Ramadan is a special time of the year when family becomes the center of most activities, from eating together every day at iftar tables, to staying in or hanging out together in the evenings and gathering to eat Ramadan’s delicious sweets, praying or reading the Quran.
As for the many expats who find themselves in a foreign country during Ramadan, myself included, we do not only miss the family gatherings, but we also get a sense of nostalgia for childhood and memories of the holy month in our home countries. Celebrating particular traditions can be difficult, especially if you do not have family or a network of friends around you who were brought up on the same practices.
“Family gatherings are one of the most precious aspects of Ramadan that I miss here … it is simply priceless,” says Lana Nawajha, a Palestinian student from Gaza studying at Cairo University. She adds that what she also misses the most is Palestinian food and the memories she attaches to it. “When I was young, we were always so excited when my mum turned the pan upside down to serve the traditional makloubeh dish. I try to make it, but the taste is not quite the same as my mum’s; yet it helps [to cope],” Nawajha adds.
This year, we spoke to several expats, who have been spending Ramadan in Egypt, who share how they have been coping, away from their home countries’ traditions and their families’ spirit.
Palestinian girls pose for a picture with a Ramadan lantern in front of the Dome of the Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem - AFP/Ahmad Gharabli
Bringing a piece of home to Ramadan practices
One way Arab expats cope with Ramadan in Egypt is by bringing in a piece of home, incorporating traditions in their new homes. It might bring some of the elements of their own culture and share them with their neighbors, friends and coworkers; whether it is a favorite traditional meal that they are used to having, or certain types of songs that they are used to listening to during the month.
For Ghada Lubbad, a stay-at-home Palestinian mother of two who is married to an Egyptian and has been living in Egypt since 2013, Ramadan in her new home was a tough experience until she made some friends, and incorporated some of the traditions and dishes of her home country into her new life. “My husband spends most of Ramadan at work and his family doesn’t live in Egypt, so I am usually alone with my kids. Ramadan used to be just like any other month until I became friends with my Syrian neighbors,” Lubbad says. “We have iftar together almost every day in Ramadan. We cook Syrian and Palestinian dishes. Food does not only have the ability to stir memories, but it can also provide a real source of comfort … Whenever I am homesick, I cook something Palestinian.”
Lubbad’s home traditions also expand beyond the holy month; she has been keen on celebrating Eid al-Fitr (the religious festival marking the end of Ramadan) with her mother’s date cookies, although this year is her first Ramadan after her mother’s passing a few months ago. “I dedicate the last three days of Ramadan to prepare for Eid al-Fitr. I buy the chocolate and candies and start preparing for the date cookies following my mother’s recipe. I share these cookies with my neighbors,” Lubbad says. “My mother used to send me the ingredients from Gaza whenever she could, so that I could still remember the smell of her cookies.”
Rasem El-Attasi, a Syrian living in Egypt since 2012 and a member of a committee that supports Syrian expats in Egypt, has also been keen on keeping her home country’s Ramadan traditions; from social gatherings to sweets. She is also trying to bring some of those practices into her new home.
Ramadan in Syria - Reuters
“Every Ramadan, we organize several events to bring the Syrians and the Egyptians together. We invite Egyptians to these events so that they can learn about Syrian culture. They enjoy the Syrian food, so we offer sweets like kunafa and halawet el-jibn (sweet cheese rolls) as well as Syrian appetizers like msabaha hummus and Ramadan beverages like jallab, tamer hindi and sous-vide. We also have Syrian singers who usually play the oud and sing old Syrian songs during these events. Everyone enjoys their time and we feel that they bring us closer to each other as Syrians and Egyptians,” says Attasi.
The idea of incorporating your home country’s traditions and staying faithful to childhood Ramadan memories becomes much easier if you are part of a community and not just acting as one person longing for home. Salsabel Besaiso, a Palestinian journalist who was born in Egypt but had the opportunity to spend some Ramadan months in the Gaza strip, says, “I am lucky enough to have some relatives in Egypt, so I visit them during Ramadan as hosting iftar gathering rotates between the family members. The first day of Ramadan is usually spent at the eldest family member’s house.” Salsabel also adds that her family tries to keep a Palestinian lifestyle as much as they can during these gatherings, “We cook Palestinian food throughout the month, whether for sohour or iftar, and share it with our friends and neighbors so that they get to know something about the Palestinian culture.”
Besaiso also participates in cultural activities organized by the Palestinian Embassy in Cairo, like other Muslim countries’ embassies, to celebrate the holy month and help fill the void of loneliness during Ramadan. “Every year in Ramadan, the embassy organizes an event at the Cairo Opera House. They bring Palestinian singers and bands to perform Dabkka (a traditional Levantine dance). Despite the nostalgia, we enjoy our time and meet other Palestinians,” says Besaiso. “If I get invited to other countries’ Ramadan events, I always go to learn more about their culture.”
