Along a Ramadan

Warning: long post ahead, you might want to break it up into chapters or something.

Baby’s First Middle-Eastern Ramadan

I was very excited to be in Egypt for Ramadan, I thought that being in a predominately Muslim country would make Ramadan somehow better and more meaningful. A ‘sea of difference’ one might say. And while in many ways Ramadan here is so much more than Ramadan in the west in some cases it is actually less.

I find that Ramadan here has become in many ways a cultural tradition rather than a sincere test of religious endurance; it is not culturally acceptable to not fast so I find that I see people fasting out of peer pressure and societal expectation. To me thats not Ramadan.

I’m used to Ramadans where I am the only person in my family/office/classroom fasting and that if I drink water or eat anything no one would even notice except God. To me this makes it a much more personal expression of faith, and of course much tougher. I have found, to my chagrin, that Ramadan here has become commercialized not so much unlike Christmas or Lent. It makes the experience empty for me: who am I really fasting for? God? Or society?

Christians and foreigners (most of whom also happen to be Christian) complain about being judged for not fasting, for attempting to order food in the middle of the day, and for not miraculously becoming more modest during this holy month. So, how many people here are fasting because the rest of their family is and to not fast would mean ridicule and ostracism?

This is indicative of Islam as a whole here as well: how many women wear the scarf only because their dad wouldn’t let them out of the house otherwise? When Islam is chosen and embraced outside of and maybe even against societal norms it becomes something more than just the status quo.

So, despite the lights, the canons, the festive nature of breaking the fast, I feel this Ramadan is hollow. Yes, I’ve missed close to no days of fasting (compared to the past Ramadans where I would have missed at least five days before the last ten of the month) and yes, its so much more fun when you are in a group of people or when I celebrate another day of fasting with my husband. But it feels rote, routine, expected not exceptional. In this way less than my lonely Ramadans of the past.

On the first day of Ramadan my true love gave to me…*

* you know you’re going to be singing that song for a least one day *cackle glee snort cackle*

The first day of Ramadan was exciting. In spite of knowing it was coming, the night before it quite literally surprised me when I found that Ramadan would begin the next day. Then again as I get older I find dates kind of sneak up on me anyways. Dear God, is it seriously my birthday? It was just December a minute ago…

Hubby and I did some last minute Ramadan shopping in grocery stores that were almost completely wiped out. Goodness people, do you grow four stomachs in Ramadan? I couldn’t find salt for a week! Lesson learned: stockpile necessities prior to all Ramadans.

When we returned to the building we stopped by Downstairs Uncle to wish him and his three girls (whom I will call Star, Breeze, and Brooke after very rough translations of the meaning of their names) a happy Ramadan. I may or may not have mentioned before that DU is very rich (may God bless him by even more because he deserves every dime) and his three girls are very high society. In Egypt, well ok in pretty much all the world, high society people marry other high society people so Brooke, the middle daughter, is engaged to marry the son of the owner of one of the biggest restaurant chains in Egypt. DU and the girls had been invited to take the first suhoor in the original restaurant location and so we were invited along as well.

It being one in the morning already we just stayed up until it was time to leave and we were all driven to Nasr City. The restaurant was packed to the gills with people of all walks of life. There was an exciting moment of speculation when pretty much all the men in the restaurant, servers and cooks included, all rushed to one corner where, I was told later, a famous player from the biggest soccer team in Egypt, Ahly, was taking his pre-fast meal. The poor guy, he was just trying to get his grub on. Anyways, I felt halfway famous sitting and eating with the family that owned the famous restaurant where famous people ate, six degrees of separation and all that jazz, and the food is really good. We rolled ourselves back towards the car, took our leave of Brooke’s betrothed, who is a very sweet young man, and headed home. With our expanded waist-lines we almost didn’t all fit but we made it eventually just as the call to prayer, and the breaking moment of Ramadan, rang out.

We slept off our food comas, poor Mr MM went to work after a scant three hours of sleep, and afterwards I set about getting ready for the first iftar. Traditionally the first iftar is always taken as a large family group so we packed up and headed out to Warraq to take dinner with Mr MM’s brother.

One of my absolute favorite things about Ramadan is that, especially for the first week, the roads in Cairo right after the maghrib call to prayer and signal to break your fast become eerily empty. Everyone is at home stuffing their faces and much too busy to be wreaking havoc with Cairo traffic. Mr MM and I, having left late that first day, sailed through the streets like ghosts, marveling at the beauty of the roads when no one else was on them. It was probably one of my more favorite moments in Egypt, when the city is at peace.

We ate dinner with his brother’s family and my niece and nephews introduced me to their new baby chickens who were heartbreakingly adorable. As we were getting ready to leave we were told about a party at one of Mr MM’s aunt’s house for the Seventh Day celebrations of their new baby granddaughter. So off went went back to Nasr City again to join in the festivities.

