An array of lights twinkled over spice shops and stores. Rainbows of colourful scarves and beaded necklaces lined the streets, while glass and tin lanterns gently sprinkled the darkness with hues of red, yellow, green and blue.
Ramadan, the most important Muslim holiday, is celebrated for the whole month and it changes almost everything about Cairo. Ramadan is a time to get closer to God, making self-sacrifices to be awake and aware of your choices. People will fast all day and every day during the month of Ramadan. This means not only no eating, but also no drinking (not even a sip of water).
I quickly learned the truth about Ramadan during my time in Egypt. Sherif, my Egyptian guide, wouldn’t take a sip of water while he was out showing us temple after temple, sight after sight, completely drenched in sweat. The August heat in Cairo was overwhelming – I couldn’t imagine not having anything to drink or eat all day in this climate. I don’t think I would be able to move . . . the heat was so exhausting, sometimes sucking all the energy out of me by the end of the day. However, it is through this self-restraint that Muslims purify themselves.
Sherif would take us to grocery stores before long bus trips in order for us to stock up on all sorts of snacks and drinks. As we all ate in front of him, I really admired his unflinching self-discipline. I knew that for me, fasting for an entire month would be so challenging and extremely unpleasant.
However, Ramadan comes with not only great constraints, but also great togetherness. Socially, Ramadan in Egypt is a festival. It is their faith’s most festive holiday, one in which family and friends stay up late feasting and socializing.
As soon as the sun set during one of our bus trips, the streets became completely bare. Sometimes we’d drive along the same roads earlier that day when traffic was absolutely catastrophic. But not when the sun set. The streets became empty. This was the time for everyone to feast and get together for the night, filling their bellies with food and laughter.
Sherif would sit on the steps next to the driver and start drinking a juice box. He’d unpack his lunch bag, pulling out sandwiches, crackers, and chocolates. We would all offer him some of the food we had on us as well, which consisted of Pringles, Twix, Nutella, animal crackers, and of course, water.
As the rest of us dozed off in our seats, the two of them would chat and laugh amongst themselves, their Arabic drifting in and out.
Despite traveling to Egypt during the most uncomfortably hot season and recent resignation of the prime minister, for me, August 2011 proved to be a captivating time to visit. The contrast between the chaos of rioting and the composure of tradition was very visible. Culture contrasts such as these provide the most interesting and fulfilling traveling experiences in my opinion, because I’m experiencing a little bit of everything that isn’t always possible.
Watching the lanterns of Ramadan sway from balconies and trees was captivating. In materials from copper and brass to recycled plastic and tin, with various hues and degrees of brightness, Cairo was positively glowing.