I personally experienced these nostalgic Ramadan feelings twice in my life; once, when I was studying in Jordan and the second was when I moved to live in Egypt away from my family in Gaza, Palestine. Therefore, I can definitely relate to the feelings of Arab expats living in Egypt.
When I was living in the university dorm in Jordan, together with my classmates who came from various Arab countries, we would have iftar every day and plan the menu in the same way our mothers used to do back home. Each one of us would be responsible for cooking one dish, and we did our best to follow our mothers’ recipes. I remember trying Bahraini sweets and Sudanese food for the first time in my life, and they were very delicious. My Bahraini friend used to cook us Bahraini halawa and ballalet with milk, while our Sudanese friend cooked wayka or dried okra in yogurt. Iftar used to rotate between our rooms, and this was our way to imitate the family gatherings and visits we used to have back home.
I moved to Egypt a few years later, and I kept one Ramadan tradition that is close to my heart. Back home, before Ramadan every year I used to sit with my mother to list our favorite dishes to prepare during the month. We would then categorize them into groups: soups, appetizers, main dishes and sweets. She would hang it on the refrigerator, and so do I in my house in Egypt. I wanted to incorporate the traditions of my home country in my daily life, so I have been cooking molokhia waraq on the first day of Ramadan since I moved here two years ago, just like my mom and many Palestinian mothers do. They believe that the dish’s green tint on the table reflects that the whole year would be prosperous. My Egyptian neighbor is now the biggest fan of my molokhia dish.
Getting the Egyptian Ramadan vibe
Another way expats deal with Ramadan away from their home country is by learning more about the culture of the country they are living in, and really immersing themselves innew experiences and ways of celebrating.
This year, expat student Lana Nawajha decided to create a Ramadan-ish vibe in her dorm room, incorporating some little traditions that are customary of Ramadan in Egypt. “I went out and bought myself three big stars with various patterns on them like the ones I see in Egypt and I hung them around my dorm room, I also bought a little lantern,” she says.
Ramadan in Syria - AFP
And when the cultures are a bit similar, it is even easier to feel at home. Zakwan Abu El-Kheir, a Syrian businessman and owner of Abu El-Kheir company for Syrian foods has been living in Egypt for the past six years. He says that Syrians adapted in Egypt very easily given the cultural similarities between the two countries. “Almost 99 percent of the Syrian traditions are witnessed in Egypt, from the fast-breaking charity tables to the misaharaty who wakes people up for sohopr during Ramadan nights.” However, Abu El-Kheir explains that the charity tables in Syria are not as big and widespread as the ones in Egypt. “In Egypt, people join the charity tables not only because they are poor, but they consider it as a gathering and a way to share the blessings of this holy month with others. It is more of an activity in Egypt,” he explains.
Attasi agrees with Abu El-Kheir on the similarities between the Egyptian and Syrian cultures, especially when it comes to religious customs like reading the Quran and singing religious songs. He also explains that he likes the sense of giving among Egyptians during Ramadan. “In my first Ramadan in Egypt, I was amazed to see groups of young volunteers in the streets at the iftar time distributing water, dates and juice boxes to those breaking their fast.”
Sally Osama, an Egyptian-Iraqi journalist who spent most of her life in Iraq, was introduced to the Egyptian Ramadan spirit in her home country by her father. As such, traditions specific to Egypt were anything but new to her when she moved. “In Iraq, Ramadan was different. We did not have this special festive spirit that you feel in Egypt, and it was all about the religious activities. I don’t remember seeing any decorations in the streets or even the traditional colorful Ramadan fawanees (lanterns). But my father wanted to bring the Egyptian traditions to our experience, so he used to get us fawanees and to teach us some Egyptian songs,” Osama recalls. “In our neighborhood, there were some Egyptian families, as children we used to gather after iftar and sing the Egyptian song ‘Halo ya halo, Ramadan karim ya halo’ and some Iraqi songs as well.”
Ramadan away from home and family is definitely difficult; however, the Egyptian spirit does help make most of us enjoy the holy month, even if in a different way than that we are used to. Tala Ibrahim, a Palestinian student at Cairo University, is very excited about spending Ramadan in Egypt for the first time. “This year is my first Ramadan outside of Palestine. It is tough, but I am trying to have as much fun as I can with my friends at the dorm, and to get to know their culture and traditions,” Ibrahim adds. “We always hear how special Ramadan is in Egypt, and now I have the opportunity to experience it myself. I am planning to visit Al Muizz li-Din [Illah El-Fatimi] street as well as Al-Azhar and Khan el-Khalili areas,” she adds. Besaiso wholeheartedly agrees with Tala and says, “Fasting in Egypt is a joyous experience and the feeling the month brings is very special with all these street decorations, Ramadan tents and activities around the city to celebrate the month.”