If one has never been to a Seventh Day celebration, its a trip. Its kind of like a baby shower/baptism/riotous party all rolled into one. It was also my first time to meet a lot of Mr MM’s (large) extended family and I was the center of a lot of attention. At one point I was surrounded by fifteen people with at least three if not four of them loudly speaking to me in Arabic all at the same time alternately trying to convince me to not listen to what the other person is saying and to answer random questions. Considering I only understood maybe two out of every twenty words I had absolutely no idea what was going on. My mother in law, God bless her, did her best to brow-beat my admirers into submission, but it really just added to the noise. One aunt convinced me that the flat was hers and took me on a tour with another group of four people in tow along with us, still trying to convince me of mostly untrue information. It turned out later that the flat wasn’t even hers (she was tricking me) and most of the people who claimed rooms as being their own didn’t even live there. It was all done in laughter and fun of course, but I didn’t particularly care what house belonged to who and actually even who was who because I’m terrible with names and to this day still can’t tell most of them apart. Deposited breathlessly back onto the couch from off of which I had been lifted for the tour, I spent a lot of the evening trying to find my husband in the crowd and being chased by random cousins who wanted to tell me some funny story about some one I didn’t really know. It was great fun, and definitely a crash course in the Arabic language.

But the real celebration started when they brought out the baby girl. Everyone was handed ribbon-festooned candles to light and hold onto, even very young children (safety not being on the top of the list in Egypt) and the lights were turned out. The grandmother (I think) of the baby came first with a metal pestle and mortar which she banged on and rang in cacophonous melody while the women zaghrouted and the newborn was carried out in a delightfully overly-decorated monstrosity of a bassinet (sold specifically for Seventh Day celebrations). Everyone stood in circle while the grandmother alternately banged on the mortar with the pestle, right next to the baby’s head, and setting that down picked up the bassinet and shook, rattled, and rolled the baby inside to that she would stay awake. It was a testament to the sleeping ability of newborns that even through the extremely loud racket of the mortar being pounded on right next to her head the baby would actually go back to sleep in between periods of being violently jostled. Once she was shaken to satisfaction she was set on the floor and the new mom was invited to jump over the bassinet a set number of times. A few other over-zealous members of the family also took the leap and then the mom picked up the baby and, lead by the pestle-banging grandmother, we all followed her out of the apartment, down the stairs to the main entryway and then circled the mom and baby, with our candles, singing some sort of traditional song. I mumbled because I had absolutely no idea what was going on let along the words to the song. Once that was over everyone trooped back up the stairs, children young (too young) and old were given fireworks to go play with unsupervised and everyone sat around talking.

After the baby-shaking climax of the evening people began trickling out and we eventually followed suit. Getting back into the car and heading home we found that it was pretty much only a matter of two hours before it was time to eat suhoor so we stayed up again and then slept after fajr.

The Arab Way

I have also found that fasting is so much easier if you do it the traditional Arab way: stay up all night, sleep all day. Fasting is easy when you’re asleep. Of course I feel that this isn’t quite as pure as actually being awake while fasting, staying up all night is more of a necessity for me than a choice. Ever since I came here I haven’t gone to bed much before one in the morning most days, so when it comes down to it, staying up an extra two hours is much more logical then barely falling asleep and having to wake up and prepare the suhoor while in a zombie-like state. This could also be the reason that I haven’t missed as many fasts as I usually did during Ramadan. I certainly can’t break my fast in my sleep, and by the time I wake up theres no use for breaking it so close to sunset anyways.

Yes, I agree that this isn’t the “real” way to fast, so please refrain from telling me off in my comments section. I just haven’t figured out how, short of depriving myself of sleep, I could do it. Believe me when I say I was working hard on trying to get Mr MM’s and my sleep schedule to an eleven o’clock bedtime, but I hadn’t succeeded by the beginning of Ramadan.

So, here we are in the vital last ten days of Ramadan. Its been a mixed one, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but most certainly different from any Ramadan I’ve ever been through before.

I also must say that Ramadan rocks so much more when you have a spouse.

I hope everyone’s Ramadan has been a blessed one and Eid Kareem ya’ll!


6 responses to “Along a Ramadan

  1. I loved reading this! So descriptive, I feel like I was there with you! My sleep has been CA-RAZY because my kids get up for school at 5:20 so no time to sleep between sohoor and then, then my youngest’s bus comes around 7 20 so I can go back to sleep after that.

  2. I like this post – partly because I sort of knew what you would be writing.

    It’s quite true about Ramadan and the loss of it’s true meaning. Sleep, Sleep, Food and Sleep.

    Tee Hee about the high society uncle – I get a kick out of how everyone’s ‘rank’ in society is made such a big deal of in this part of the world. 🙂

  3. Very interesting post.

    I find that living in a muslim country/community makes it a bit easier since everyone is doing it. BUT I also feel that most people miss the boat about the meaning of Ramadhan which is really sad.

  4. souvenirsandscars

    That was a very, very good read! It really is different, isn’t it? And you get this feeling that you’re not quite sure if that’s a good different or a bad different. Lol. But, I will say that the azzemahs here (the invites) are nice. The spread the put out? Every faster’s fantasy 😉
    Btw. The baby party is too cool! Except the firecracker fiasco. I caught my then seven year old brother running around with a BB gun last eid :/

    Anywayss.. that was a long first post!
    Nice blog 😀


  5. Yep in Oman Ramadhans are not taken so seriously as they were taken, I every year find ppl eating in the lifts or the fire exits during this time!
    And in India I can’t still figure out if they are really fasting or just acting it out for the society!

  6. I miss fasting, but alas, eggo is preggo. I’m sure if Mr. B had his way, we’d be sleeping all day long and eating all night, but we’re rocking it Amriki style.
    I’m kind of scared of that little baby shin-dig you described. I’m sure when we arrive after the baby comes inshaAllah, umm…I’m going to be subjected to leaping over my child and well, I just don’t know how comfortable I am with this. Anyway, Peace!

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