Ramadan Kareem

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It’s about 5:30 and I know I am on a fool’s errand. I want to find a school notebook and some index cards so I can rewrite the notes from today’s Arabic class and make flash cards to learn my numbers.

But during Ramadan at this time of day, you can see the lights going off and the shop doors closing as folks dash home for iftar, the first meal of the evening to break the fast many have observed since dawn.

As I turn a corner, a policeman pauses from directing traffic, points to his wrist and asks issa’a kam? I’m only two days into my Arabic class, so I can’t even say “the big hand’s on the…” Instead, I walk up to him and show him my watch (a handsome Seiko diving watch, I might add, with a gleaming orange face… a very nice going-away gift from my pal Jeff). The cop seems relieved – it’s 5:45. In just five minutes he can eat again.

There’s definitely something special about this time of day during this “month of blessing.” In the golden light, when the muezzins (the voices from the mosques who call the faithful to prayer) announce the arrival of dusk, there are few cars on the road. There’s a sense of calm in the city, as if 18 million people (minus a couple million Coptic Christians) are breathing a collective sigh of relief as they gather with their families for a sunset meal of dates and other sweets. This gets their blood sugar back up after a long day.

Fasting, one of the five pillars of Islam, means no food and no water during daylight hours for the four weeks of Ramadan. In this arid climate, I imagine dehydration is a hazard. But people make up for it by eating and drinking (no alcohol, mind you) late into the night. Cairenes complain of putting on Ramadan pounds from all the traditional sweets.

Coffee drinkers observing the fast have to get their fix in pre-dawn quaffs. Restaurants serve no alcohol for the month (except in the hotels where tourists and expats gather).

For university students, the fast means sleep deprivation (many stay up late to watch the special Ramadan soap operas on TV) followed by hunger. So afternoon classes are pretty low energy, with stomachs rumbling and eyelids drooping.

I’m disappointed that I didn’t arrive in Cairo early enough to make friends with Egyptians who might invite me to their home at Ramadan. As I walk along the deserted streets during iftar, I’m struck by what a lonesome enterprise this Cairo adventure can often be. All these families and friends gathering together, while mine are scattered across a continent five thousand miles away.

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