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november 17, 2004 -> a fast trip to egypt 

We had to go to Egypt to get my shoes. At least, that was the excuse. 

I had left them in a dodgy hotel in Addis Ababa, and Keir and Robyn (who traveled with us to see the tribes of southern Ethiopia) had been kind enough to track them down and carry them back to their home in Cairo.  They offered us a place to stay if we came to visit Egypt, and we couldn't resist.  (Thanks guys!)  Unfortunately, the shoes still smelled like goat turds. 

We arrived on the first day of ‘Ramadan.'  Woohoo!  During Ramadan, pious Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink anything from dawn to dusk.  No snacks.  No sips of water.  Nothing.  Even sex and smoking is forbidden during the fast.  This might be manageable if you were a Muslim living in Europe or North America.  But imagine what it must be like for the Muslims in the scorching, dry heat of North Africa and the Middle-East?  Like most religious fasts, Ramadan has become something of a farce.  Originally conceived as a time of deep spiritual reflection, and as a shared trial uniting Muslims, it is now a month-long cycle of daily starvation followed by late-night and early-morning binges.  If you are a devout Catholic, it probably sounds like Lent.  After the prayers that accompany ‘iftar' (the breaking of the fast) the streets erupt with eating, tea drinking (not beer), ‘sheesha' smoking (technically forbidden), backgammon playing, and for the women – shopping.  The end of Ramadan is like Christmas in the West, a time for celebration and gift-giving.    

Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic (lunar) calendar.  Since the lunar calendar is 11 days shorter than the solar calendar, the dates for Ramadan ‘move' each year.  On the last day of Ramadan, Muslims believe that the Quran was revealed to Muhammad in 610 CE.  The Quran states that one may eat and drink at any time during the night “until you can plainly distinguish a white thread from a black thread by the daylight.”  Today, a call from the ‘muezzin' atop the minaret lets the faithful know when the fast begins and ends.  We wondered about the Muslim immigrants to Scandinavia, where 24-hour sunlight or darkness would make for an excruciatingly difficult or laughably easy fast depending on the year! 

Last year, we were in Turkey during Ramadan.  We hardly noticed it.  Though a vast majority of Turks are Muslim, the government is secular.  This political division between mosque and state, together with liberal reforms (many enacted by Ataturk), has fostered a Turkish brand of Islam that is decidedly moderate.  This does not mean that Turks do not believe, or that they do not observe Ramadan.  But life in Turkey does not stop during Ramadan, and there are many who do not fast at all.  Only once, the night of the All-Night Muslim Dance Party (see my Rambling, “Bucha-No-Rest”), did the observation of the fast inconvenience us in anyway.  In fact, Ramadan was a bonus for us, as we were lucky enough to be invited to a fast-breaking dinner with our new friends, the Minisker family.   

Egypt is much more conservative than Turkey.  Unlike Western-dressed Istanbul, most women in Cairo wear long smocks and headscarfs, and it is fairly common to see women in ‘chadors' - the black, full-body covering that the Taliban imposed on Afghan women.  It has not always been this way.  In the 1970's, the women's liberation movement led to the discarding of the headscarf and a large increase in the number of women working in the service industry.  In the 80's and 90's, however, a resurgent Islamic faith reestablished the conservative (and some would say, sexist) norms.  Today, a woman without a headscarf attracts a lot of unwanted attention: salacious looks from young men titillated by her ‘slack' morals, and disapproving glares from elderly men and women. 

Everything we read about Islam tells us that it is a religion founded on egalitarianism, but there is no doubt that in Egypt, chauvinism reigns.  There are no local women in the sheesha bars at night.  Men can wear what they want.  I will never forget the greasy-haired young man who sauntered confidently past me, wearing tight pants and a fancy shirt unbuttoned to the belly, and dragging his chador-wearing wife behind.  (Left with only a sliver of their face visible, many young women wear ridiculously thick eyeliner and mascara.)  Though set in the first half of the 20th century, Nobel-prizing winning author Naghuib Mafouz's famous “Cairo Trilogy” tells the story of an ultra-conservative family ruled by an arrogant, adulterous, and frequently drunk father.  It is an obvious critique of Egyptian society (though not of Islam itself), and it angered many.  Mafouz barely survived an assassination attempt carried out by a knife-wielding zealot.   

Ramadan was killing us.  Most of the restaurants (and many of the supermarkets) did not open until iftar – which was usually around six.  Good luck finding breakfast, unless you want to get up at 5 am for the pre-fast meal of ‘suhoor.'  Many days we forced to skip lunch – involuntarily participating in the fast – and were ravenous by dinner time.  Since many people stay up late smoking, eating, and hanging out with friends, few stores of any type open before ten or eleven.  For the lazy or the unemployed, the best way to ‘beat the system' is to stay up late, eat suhoor before dawn, and then sleep away most of the day.  Something tells me that is not what Muhammad intended.  All the ‘partying' at night (which includes terrifyingly loud firecrackers) also means that it is pretty difficult to get a good night's sleep.  Finally, it is impossible to get a beer, which after a long day of desert tourism, sounds pretty good, I can tell you.   

There are a few very nice things about traveling in Egypt during Ramadan.  First, no one smokes on the buses.  We have heard horror stories of long-distance rides in a smoke-filled bus.  As in the rest of Africa, Egyptians don't like to roll down the windows; they might catch cold.  Second, Muslims are supposed to be on their best behavior: dishonest statements, slander, or covetousness nullifies the spiritual benefits of the fast.  This does not mean that they will not try to “screw the tourist,” but that they will not try to screw them nearly as much.  In general, we found the Egyptians remarkably friendly.  People had warned that we would face a lot of anti-American sentiment, but we experienced very little.  When we were confused or unsure, someone always stepped up to help.  In fact, the people in every Muslim country we have visited have been exceptionally amiable.  Kindness to strangers, they explain, is a part of the faith.  There is also, I believe, a strong desire on the part of Muslims to show their Western visitors that there is much more to the Middle-East than terrorists and ‘jihad.' 

TGIF's was packed with Egyptians.  (They should call it TGIT's, as Friday - not Saturday - is the first day of the Muslim weekend.)  During Ramadan, the American restaurant had served a large buffet for iftar – there were simply too many hungry (and impatient) Muslims to let them order a la carte.  All around us, happy locals were gobbling large portions of fried food and (rather incongruously) smoking the sheesha.  After weeks of hummus, babaghanoush, olive paste, and pita bread, a big, juicy hamburger was exactly what we needed.  Ramadan was finally over, and we celebrated with a tall, frosty beer.