Today was the first day of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting and introspection. Some parts of the Islamic world might begin a day or two later, depending on crescent-moon sightings and other factors, but most observant Muslims began their fasts today.
Egypt's Ramadan traditions highlight the schizophrenic local culture that make many old-school Muslims sound like Americans griping about Christmas, complaining that their holiest season has become too commercialized and superficial.
Fast all day, but overload on heavy meals and rich desserts until sunrise. No booze or raunchy music, but you can still dress up and go to nightclubs that have been transformed into all-night breakfast bars. Celebrate piety and self-reflection, but watch street squabbles escalate because everybody is deprived of nicotine and calories. Give to the needy, but keep an eye out for the season's professional beggars who suddenly appear on every street corner. This year, Egypt even set aside daylight savings time for the month and created its own (terribly confusing) Ramadan schedule, which is an hour earlier than the actual time. NPR explains it in this story.
Ramadan follows the Islamic lunar calendar, so it doesn't happen the same time every year. This year is particularly brutal because of the searing summer heat, with temperatures 100 degrees or higher each day. To escape the heat, I spent Ramadan Eve at the sprawling Cairo megamall called City Stars. The air conditioners were cranked up and the festive spirit already was in full swing Tuesday night.
Like holiday decor in American malls, City Stars was decked out with Ramadan lanterns, see-through globes etched with holiday messages in Arabic and colorful banners made from the same material as Egypt's traditional tents. As Americans do with Santa or the Easter Bunny, Egyptian children posed for photos with a large wooden cannon. It's symbolic because the loud boom of cannon fire marks sunset, when Muslims get to break their daily fast.
In store windows, the mannequins were dressed a little less skimpily. Lanterns and tent swatches hung in almost every shop, from the frozen yogurt joint to the cell-phone outlet. The huge supermarket Spinneys was jam-packed with shoppers loading up as if a year-long curfew had been announced, their baskets piled high with lentils, syrupy sweets, fava beans, meats, dates and the fixings for stewed apricot juice. This time of year, most major grocery stores offer a "Ramadan basket" that contains some rice, lentils, cooking oil, dates and other seasonal staples; the items are meant to be purchased as gifts for poor families.
It was dark when I returned home, just a few hours before the beginning of Ramadan. Outside my building, two older boys from the neighborhood sat at a sidewalk card table, staring intently at their backgammon game. A younger boy from the block, a dimpled troublemaker, was sneaking up on them from behind a car. In his hands were two little firecrackers that don't do any more harm than scaring the bejesus out of unsuspecting victims. The mini-firecrackers are another feature of Ramadan here.
"Shh," the boy whispered to me, putting a finger to his lips. I smiled at him and pretended to dig for keys in my purse so I could watch how this scene ended.
The little boy got within a few feet of his victims and threw the firecrackers, which let out big bangs as they hit the ground. The teens jumped up from their backgammon board and began cursing and chasing the boy, who was laughing. Perhaps remembering the onset of the holy season, the teens gave up and sat back down, smiling despite being punked. "God forgive me," one of them said.