My Experience as a Non-Muslim of Ramadan in Egypt

My first Ramadan experience was in Egypt, Om Al-Donya, Mother of the World. Ramadan occurs during the 9th of the 12 months of the Islamic Lunar Calendar, and so it occurs on a different date every year.

I’ve found myself becoming much kinder and sympathetic as a person, during the time of Ramadan. This is primarily because I’m surrounded by people who are fasting and who are thirsty, hungry, weak- and are all not complaining, but doing it willingly and gladly. I’ve noticed I’m more sympathetic to people, being more polite than usual, etc. I was pondering this as I got into an uber, feeling quite good about myself but simultaneously quite sorry for them (perhaps this is Eurocentric of me), then I caught myself – why don’t I treat people to the best of my abilities usually? Why is it that during Ramadan only am I the most considerate I can be?

However, I suppose this is one of the many benefits of Ramadan. It is a time of cleansing oneself of one’s own impurities. Even though I am not a Muslim and so I am not fasting, it is affecting me very much. Having to alter my days and times to the millions of people fasting for Ramadan, who are going by the times of the rising sun and setting sun, is extremely refreshing. It seems everyone around me is going back to our roots – as mankind used to live – not by the time we monitor with our man-made clocks. Because of this, the Muslims fasting for Ramadan don’t sleep as much – in fact, I’m not sure when they sleep during Ramadan, and I’m not sure they know when they sleep either…!

In Egypt, the normative rules here are all lifted up and others are quickly put in its place during the month of Ramadan. The days before Ramadan were surreal to me, with everyone constantly talking about it, and large supermarkets like Carrefour becoming an absolute nightmare of human traffic-jams, with many products disappearing off shelves as people go and stock up on food for the month of Ramadan. After awhile of this, we finally reached the first day of Ramadan, I remember being a bit shocked at seeing the transformations of people I knew. Everyone was tired, looking at me with tired eyes and tired smiles, not speaking as much as usual.

It is OK to drink and eat in front of Muslims fasting, as they understand if you not a Muslim you would not fast, yet one should try to refrain from that as much as possible – simply to be considerate. When the sun sets (around 6.30pm now- “now” being the beginning of Ramadan), the streets become eerily empty, as everyone is eating one of the two meals of Ramadan, Iftar (الإفطار), with their families or friends. You can almost feel the millions of people in all directions around you waiting for the evening Adhan (the Islamic call to prayer), which signals the sun has set and the feast can begin. Suhoor (السحور) is the second meal during Ramadan, which must be eaten before the sun rises (at around 5.30am now). For suhoor one of the most common, traditional and popular dishes is ful and ta’miya (fava beans and Egyptian falafel). Some eat at midnight, and then sleep, waking up to pray during suhoor (which means around 4.30 am – before the sun rises) but not eating.

Pregnant women, elderly, sick people, women menstruating, young children, and other situations whereby you may not be physically able to fast – are all exempt from fasting. Perhaps around the age of 8 or 9 children may begin fasting, introducing them to the concept first by 4 hours or so, and then increasing the number of hours as they grow older.

Ramadan is a time to focus on family, loved ones, friends, and prayer. Some people I know would go to mosques everyday, and live there, just cleansing themselves of human impurities. During Suhoor and Iftar friends and family are often invited over to each other’s houses for feasts.

There are three layers of cleansing during Ramadan:

1. Fasting of Al-Shari’ah (Jurisprudential Fasting)

Fasting from food and drink, intercourse (even if married), is the easiest, as it is the physical, external layer.

2. Fasting of Al-Tariqat (Ethical Fasting)

This focuses on things considered Haram such as gossiping, swearing, non-Islamic dress, and so on.

3. Fasting of Al-Haqiqat (Mystical Fasting)

The last layer only a handful of people in the world can do, which is very deep meditation – a state of detachment from anything other than God.

If you talk about Ramadan, you must talk about the TV shows during Ramadan, and the food. Let’s talk about the TV shows first. Millions of people sit in front of the TV for much of the day during the days of Ramadan. Although everyone troops off to work each morning, not much is done – as everyone is bone-dead tired and weak. When they come home for Iftar, millions of Egyptians (Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous country), settle down in front of the TV and wait to break their fast. In some districts, the streets become populated with people sharing food at night, with all the shops opening all throughout the night, and people awake throughout much of the night. In other areas, friends and family are invited over to each other’s houses, as people settle down for the fast in the evening.

Soups are important during Ramadan, as they are usually had first before eating to ease their way into food and to break the fast. Having drinks first are another way to break the fast. An Egyptian traditional Ramadan drink is Amar El-Din, made out of dried apricots and olive oil. The main food itself usually consists of a carb meal, like rice, pasta or mahshi (anything stuffed with vegetables) with some form of animal protein, like meat, chicken, or fish. Desserts are also an important part of Ramadan food culture. Some of the most loved Egyptian desserts during Ramadan include but are not limited to Mohalabeya, Konafa, Baklava, basboosa.

Other customs of Ramadan include:

  • The traditions of the Fanoos (الفوانيس, “lanterns”). They are hung all over restaurants, shops, people’s houses and apartments. Normally brightly coloured, either lit up with a candle or lightbulb, they make anywhere you look more colourful. This is specifically for Egyptian Ramadan, however.
  • Reading the khatma, which represents a full reading of the Qu’ran over the month. There are 30 chapters, fitting for one a night for the approximately 30 days of Ramadan that vary by one or two days every year.
  • Charity. Although this is one of the five tenets during Islam, all the five tenets are exemplified and focused on even more during the Holy month of Ramadan.

Every Muslim I’ve talked to that is fasting is happily doing it for ربنا (“rabana”, our Lord), and doesn’t complain. After having studied and read about Ramadan so much, it is infinitely more rich and beautiful when witnessing it all around you, for miles and miles. About 24% of the world is Muslim, which means that a large portion of almost a fourth of the world is currently fasting. That’s something to think about.

And so, رمضان كريم (“Ramadan Kareem”) – literally translated to “Kind Ramadan”, but when said to someone it means, “I hope Ramadan will be kind to you” or “wishing you a kind/generous Ramadan.”

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