My neighborhood is a typical Egyptian suburb full of apartment buildings, people, dust and cars. Very typical of the new Maadi complexes, semi-quite, semi-green and semi okay. 320 days of the year it is a very normal, albeit boring, place to live. The remaining 45 days, it transforms into something magical. Ten days before the advance of Ramadan, each apartment’s porter starts bringing out the lights and Fawanees ‘Ramadan lanterns’ and the block is happy, charming and full of life again.
Forget Christmas, New Year, Valentine and Mother’s Day. The only time I am happy for our rush to copy Western commercialism is when I see the celebrations and readiness associated with Ramadan. All over the world, Muslims are immersing themselves in the passions of Ramadan, but nowhere comes close to the festivals, lights and kaleidoscope of colors that make up Ramadan in Cairo. In terms of partying, no-one does it better than the Egyptians.
Khayama & Lights
At the end of Sha’ban, brightly-patterned, red-and-blue khayama (tent cloths) hang on every wall, corner and store doorway and some even form canopies over the streets. Trees are wrapped in flashing lights as they twinkle joyfully. Buildings dress up in a dazzling array of red, blue, green and yellow lights and triangle pendants hang from window to window. Everywhere you turn, there is a bright fanoos in balconies, gracing doorways, on the entrances of alleys and welcoming guests in five-star lobbies.
The warm glow of the lanterns carry on over the centuries through to the Fatimid period, when mosques were always repaired and thoroughly cleaned before Ramadan, lights and decorations were put up in the streets and the city’s judges then inspected all the decorations making sure that everything was ready for Ramadan. In the 15th century, the governor of Cairo ordered everybody to put a lantern in front of their house and therein the importance of the fanoos was born. Normally made of tin or brass and glass, the fanoos was originally used to light the procession that would go out to sight the crescent and announce the start of Ramadan.
Today, lanterns hang over the streets in houses. The poorer areas of Egypt are more vibrantly decorated in glittering silver-foil streamers, flashy-colored light bulbs and colorful plastic pennants, the richer neighborhoods elegantly participate with expensive large-scale lanterns and decorated trees. Even five star hotels commission huge Ramadan lanterns that are equivalent to the Christmas tree to help celebrate and market their services during the holy month. Children go around collecting money from apartment buildings to decorate the streets in some neighborhoods and all the youth; whether Muslim and Christians chip into helping decorate the streets. All the children get small lanterns to play with, reminiscent of the time when they would walk around the streets with their lighted lanterns singing Ramadan songs like Christmas carols.
The Mamluk Sultans would also cook food for the poor in their kitchens and servants carried trays of food around the city. These free meals evolved into the suhoor and iftaar tents in the Fatimid times which were provided by the Fatimid Caliph and by the big mosques, where everyone, regardless of their social standing, could eat for free. This custom is continued, to this day and is called ‘Mawa2d Rahman’ (Banquest of Mercy) with tents and tables set up haphazardly in any available free area provided through private efforts. No where can you see the generosity of people than at these banquets, no matter how well you are dressed or how rich you seem, if you pass by one of the tables during iftar time, you will be invited as vigorously as if you were a homeless beggar without a scrap to your name.
Taraweeh & Messaharati
Sayed Mekawi’s Ramadan song plays out through the radio mixed with Quran, and people everywhere are much more accommodating and generous. While some people worry that the true spirit of Ramadan is lost in the increasing commercialism that has sprung up around it, I feel hope still. The greatest decorations that happen in Ramadan on the streets appear in the people, in their humanity, charity and love to others.
Ramadan is special for everyone, Muslim or not. It’s not a religious thing. It’s the atmosphere of the whole month which can be seen in large dinners with families and friends gathered around the table to enjoy each other’s company, to the tents and coffee houses vibrating with laughter and fragrant with shisha smoke!