Ramadan, the most important Muslim holiday, is celebrated for the whole month, and it changes almost everything about Cairo. Ramadan is a time to get closer to God, making self-sacrifices to be awake and aware of your choices, so people fast all day every day during the month of Ramadan. This means not only no eating, but no drinking (not even a sip of water), no smoking, no sex, and no smoking! I think the no smoking stricture may be harder on the Egyptians than no sex.
The result of people not eating all day is that, for the most part, everything is closed during daylight hours. With few exceptions in the tourist areas, where the poor waiters and chefs are serving food they cannot eat all day, the stores and restaurants shut down and open all night instead. At sundown, however, the whole city of Cairo goes crazy. One night at sundown, we visited the Al-Hussein mosque, which is perhaps the most important mosque outside of Mecca, to experience the real Ramadan.
The mosque is in the heart of the Khan El Khalili market, but this evening, we couldn’t get closer than a half-mile. It was like a rock concert, with cars everywhere, parked all higgledy-piggledy. To get a spot, a kid about eighteen hopped up onto our hood and directed us as we drove down a bizarre narrow alley with cars parked so close we had to hold our breath just to pass. Walking back out of the alley after cramming ourselves into a tiny space, we saw two more “parking attendents’ and the owner of a yellow car rocking the cars in front and in back of him. Shifting the cars a few inches at a time, the yellow car finally was able to maneuver out of the spot, whereupon it was replaced by another car.
On the street, it was equally chaotic. At Ramadan, the rich are supposed to feed the poor, and everywhere we looked, shop owners had set up impromptu cafes in the street, which were full of people breaking their fast by gorging on the free food. Close to the mosque, we passed a covered hall where huge pots and pans were set out on the ground, and people sat around guarding the meal until it was time to eat.
The Al-Hussein mosque was like a fairground, so full of people you could barely move, part church, part circus. Every vendor stood by a tiny stand hawking religious artifacts, beads, or spangled LED tops that could fly high into the night sky with a simple flick of the wrist. Leaving our shoes among the hundreds of pairs at the entrance, my girlfriend and I wormed our way through the crush to the woman’s side of the mosque. We could barely breathe as the undulating mass of women pushed us forward into the doors of the mosque. But inside, we fared no better, as we literally couldn’t go another step. Women sat cross-legged everywhere on the floor, knee to knee, chanting and praying and touching the marble wall which contained important relics. Disappointed and nearly squished, we turned and wriggled our way back out.
The men had a much more enjoyable time. Obviously a much larger space, the entrance to the men’s side was empty, so my husband and two other travelers left their shoes with us as they strode into the mosque. Once inside, they were immediately taken under the wing of several Egyptians who, seeing them, announced, “Sit! Pray with us!” This is typical of the Egyptians, who we have found over the years to be welcoming and inclusive in their worship. While we waited for them to come back out, I looked around the main square of the Khan. Always bustling, tonight it seemed to almost burst at the seams with the friendly, raucous, joyous celebration of the end of the day’s fast. It may change everything in Cairo, but I was glad to be there on during Ramadan.
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