Ramadan Lanterns - Egypt Today/Hassam Samir
As a child growing up in the United Kingdom, I never got to play with a Ramadan fanous. Any packages brought over by friends or visiting relatives from Egypt invariably yielded the requisite roumi cheese and basterma—never my much-prayed-for fanous.
Don’t get me wrong, being deprived in my youth of a shiny colored lantern to swing around and show off to friends hasn’t ruined my life or turned me into a crazed serial killer. If anything, now that I am (considerably) older, it has made me appreciate all the things you can’t have the other 11 months of the year.
Looking back, the fanous—or lack thereof—defined what it meant to be celebrating Ramadan abroad. It was London during the 1980s, a London with a much smaller Muslim community than there is now. There were no satellite channels beaming mosalsalat 24 hours a day.
No sitting at the table those last agonizing five minutes willing the muezzin to start the call. And of course there was no corner basboussa store from which to get an order of syrupy-sweet goodies for after iftar. Ramadan in London was like every other month of the year. It went by relatively unnoticed, save for the few annual dish party bashes, the makeshift iftar and prayers at the Regent Square Mosque.
My first Ramadan in Cairo was a huge culture shock. The sights, sounds and smells—and of course the fawanees. By then, I was too old to play with them, but when the ozoomat company got too loud or the mosalsalat too mind-numbing, I would sneak into my room, dim the lights and just gaze at the beautiful colors shining out of my fanous. Even though I am now a parent myself, every year I get my very own lantern, courtesy of my mother.
And there are so many other things I have come to love and look forward to during Ramadan. The burst of colorful lantern stands that gradually take over the streets in the weeks leading up to the holy month. The way supermarkets stack huge round jars of pink and orange mekhalil (pickles) on the floor outside their shops.
The smell of spices wafting out of kitchen windows and into the streets, tickling the noses of people rushing home from work an hour before iftar. The marathon jostle for freshly made kunafa and qatayef every day of the month.
And then there’s the food. Ramadan has always been a month associated with mounds of delicacies. Over the past decade or so, those mounds have grown into mountains, and though I am in principle against excess, I appreciate that this meal is more of a reward for a successful day of fasting.
In my mind, there’s nothing wrong with tons of food piled on the table—as long as it brings family and friends together to celebrate and appreciate what they have been given by God. More importantly, I find it acceptable if the premise of making so much food is to give much of it away to the needy.
Because that’s what Ramadan is all about: sharing. It’s not wrong to splurge on an extra kilogram or two of meat and nuts, as long as others are given a share of what’s being put out on your table.
Now even the most avid of Ramadan aficionados, myself among them, admit there are those irritating little nuances that have a tendency to overshadow the goodness the month brings. The hordes of beggars who attack your car the second you roll the windows down. The logic-defying volume of traffic grid-locking the streets and the annoying proselytizing commuters (particularly those in the Metro) who feel it their righteous duty to spew lectures on how we should all behave.
There are ways to cope with all the hassles: first, always try to look on the bright side. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Ramadan has not singled you and you alone out for torture. So if you’re mired on the roads, roll up the windows and try to relax. Everyone else is stuck in traffic too; at least you’re living in a country where countless do-gooders will be lining the streets providing you with a glass of water and a handful of dates, unselfishly giving up a meal in the comfort of their living rooms to guarantee you break your fast on time.
As for the preachy busybodies, I too get annoyed at them, even if they are well-intentioned. But have you ever willed yourself to get over the initial irritation and try and listen to what they are telling you? Perhaps we could make use of their lessons after all.
Finally, the next time a gang of annoying street kids cajole you for charity as you make your way to your Beemer, try and look beyond the dirt, the grime and the greed.
The underlying concept of Ramadan is to get people to see how the less privileged live their lives. Ever given a thought to what it would be like if you had to trade places? This year, please do.
For all those who see Ramadan as a living hell on earth, please find a more mature argument than your withdrawal from cigarettes and coffee. Both can be given up in a matter of seconds if you have the willpower to do so.
I have my reformed chain-smoking father to thank for teaching me all there is to know about willpower—he proudly tells the story of how when he first married my mother she bet him he couldn’t cut down from three packs a day to a single pack, let alone kick the habit. He was just lighting up when she threw him the challenge and, without hesitation, he stubbed out his cigarette. He hasn’t touched one since.
Instead of whining about what an inconvenience it is not being able to go to the movies, walk down the streets wearing your favorite tube top or, heaven forbid, forego a cup of coffee in the morning, think about all the things you do have that you cannot do any other time of the year.
When else is it cool to have ful for dinner and hang out at places you usually wouldn’t be seen dead in, like Al-Azhar and Al-Hussein? When else does your boss seem happy to see you walk out the door early so he can leave work shortly thereafter?
Detox the crankiness along with all the other poisons in your body and think good thoughts. Think qatayef and loqmet el-qadi, about sitting down to a proper meal with your family for once. Most importantly, think about how for every good thought you get a reward, and for every good deed you get the same reward a thousand times over.