Ramadan 2010: Through the eyes of a stranger

I arrived in Cairo just as Ramadan was starting. Before I left Italy, where I am from, some friends made fun of me, certain that one month of Ramadan in Cairo would kill me. Even if they did not really know how or why, their taunting sounded plausible.

On a popular traveller’s forum, a member asked if it would be “nuts” to visit Cairo during Ramadan. Replies to his question mostly assured him there would be no problem. Nevertheless, the average traveller usually faces some of these most common fears: not to be able to find a drop of alcohol, being pressured to fast, facing starving short-tempered locals, and being generally tried by hunger and thirst.

As it turns out, all this is bogus. Most Egyptians make a conscious effort to be extra nice during the holy month. A friend of mine explained to me that it is part of the jihad, the daily struggle to be a better person, kinder to strangers, and more loving to those who are close.  “Jihad is smiling or playing with a child on the street, always making an effort to feel better towards those around you, and we must do this in particular during Ramadan, which requires a double effort under the strain of fasting.” I do not know if this particular theological view is shared by many others, but I think one can easily notice that many Egyptians go to a greater length to try to be useful to the visitor during Ramadan.

While eating or drinking in the streets during Ramadan is quite an indelicate thing to do, you will hardly find a Muslim that cares about whether you are fasting or not. It is your business, as much as fasting is their personal business with God. But I must say that, although I do not fast, I have, for some reason, been eating remarkably little during the daytime.

One of the biggest differences between Europeans and Egyptians is that the latter seem able to have a good night out without Bacchus’s company. How this happens might be incomprehensible to the European. For any European, going out means having any number of drinks, depending on the company, the place, and the day of the week. This may range from mind-dumbing binge drinking, to the more pleasurable and wise drink or two.

Drinking is a social ritual which temporarily softens the barriers of inhibition, restraint, and timidity. For many it has become a necessity, a precondition essential for bonding with others. It seems that the further north you move, the more Europeans become reserved and respectful, and the more they drink when they go out. I believe not a single Englishman would have any friends of any sort if he did not drink. Nor would you ever see a German smiling if not in front of a pint of lager.

Hence a European's fear of spending an entire month in a foreign city without drinks. The first result that appears when one googles “Cairo Ramadan stranger” is an article about where people can get beer during the holy month. There are plenty of places. But, regardless of the availability of alcohol, I found that I was able to thoroughly enjoy the many concerts and events Cairo hosts during Ramadan in the Egyptian, non-alcoholic way.

This month-long Christmas is truly something I would advise anyone to experience at least once in an Arab country.

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