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Guest Post by David Gilbert
How do you take a sprawling metroplex of 20 million and make it stand on its head? Easy, you bring in the month Ramadan and watch, with much confusion if you’re a foreigner, as everything you were slowly growing accustomed to about living in a Muslim country changes drastically for a month.
“Ramadan Kariim” is the typical Arabic greeting you hear shouted on the streets and exchanged in storefronts during month of Ramadan, as Muslims fast from food and drink throughout the daylight hours. In Arabic, it means “Ramadan is generous”, but in terms of culture you could very well say “Ramadan Ghariib” or “Ramadan is strange”, because things are about to get just a little bit different from the norm.
In Cairo, Egypt, where I live, I’ve grown accustomed to packed, dusty streets filled with the scent of schwarma sizzling on spits, bustling street side coffee shops cloaked in the aroma of shisha, and being crammed like sardines into oven hot metro cars at all hours of the day and night. But, in came Ramadan at the beginning of June and life, quite literally, got flipped upside down. Cairo, known as one of those cities that never sleeps, to my surprise slumbers quite peacefully during Ramadan, granted, just not during the night. Walk the streets during the late morning and early afternoon just to see a majority of storefronts shut tight, not a single waft of ful beans or falafel to be smelt, and even Koshary Restaurants, the national dish and pride of Egypt, are all but extinct during the month of Ramadan! The biggest abnormality? Hop on the metro in the evening and for once there’s enough room for a small football match and empty seats as far as the eye can see!
Dusty streets usually only boasting a décor of faded billboards and grey, sand blasted concrete high-rises are now alive with the vibrant and glowing Fawasiis lanterns, something along the Ramadan equivalent to western Christmas lights found in all shapes and sizes. If you’re among the minority that finds itself not fasting during the month, you may very well discover your own eating habits, or at least locational preferences, changing during the month. After all, eating lunch in a back alley behind your gym is far more respectful than chowing down in front of your neighbors who may be just a little hungry.
The peculiarities of Ramadan are far from unique to Cairo. The whole Arab world expectedly morphs and flexes during the month of Ramadan. For instance, in Sudan you would find entire villages and communities pouring into the streets at sunset to break the fast together, just don’t expect to eat the meal you prepared as you’ll likely place it in front of your neighbor’s family and vice versa. In Yemen, the country becomes all but nocturnal, and even Dubai, with its reputation for city lights and modern night life, slows down during Ramadan as people opt for quieter family times over the usual fast pace.
Regardless of its peculiarities, Ramadan is a month full of unique experiences for locals, tourists, and resident expats. The norm is shed for something new and special, and while one might indeed say Ramadan Kariim, for those new to life during such a month in the Muslim world they might very well also say Ramadan Ghariib.
David is forever a linguist in training working with Arabic and currently striving for something between fluency and just being able to converse about the wonders of peanut butter with his friends in Cairo. He dreams of being like Milo Thatch, and sometimes puts his musings on www.dstack.co.