evening meal and it becomes a celebration, often lasting most of the night until just before dawn when you take a meal to prepare for the fast during the day. Kids don’t fast so the season is a joy for them. Television rolls out the old holiday specials and people sit in front of the tube much of the night between meals. Ramadan has the highest TV ratings all year.
Cairo city is decorated in Ramadan Lanterns, (fawanees) a holdover from when streets were not lit but needed light for outdoor feasts. Stores all display lanterns and toy shops sell them in imaginative shapes (like cars) that play Ramadan songs for kids. There is a lot more decoration than lantern hanging. Tinsel strands straddle side streets and brightly patterned cloth bunting frames buildings. There are special Ramadan sweets and festive menus.
Egyptian newspaper articles decry the commercialization of Ramadan (sound familiar, Christians?). Some articles charge that the all night feasting mitigates, somehow, the whole intent of the month which is to develop empathy for the poor, sharpen spiritual discipline and develop community. But I am not sure about this criticism. Ramadan IS a community building and family strengthening month. Commercialism is only part of it but commercialism there is. Hotels promote their specials, spas offer specials on detoxification fasts and stores sell their lanterns and goodies. Nagoom FM (A commercial station, I’ve been working with the Production Director) goes crazy with production for the holiday. It cans all its western sounding jingles, sweepers, buttons and zippers (radio talk for the little music bridges between programming stuff) and replaces them with “oriental” sounding production, mostly Turkish. The program schedule changes to accommodate sunup and sundown rituals. The playlist adds Islamic pop to the station’s normal secular offerings and the commercial load increases. The spots are rewritten. Coke is a major sponsor during the fasting time, creating that desire for the real thing when the sun goes down. The restaurants also are big advertisers during the day. (I can imagine McIftar, “I’m loving it.”)
Of course politicians get into the act. While astronomers can predict accurately when the new moon first will show its crescent indicating the start (and the end) of Ramadan, there is the ceremony of the sighting where the Grand Mufti declares the fast has begun. This may be the Grand Mufti’s show but on Radio Cairo the president steals the lede; “Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak sent telegrams of congratulations to world leaders on the Mufti’s sighting of the crescent moon to signal the start of Ramadan.” (Note: in 2021 I have no idea if the President still upstages the Grand Mufti.)
But Ramadan brings the community together in heartwarming ways. There are family reunions at Iftar. Tycoons, the great and good, have to be seen feeding the poor. There is even an interfaith Iftar. And of course, the Casino & Show Lounge do good business after sundown. Ramadan stresses charity and alms giving. (One DJ exhorts “Give, give, give, a pound, ten pounds, this is Ramadan — give.) In most neighborhoods huge “Maedaat el-Rahman” (tables of mercy) are set on the streets providing free food at sundown. Mosques set out tables, so do merchants, hotels and restaurants. The menu seems to be rice, beans, bread and water, although dates and milk also feature. The Marriott sets its tables out under a highway flyover by the hotel and liveried waiters serve anyone who comes along. One friend goes to the Marriott Table of Mercy at least once during the 29 days just to say “I had dinner at the Marriott last night.” The amazing thing is that 20 minutes after the call to prayer the tables are mostly empty and the cleanup begins. At one table under the flyover one old man in a New York Yankees baseball cap lingers over a round of bread.
Cairo just before sundown is eerie. It is quiet, as I have never heard Cairo quiet. The streets, just before the evening call to prayer are empty. Most offices close at 2 so that people can get home by 6:20 and Iftar. There are no cars that I can see on the elevated highways. And I sit on a balcony in an upper floor of the Marriott so I can see a LOT of highway. It is almost like some giant vacuum cleaner swept the streets clean. There is a palpable tension. Then come the first calls from the minaret. They are preliminary, it is not time yet. Then, just after the crack of sundown, they all coalesce into one “Allah” accompanied by a barrage of cherry bombs. Before the call to prayer is over the tables are full. I walk quickly through the Zamalak neighborhood to watch the foot traffic from table (quick, break the fast) to mosque for prayer and back to the tables that fill the side streets. In the little police kiosks bottles of water break open and sandwiches come out of bags. About a half hour after Iftar the sidewalks are lined with men enjoying their first sheesha of the day. The cafes are alive. Within an hour and a half the traffic is back. The parties in the hotel have started.
