Sunday, September 23, 2007

Egypt musings

I just spent 10 lovely days in Egypt, visiting with friends... doing some teaching, networking and consulting... and then joining in with an official tour group where we were given a more sanitised view of the country (pyramids and pharaohs and stuff). Our first full day there was the beginning Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Whenever I've been in the Middle East during Ramadan, it's been memorable. In Egypt, life is especially unique during this special season, so we had an interesting time. I thought I'd share here some vignettes of our Egyptian Ramadan experience.

- Muslim fasting is very different from the types of fasting I grew up with. Besides the fact that it goes on for a month non-stop (although there are a few exceptions, and many Muslims do extra fasts at other times in the year), it involves spurts of extremes. During daylight hours, no eating, no drinking, no smoking, no self-gratification of any sort. No brushing teeth or spitting, if you're really serious! Then when the sun sets, feasts and parties, big special meals shared by families and friends. And restaurants have special “break-fast” meals.

During our visit, the fast ended at roughly 6:00 p.m. each evening. Our first few days in Cairo, my parents and I managed to be out on the streets every evening at that time. They were completely vacant - except for some other foreigners and a few other people rushing to break the fast. We also passed several restaurants that had set up tables on the streets to serve food to the needy, and by 5:30 those tables were full of people patiently sitting there waiting until the mosques announced it was time to eat.

The neat thing about this was that Ramadan is meant to be a time of community and sharing. So every evening at the break-fast hour, we were offered dates by people we passed on the streets: even if we hadn't been fasting with them all day, we found ourselves breaking the fast with the rest of Cairo. One day, we wandered over to a restaurant that had a special break-fast meal and broke the fast there. It was an incredible amount of delicious food. You always start with dates, then usually soup, then lots of other good food! There are also special Ramadan sweets that are usually served only during this month. I was especially impressed by the speed of the meal. At 5:59, all the tables were covered with food, and people were patiently waiting to eat. At 6:30, we were the only customers left in the restaurant!

- Besides hunger motivating a rapid meal, people have places to be after eating. Daytime business hours are cut short and the time is often compensated at night. Some places don't open during the day at all, which is good because I did worry for the few that were doing manual labour in Egyptian desert heat but not even sipping water! But at night, I passed factories busy at midnight, stores and offices bustling with activity, construction workers hard at their projects, students running to and from lessons...

Ramadan is an important shopping season, since during the 3-day festival which marks the end of Ramadan, children are given new clothes and other gifts. We decided to join in the Ramadan shopping frenzy one night and my parents bought me a new blouse. The blouse is cute, but I think we really bought it more because of the 6 sales girls watching this foreigner checking out the Egyptian wardrobe. Egyptians often found it funny that I speak Arabic but not their type of Arabic – my Syrian-Portuguese-English accent is not one they usually hear! So the girls were talking with me, slowly, trying out some Syrian slang on me, and they were very eager to find me something I liked. They pointed me to the mirror, rummaged around to find the perfect colour, and flattered me to no end. I just didn't want to disappoint them by walking out empty handed. As I left with my new clothing, six Egyptian girls were smiling and wishing us a happy Ramadan.

- The daylight hours often end up being spent entirely in preparation for the nighttime hours. Shopping for food and cooking it, sleeping in anticipation of a busy night, getting to where one needs to be in order to break the fast with family or friends. Add to this hot weather, hunger and thirst, and the daylight hours in Cairo were filled with a sense of urgency. Many of my Arab friends have told me that Ramadan is their favourite time of year, a time of joy, goodwill, family unity, and heightened spirituality. I do believe this is true for many, but it is also has its share of irritability and grumpiness.

Members of our group witnessed quite a few car accidents and street fights (no actual blows thrown, but lots of grabbing, pushing, and loads of shouting!). We saw a man on the street, apparently a pedestrian knocked over by a car which then abandoned him. This was right around 6:00. The good thing was that apparently about a dozen men took it upon themselves to divert and direct traffic, call the authorities, and look after the man.

Crossing streets during Ramadan, especially during the hour or so before the break-fast, is a sport for thrill-seekers, that's for sure! Or really good practice for an athlete needing to work on sprinting. One afternoon, we caught a taxi across town at 4:30. Our driver was apparently very hungry and eager to get somewhere for a big home-cooked meal, because I have never, ever, ever experienced such a fast taxi ride. Cairo's a huge city, and this route would usually take about ½ an hour in light traffic. Well, he did it in 15 minutes, pre-break-fast traffic (i.e. the king of rush hours). He swung around cars moving not quite fast enough, created lanes where I didn't think he'd fit, sped up to pass pedestrians before their path crossed his, and drove probably 80 miles-an-hour through an urban tunnel... It was a miracle we arrived in one pace, but I figure it was cheaper than a roller coaster ride with the same thrill. Anyway, I was impressed by his Formula1 driving skill.

- And a few other little experiences that might not have been specific to Ramadan... Poverty is getting pretty bad in Cairo these days and there were hundreds of women selling little packs of tissues to try to scratch out a living. Some of them were too elderly to even stand, sitting on a streetside with a pile of tissues; others were trying to make a sale while comforting a baby in their arms. I decided that tissue-purchases in Egypt can be precious. The first woman we bought from shook my hand and kissed it and wished blessings upon me. Then a block later there was another woman selling tissues, and it was hard to walk by her and not buy anything.

In a tourist town the other day, two boys came up to me and said hello in English. I responded in Arabic and they walked alongside me for about 10 minutes chatting away. They told me their names and asked for some money. I didn't have any money but they kept asking. So I asked them where were their parents? Here in town. Were they brothers? Yes, please, madam, give us money. Do they go to school? Actually, our father has traveled. Traveled where? To America. Oh, if your father's in America, you don't need any money! No, madam, he doesn't send us anything. I'm sorry, I wish I could help but I don't have anything. Our mother is also gone... yes, we sleep on the street, please madam, give us money... And so on for 10 minutes. Was their story true? Well, as it kept growing, I kind of doubt it, but I was struck by the place in the Bible where it says if someone asks you for help and you just say “God bless you and be on your way,” you're not really helping them. I felt I was doing that, but had no idea what else to do.

Maybe that summarises my time in Egypt: it's a needy country but I feel unable to say more than “I'll pray for you, God bless you” and go off on my way.

1 comment:

Mom said...

The October 8, 2007 edition of TIME magazine describes a new profession in Brazil- the “motorbike medic.” Last year, these first-responders wove courageously through the hectic traffic of Greater São Paulo, which the author likens to “a deadly video game,” in an attempt to help the victims of the 73,202 accidents that took place there. So, you’d have thought that Cairo taxi ride would have been old hat for us, wouldn’t you? But while we were weaving in and out of our lane, nearly nipping cars and pedestrians alike, I looked over at Dad. Even his knuckles were white!

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