A Qualitative Study of Ramadan in Egypt

A qualitative study across class and gender of the transient mini-verse of Ramadan in Egypt.

by Amanda Tapp

“Ramadan is an example of how humans differentiate themselves as different from any other type of being – the spiritual value you get from fasting, from understanding what it means to fast. Understanding that your mind is the one that is the controlling of your body, not the other way around.” – Ahmad, 32, freelancer.

In 2015, a study reported that there were 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, around 25% of the world’s population. During Ramadan, those that are able to fast of 25% of the world fasts (صيام“seom”) every day, from dawn until dusk, for a month.

All norms, values, and the mundane repetitiveness of everyday life are temporarily lifted during this time, and a different set of societal rules and norms are set in place. Work hours are reduced two hours, and many cafes are functioning minimally only for the few that are not fasting.

It is a time to spend with family and gatherings. Every Iftar, the breaking of the fast, which occurs just after the Maghrib (evening prayer) when the Adhan (call to prayer) occurs, echoing from every mosque throughout the city, is spent with family or friends. It is the time to see extended family, but also to spend time with the family that might not usually have time to see each other so much.

It is a month of spirituality, where the mundaneness of everyday life, in the military-industrial complex of consumerism is somewhat put aside, and a focus on being closer to God, to pray more, and to fast, not just on the physical level from food and water, but on the spiritual level.

Many will stay up into the early hours of the morning, even if they have to get up for work early in the morning as usual, to eat Suhur at pre-dawn as the last meal before the sun rises and the fasting commences.

In speaking to several Cairenes varying across age, demographic, and background, I was able to get a glimpse of how variant and vibrant Ramadan is in Egypt, and what Ramadan means for different people.

Ahmad, 32, currently working as a freelancer, said, “Ramadan is about family – Ramadan provides the opportunity to spend time with your family and have very delicious meals after Iftar. Normally, families would be visiting, while friends are busy visiting each other.”

According to Nida Mohamed, 57, who is a house-wife and NGO director, her favourite part of Ramadan is what it means for family.

“When the kids started going to university, we don’t have the time to sit together at the same table for dinner, except during Ramadan. And we do parties in Ramadan to invite our friends and families during different days. When you feed someone in Ramadan, you are doing a virtue, so we invite so many people and we are invited to so many of our friends and families’ houses because it’s good to feed other people in Islam.”

During Iftar, each person breaks their fast differently. Some with dates and milk, to ease their stomachs into it. Others will immediately have a long-awaited for cigarette and coffee.  

The Spirituality of Ramadan  

Ramadan, while a cultural phenomenon, is of course, deeply spiritual. There are three levels of fasting, although not everyone engages in all three.

“You have, the fasting of the belly, which is the most famous one people know about, which is not eating and not drinking,” Ahmad said.

He goes on to say, “You have another level, seom aljawaarih (fasting of the instincts). All your human instincts, you inhibit consciously – so no gossiping, no listening to anything that is considered unlawful, you don’t use your hands or feet to do bad things, so you don’t hit people, no marital relations, etc.”

These are the two fundamental levels, with one extra level:

Seom al Kalb, fasting of the heart, where people are constantly contemplating and exalting Allah during this month […] their heart is in a state where there’s no room for anything else.”

When asked what makes Ramadan so special, Ahmad replied:

“People are willing to do anything for any else, even prostate, but never go thirsty for someone else. So that’s what makes fasting special, it’s the one thing you do to God […] this is the only type of worship that is done only to him, you’ll never see that kind of worship done to anyone else. Apart from also understanding that your mind is the one that is the controlling of your body, not the other way around. It should not be the other way around. Otherwise you’d be no different from a cow, or any type of creature that instinctively follows their instincts. This is an example of how humans differentiate themselves as different from any other type of being. This is the spiritual value you get from fasting. From understanding what it means to fast.”

According to Nagla Fathi, 41, who works as a cleaner:

“Everything is beautiful in this month.”

I talked to Zeina, 25, about the spirituality of Ramadan for her.

When I asked her, “Does Ramadan bring you closer to God?”

Her response was, “I already feel so close to God. I think I have a special relationship with God. A lot of people don’t excel or do their best but they focus on the traditions, the headscarves; but they’re not honest, so I feel like my relationship with God is good because I’m good to other people, I don’t harm, I’m good to others – I’m not a bad person, I just am not doing the rituals that other people will define if you are a good Muslim or not. And I’ve seen this a lot, people pretending they are better Muslims than us, doing all the prayers, extra fasting throughout the year – not just during Ramadan – and they will give you this look as if to say,

‘Do you think you’re better than me?’”

For Nida, her thoughts on Ramadan have changed throughout her life.

“Growing older, we have to make more effort with God, because when you become old, you think that your end is coming soon, so you want to please God more. So, I pray more during Ramadan when I’m older. Everything – when you are old – you do everything in a calm way. When you are older, you have all the time to focus on being close with God because you are thinking of your end more. I pray to God, that I want God to take me before I become a burden or lose my health.”

