A most exceptional month
In Egypt, the spiritual and the celebratory of Ramadan go hand in hand, Azza Radwan Sedky writes
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Ramadan Gana is an Egyptian song, about 70 years old or so, that celebrates the arrival of the holy month of Ramadan. "Ramadan is here and its arrival is joyous," it begins.
Ramadan begins this year late in May . It entails a gruelling sunrise-to-sunset fast for its duration: no drinking, no eating, no sex, and no insolence.
You would think that Muslims around the world would dread Ramadan, fear its restrictions and shiver in anticipation of the draining and debilitating fast. And yet, it is amazing how Muslims await the month's arrival with anticipation, sing in its glory and love its spirit.
This juxtaposition between Ramadan's binding restrictions and the delight in its arrival is not easily comprehensible, but the giving and the goodness associated with Ramadan transcend limitations and turn it into a phenomenal month.
Fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, making it a fundamental part of the Muslim faith. The aim is to feel empathy toward those who go hungry and are in need and to elevate oneself above physical demands. It also revolves around asking for repentance and seeking forgiveness.
It is not an easy feat to fast in the summer heat – no water and no nourishment – and no pills, no shots, no eye drops, no tea or coffee. In many parts of the world, June's scorching heat is a killer. With the longer summer daylight hours, this year Muslims will fast for what seems forever: In Vancouver, the daily fast will last for over 17 hours; in Reykjavik, 21 hours; in Berlin, 19 hours.
In Egypt, where I grew up, Muslims (and Christians for that matter) await and enjoy Ramadan. The atmosphere is merry with Ramadan lights and lanterns hanging from balconies and along the streets, and Happy Ramadan photos adorn social media.
It is an ongoing month-long party where Egyptians, after breaking their fast, eat to their hearts' content and stay up until the wee hours of the morning. They party in the window of time allowed: meeting friends at 10 and 11 p.m., then to bed at sunrise after a hearty early morning meal. A little sleep, and then it's off to work. Although, Ramadan enforces a leniency in the workplace. During the daytime hours, those who fast are often lethargic and unable to function, arriving at work later than usual and going home earlier than usual.
In Canada, it's a whole different ball game. The spiritual fulfilment is there, but the celebratory part is non-existent. You maintain the usual hours at work. Whilst still teaching, I often broke my fast in the midst of a class by eating a dried date or having a sip of water, a little thing to keep me going until I headed home.
But in Egypt, the month of Ramadan goes beyond what any other Muslim country can offer. The spiritual and the celebratory atmospheres go hand in hand. Even on television, the best programs and series are produced only for Ramadan. In its own way, Ramadan in Egypt resembles Christmas festivities in the West, for Ramadan is as festive and as it is giving.
Many Arab and Muslim tourists visit Egypt during the holy month because of that atmosphere. The spirit of Ramadan is exemplified at the Al-Hussein Mosque. The square is packed until sunrise when the fasting begins; visitors roam around buying knick-knacks, pray at the mosque, drink tea and coffee at neighbouring cafés along the square, and have their early meal.
In Egypt, no one breaks their fast alone. It's the one time of the year when the whole family sits at a meal together. Lavish dishes that someone slaved over for hours on end will be consumed by friends and relatives in one sitting, but the party is just beginning; three or four rounds of teas and desserts make up for the lost consumption and caffeine-free hours.
It is also a time of year when many Muslims are on their best behaviour: They complete reading the Koran, they pray diligently and they help those in need. Streets and squares around the country are filled with "the tables of the merciful" with free breakfasts. It manifests the social solidarity that Ramadan is known for – the wealthy providing for those in need.
Ramadan calls for helping the needy and understanding the underprivileged. Some, because they can't fast for medical reasons, give to charity instead. Many give because it is the time of year when, according to Islam, God listens to their prayers and acts upon them. And many more apply Islamic guidelines and donate zakat, a portion of their income similar to a Christian tithe.
Growing up in the 1950s in Heliopolis, Cairo, it didn't matter who fasted and who didn't in my family. My mother fasted the whole month; I fasted for a mediocre half day, if at all; my father fasted on and off; my brothers had their share of reasons not to fast, but we all ate the sunset meal together. Then we sat and listened to the radio as it spat out one glorious soap opera after another. I cherished my Ramadan lantern and showed it off to the dozens of unexpected visitors who came and went throughout the night.
Ramadan is an exceptional month everywhere. It does not emulate the grudge and the hatred we often see. It exudes joy, warmth and love. Happy Ramadan to all.
Azza Radwan Sedky lives in North Vancouver.