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August 22, 2011

My childhood's Ramadan and Eid

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Ramadan and Eid bring to me so many happy memories. My experience of being a child in Cairo during the month of Ramadan in the 1950’s can easily fill up several memory chips.

Weeks before Ramadan the streets of Cairo are transformed. A make shift bakery-oven is built at street corners by freelance bakers who want to bake and sell fresh Konafa – shredded wheat which families will buy and cook into a  delicious dessert with sugar or honey syrup and nuts and  raisins.

No wonder children used to look forward to Ramadan, I thought.

Yes Ramadan is a month of fasting for Muslims but also a month long of festivities and socializing hard to find in other cultures and religious traditions. People fast in the day hours and pray and feast in the evenings.

The streets of Cairo get ready for Ramadan with flashing colorful lights and decorations. The excitement and anticipation grows as the first day of Ramadan approaches. Everyone is glued to the radio for the announment by the Grand Mufti that the first of Ramadan would be tomorrow following the sighting of the moon marking a new lunar month. The s happens for the first day of Eid.

Every act in Ramadan is turned into a beautiful social event.

Waking up for Sahoor (an early morning meal which is taken before fasting at dawn) is done collectively on the drum beating of the Musaharati (a person entrusted with the task of waking people for Sahoor). He sings and tells a story on the beat of a small hand held drum walking a few city blocks. Another Musaharati does the same job in the next city block and so on.

The Musaharati is a volunteer who is often a retiree. He gets his honorarium at the end of the month. It is a male job as he spends two hours in dark streets calling the sleeping to wake up to eat before they start a day of fasting.

You stop eating when you hear the cannon from the hills surrounding Cairo announcing that a day of fasting has begun. A few minutes later you will hear the call for the Dawn prayer from several mosques near you.

You also break your fast when you hear the cannon at sunset. Few minutes later you will hear the call for the Sunset prayer.

On the weekends I may have Iftar at the homes of other members of the family. Thirty or more people will gather and the host will treat them to the variety of food and dessert that you can only dream of.

Ramadan was a happy time for children; they are too young to fast but they share all the festivities.

After Iftar parties they go together with "fanoos" or lanterns to sing some traditional Ramadan songs. Sometimes they walk to houses in their neighborhood in search of sweets and in other times they go with adult members of the family to the mosque for the special daily Ramadan night prayers; Tarawh. Other children will play in the streets with balls made of old cloths. Lanterns give light hanging from balconies or in the hands of children passing by.

When the use of radio was spread the Egyptians invented daily radio shows which broadcast after Iftar. Some were based on the famed tale of One Thousand and One Nights and others were based on trivia questions with prizes given to winners after the month of Ramadan is over.

When TV took over from the radio and as TV channels spread far and wide, too many daily soap operas were produced in the Arab world for Ramadan and the quality decreased exponentially. It is a sad affair! Today Egyptian children and families during Ramadan are exposed to poor TV entertainment while excellence and beauty are often missed.

Today in Cairo visiting families to break the fast during Ramadan is a heavy burden on most families because heavy evening traffic just before Iftar time and after.

As a child I used to look forward for Eid-ul-Fitrl; the feast of breaking the fast. My parents made sure that all my needs for new cloth and shoes and that of my siblings are met at Eid. I do not know how they did it but they did. Somehow all my clothes and shoes will be near their life expectancy during the last week of Ramadan!

My father took us to shop for new clothes and new shoes. It is a must exercise. On the day of Eid all children wear new clothes. Some would be walking with sore feet; too small shoes which were bought in a hurry.

Toys were secondary to clothes and shoes and children then did not mind, learning a life lesson called “priorities”.

My father used to make giving to the poor a family affair in Ramadan. He would gather the family and discuss how we will pay this year Zakah (poor due) and to whom. It was hands on experience that I never forgot.

Visiting members of our extended families over three days of Eid was most enjoyable as we collect money from every adult. Eating sweets and cookies were secondary.

If I sound nostalgic about my Ramadan and Eid in Cairo, I am.

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