Ramadan, for some, may provide some form of a metric. I spoke to Ahmad about how Ramadan may help one better oneself.

“I look forward to next Ramadan being better for me. I will be able to recite the Quran more, rather than partially, but entirely. Every Ramadan you hope to be a better Muslim, because Ramadan is supposed to be like boot camp – summer camp – it’s one way of using a metric to compare yourself – was I a better Muslim this Ramadan compared to last Ramadan? […] Ramadan is your chance to repent,” said Ahmad.

I asked Ahmed, “take me through a typical day in Ramadan.”

Ahmad: “I miss when I was younger, Ramadan used to be in the winters, so fasting used to be easier. I remember, our parents, they didn’t pressure us into fasting, but I used to do it because I wanted to, I wanted to show them ‘no, I can do it! I can take it!” I think I was 6 or 7, full swing. I was very passionate. It’s usually the same feeling, usually when you wake up, you want to drink water, but in Ramadan you know that’s not a possibility, so you wake up, you use the bathroom, do the normal stuff, then you just, go about your day, you spend your day, you can read, sometimes Quran or recitations, sometimes I’ll watch religious sermon or a khutbah (Islamic scholars’ shows) and some of them were very famous and used to be televised on national television. In Ramadan there’s always the chance to do these activities that involve seeking knowledge that is beneficial. The knowledge you seek has to be beneficial, it has to be knowledge you can act upon, because knowledge you can’t act upon is pretty much useless, so learning about the religion is the best kind of knowledge.”

For Zeina, Ramadan gives her a strength that only comes to her during the Holy month.

“There is no morning routine, you don’t have your midday snack, and you still wake up early to work, so it’s a bit different. You feel like God is with you, God is giving you strength, and God is helping you. I can never fast off-Ramadan. I can’t imagine going through a day without my morning coffee or breakfast, I will feel sick, but during Ramadan, it’s OK. It’s motivation, you have a very powerful reason during Ramadan, because it’s very spiritual – because God will fulfil your prayers.”

Prayers are more emphasised and focused on by many during Ramadan.

Mohamed Bahnasi, teller, age 33,discussed the Tarawih (the prayer performed after the Isha prayer during Ramadan), “which brings the servant closer to Allah and makes him quick to obtain his satisfaction and love, as well as provides an atmosphere of safety for him.”

As Ahmad said,

“It’s the long prayer, it’s voluntary, it’s not mandatory, and it’s done in 2’s, two raka’ats (ركعات, a single unit of Islamic prayer) – two raka’at, two raka’at, for a total of 8 or 20. This is the prayer that usually recites all throughout the Quran, so the mosques will usually recite parts of the Quran throughout the whole month and finish it, during this month. Khatam al-Quran (خاتمہ, a recitation of the Quran) from beginning to end. Every month, in every mosque, in every Muslim nation, it will happen. Here, it will happen too. I remember being in a mosque before the pandemic, it was always fulfilling.”

Ramadan is also a time of giving, of charity. In Islam, it is known as zakat, payment made under Islamic law for charitable purposes, and is also one of the five pillars of Islam. In Ramadan, donations are given to those in need, often times through a well-known charity.

Charity tables are quite prevalent in poorer parts of the cities in Egypt during Ramadan. Long, stretched out tables are ladled with foods set in the street, and it is welcome for anyone to come eat. It is not a place for questions, but a place to give, eat, and gather. It is meant to be for the needy. These are called “mawaeed al-rahman” (tables of mercy). This practice may be said to stem from the belief of the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings, whereby providing for a fasting person to break their fast will result in a spiritual reward.

The Uniqueness of Ramadan in Egypt 

When asked, “what do you think makes Ramadan unique in Egypt?” the answers I received were widely variant. Hamada, 31, proudly discussed Egypt’s many Ramadan traditions.

“The traditions. Other cultures don’t have as traditions as deep, or as many. If you ask me about Saudi’s traditions, I know they eat dates and milk to break the fast, but that’s about it. If you ask any other Muslim from the Muslim world about Egyptian Ramadan, they’ll tell you about the lanterns, about the songs, about the TV shows, about the decorations.”

Egypt is well known for its abundance of memorable and beautiful traditions for Ramadan.

With the exception of the quarantine and lockdown during COVID-19 this year, usually, the thing to look forward to the most for Nida is “going out every day to cafes, for suhoor – being with other people all the time.”

Bahnasi believes that what makes Ramadan unique in Egypt is Al-Kadr night (“night of power”), “which is considered by Allah to be better than a thousand months, where the angels descend on the ground and open the doors of heaven for the needy and those who seek Allah’s satisfaction.”

In Egypt there is a strong and almost tangible, palpable, Ramadan atmosphere – “the use of fabrics, decorations, use of lights – if you go to rural areas, entire areas can use one table to eat together,” says Ahmad.

“Social bonds are stronger in rural areas – entire neighborhoods are completely decorated and they will eat together,” Ahmad continues to say. Women on their periods, pregnant, elderly and sickly are not expected to fast. “Sharing Iftar with families is in all Arab nations, and making special dishes, but the things that are really unique to Egypt, to my knowledge, are the Iftar canon, fanoos Ramadan, and the history of the TV shows and all this content that Egypt produced throughout the 90s and 80s.”

