Saturday, 20 June 2015


The first day of Ramadan  is a bit like Christmas or Diwali. Families gather to break the fast and eat together. There's a feeling of festivity and many of the streets are  decorated with streamers, fronds of silver paper and coloured lights. Houses are cleaned and the shops are full of people buying food ready for the Iftar (the breakfast which is at 6 in the afternoon) It is a time when Muslims reaffirm their allegiance to Islam and focus on the spiritual side of life. It brings the community and families together. People read the entire Quran during this month - (the Ladies carriage on the Metro is now full of earnest women  bent over small leatherbound Qurans, missing their stops.). 

I walked home last night  at about 2.45 am and bumped into  a man  yelling through a megaphone urging  everyone to get up and eat before they went to the mosque for 3.30 prayers. He  was even naming people in the neighbourhood to get them out of bed. He's a sort of Ramadan alarm and is called el-mesahrati. Reminded me of when I was a little girl at Butlins holiday camp and we were woken every morning with the megaphoned screech of "Wakey, Wakey rise and shine campers." I also felt a slight chill - as if Big Brother was watching me. In Ramadan,the all-knowing, all-seeing Allah is  more ubiquitous than usual.

The second day  I fasted for Ramadan. I have aways felt that you cannot live in a country and not try to understand what the people around you are experiencing. After all, in the UK most Muslims celebrate Christmas and the Muslim Christmases which are often more Christmasy than normal. In Egypt people are not eating from the 3.30 am call to prayers until 6 pm. I went to the gym and swam and exercised and by the time I came out was dying of thirst in the heat and had a very bad headache. In the evening I gathered with my partner's  family to eat together. Juices and food were prepared. This meal is called Iftar, breakfast. Dinner is much later before the 3.30 call to prayers. On my way to the flat people were rushing to get to their families to eat together. This will go on every day for a month until Eid. Until then  people will try to keep their thoughts pure. Married couples can only have sex during the fast break.

To an outsider like me,  if you take away the festivities,  Ramadan has  a sinister undercurrent. It is an annual,  month long refresher course in Islam, reinforcing the  foundations of childhood learning, which, akin to Catholicism, relies heavily on repetitive brainwashing techniques. All alcohol outlets are shut for the month,  and  Muslims who do not fast can be ostracised and treated with suspicion as "atheists," or, as other works of the devil...I know of several  people who have been sacked from their jobs for not fasting. (Children, the ill, nursing mothers and the  elderly, are exempt). 

 It is a spiritual obstacle course, testing its followers to the limit. Going without water for 17 hours, each day for a month in Egypt's heat  is no joke. Eating a heavy meal as late as 2 or 3 am is known to affect the body's  metabolism and  liver for the worst.  I wouldn't ask my worst enemy to do it.

But this is   a time which bonds the community and it has made me realise that this level of spirituality and community/family focus is missing in the West. Easter in the old days is probably the closest we came to it. Christmas has become a consumer fest. It would be nice to have something similar, but secular. It would be a period of time devoted each year to peace, equality and tolerance. It would be international, spiritual but non religious and a celebration of would involve the sharing of food, street parties, communal activities such as prayer and meditation and discussion, story telling. Every creed, colour, and sexual persuasion would participate and be brought together to reflect and commit to peace, equality and tolerance. Just a thought.