One mufti wrote a newspaper commentary saying the money spent to outfit the tables of mercy would better be spent on donations to organizations helping the poor year around but that’s not happening. Columnists write that the way Egypt celebrates Ramadan harms the country’s productivity. Folks go into work tired and leave early. One columnist says that the only hope for Egypt is for America and Europe extend Christmas to a full month.
One of the scariest articles was an interview with an Air Egypt pilot who talks about the dangers of flying an airplane when fasting. The fast does not allow even water and he says that the dry air in the plane causes dehydration and light-headedness. The Koran exempts travelers from the fast. The interviewer reminds the pilot of this and asks if he is flying a plane while fasting. The pilot dodges the question. I’m glad I flew out of Cairo on Austrian Air. There are articles in the papers urging people with kidney problems not too fast. (The Koran also allows exceptions for health reasons.) The biggest problem for Ramadan, this time of year in Egypt is the heat. Water is forbidden as well as food. This year God was merciful. The first day of Ramadan the temperature dropped 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees in the old reckoning). And cooling breezes made it quite pleasant. (Ramazan in Albania and Kosovo follows this gallery.)
So Now I am in Kosovo. I once heard someone make the mistake of calling Albania a Moslem Country. An Albanian corrected her saying “Albania is a country where Moslems live.” The same is true for Kosovo. When I lived in Albania Ramadan (Ramazan in Albanian), when recognized at all, was a quaint cultural thing. Drummers marched around collecting money for the poor. At the evening call to prayer the Tirana minarets are lighted. (The pictures below are scans from faded prints I took in 1996.)
I have been in Kosovo during Ramazan before but never noticed it (In fact, it was more evident in Montenegro when I crossed the border between the two in 2003). So I decided to go looking for Ramazan. There is no evidence of fasting in the cafes at lunch, they are full. At sundown I thought the place to look would be an area in the old town where there are 4 mosques. While one mosque had a Ramazan banner there were no tables of mercy. The evening call to prayer in Kosovo is less coordinated than in Cairo where the call “Allah” is timed to the second and all mosques are synchronized. In Prishtina each Hoxha keeps his own time and the call drifts in and out. The minarets are lighted for the evening call to prayer but not very well lighted.
But sundown in Kosovo has its own rewards. As the call to prayer starts, almost as if on cue, thousands of corvids, blackbirds, take flight. Kosovo Polje is, after all, the field of blackbirds. The minarets reflect with the sunset in the mirrored glass of the newer buildings. I walked away from the old town a bit disappointed and, quite by accident, stumbled on Ramazan the form of a billboard near the Monaco café. It advertised a cultural festival and “Iftar Darke” (literally translated breakfast dinner) for the first 1000 people to show up outside the sports center each evening at sundown. There is a tent set up there with Kosovo and Turkish flags (the Turkish government is a sponsor) and the fare at these tables of mercy is considerably better than in Cairo, with chicken as well as bread and rice.
This is the most traditional crowd I have seen in Kosovo, women in headscarves, men in skull caps. It looks like a rural Kosovo gathering and, and in a sense, that is exactly what it is. The breakfasters eat with the accompaniment of traditional music. The next night I go to the same location. The line for the Iftar meal forms about a half hour before the call to prayer. When the call comes over the speakers in the tent (before coming from any of the mosques) the line starts to move, with food piled onto stainless steel cafeteria trays. Within a half hour the trays are stacked up and the cleanup is well underway.
But the most surprising Ramazan find is that one of my closest Albanian friends is fasting this year. He is not particularly observant but he is doing it for personal reasons. He looks at me and says “don’t tell the Americans I am fasting for Ramazan, I don’t want to scare them.”
“Ramadan Kareem” (Generous Ramadan)