He goes on to say, “in Egypt, the TV shows are always all produced in Ramadan, and in Eid, all the new movies come out, so the entertainment is actually centered around Ramadan.”

Although the advertisements are many, with sometimes the show time less than the advertisement time, the shows are widely popular and looked forward to throughout the year. Iftar is usually eaten in front of the TV, as across the most densely populated Arab country, millions sit in front of the TV and watch the Ramadan-time shows with the most famous actors and break their fast together. During this time, Muslim all across the Muslim world, will be glue to the television screens as they watch the Egyptian TV shows.

Ahmad reminisces about the Ramadan TV shows during his childhood, and how they often were educational.

“It’s a chance to learn more about their religion. So we can learn more about worship-related issues, history, Quran, stories of the prophets […] there was a very famous Egyptian show that portrayed the stories of the many prophets – Abrahim, Moses, Mohamed, Jesus, David, Solomon.”

Fanoos (فانوس lantern), is one of the most well-known and beloved, vibrant traditions of Ramadan in Egypt. For Zeina, it is the first thing she thinks of when she hears the word “Ramadan.” She would enjoy receiving her new fanoos with her neighborhood friends as a child.

“We would get our brand new fawanees (plural of “fanoos”) that our parents got for us, and we’d go inside the garage and sing the Ramadan songs, and light up the fawanees and go into the dark place and see which one is prettier. Maybe from age 7 until 13 or so.

I asked Zeina, “Would your parents buy you a fanoos, or make you one, or would you go with them to get one?”

To which she replied, “Well, Ramadan changes each year, so when I was younger, it was during school time, more during winter, so we’d make ones at school out of paper and I’d love them and I’d try to make them again at home. But my father, because he used to work in stationary, so every year he made brother and I a new one every year. Actually, I remember, every year, the fawanees would become less beautiful as they became more commercialized. But there was one fanoos I really, really love, and if I find it again I’m sure I am going to buy it.”

I asked her, “What was it?”

She replied, “It was gold and it had coloured glass. It looked like a typical fanoos but it was made out of plastic. It had chains with beautiful small trinkets hanging from it and when you press the button it would revolve around it around the fanoos. And it could play a song that every Egyptian will know, ‘Ramadan gaiiina’ (Ramadan is coming).”

Ramadan is also a time of consuming certain kinds of foods, most of which were reserved particularly for the holy month of Ramadan. According to Ahmad, “There’s special foods amar al-deen (dried apricot juice), it’s Egyptian, and there’s this whole collection of desserts and things that usually come out in Ramadan only. Home-cooked meals become a thing.”

Other popular Ramadan dishes include duck, Molokheya (Egyptian spinach) and Mahshi (stuffed vegetables). Soups are also a popular way to break fast.

One must not forget the deserts – Baklava and Qattayif (“wings of the bird”- due to the way they look), which are pancakes filled with cheese or nuts then soaked in syrup, Konafa, Basboosa, and many more. There is an abundance of sweets available to consume during the month. Pastry and bread shops will have a complete new set of things they sell – all centered around Ramadan sweets. For drinks, many enjoy Karkadey (hibiscus), Erq Sous (licorice), Tamr Hini (tamarind), Humous (chick pea drink) are popular.  

After the month of Ramadan, comes Eid al-Fitr, the festival of Breaking the Fast. Eid is a the largest holiday of Muslims, celebrating and marking the end of the month-long fasting of Ramadan.

“Eid, for me, as a child, meant getting a new outfit, and waking up very early to do the Eid prayers, then after that, either go to the cinema in the morning, then eat ringa and touna (which you can’t have during Ramadan as they’re quite salty) and then – the hero of desserts, the mayor of presentation of Eid – Kahk al-Eid,” Zeina said.

For Roya Hassan, 33, teacher,

“The best thing about Eid is that you wake up in the morning and have Kahk, in the morning, and have tea with milk or coffee. Some mosques throw balloons into the air, and we go to Sawlaat Eid.” Eid Salat is the Eid congregational prayer.

For Yehia Maddah, just 9 years old, this is his first Ramadan fasting.

Children often will begin to do smaller version of a full day of fasting for the first year they fast, perhaps 4 hours or so, when they are young, but most will start fasting properly, from dawn until dusk, anywhere from the age of 9 until 13.

For Yehia, he is really looking forward to Eid, which occurs after the month-long Ramadan with two fixed days of festivities and nation-wide shutting down of work, school and universities, but in particular, one sweet – Kahk.

As the lanterns of different colours light up the streets, adorning the houses and cafes, Ramadan songs heard from radios and from people’s homes and cafes, millions focus on praying, on showing love to God and to one another, on charity and goodness, fasting from dawn until dusk, enjoying the breaking of the fast together in front of the television shows that have been long-awaited for the year, consuming particular foods, desserts and drinks special to the Holy month – one can almost feel the spirit of Ramadan coursing through the air, enveloping the streets of Cairo.

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