“Why are you doing it??? You are not Muslim…”
That is something I heard several times while I was participating in Ramadan. Most people have heard of Ramadan and most people probably think it’s crazy and if you haven’t you will know all about it by the end of this post. I’ll be honest I think it’s crazy too, but wow is it a beautiful time of the year. I heard about Ramadan years ago and from the moment I read about it was intrigued. I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe so many people would come together and participate in something so crazy (by crazy I mean amazing) in the name of faith and devotion.
A women selling prayer beads (subha) in a market in Cairo.
So what is Ramadan?
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar year. The Month of Ramadan is also when it is believed the Holy Quran “was sent down from heaven, a guidance unto men and women, a declaration of direction, and a means of Salvation”. It is during this month that Muslims fast. It is called the Fast of Ramadan and lasts the entire month. Ramadan is a time when Muslims concentrate on their faith and spend less time on the concerns of their everyday lives. It is a time of worship and contemplation. During the Fast of Ramadan strict restraints are placed on the daily lives of Muslims. They are not allowed to eat or drink during the daylight hours. Smoking and sexual relations are also forbidden during fasting.
The evening meal after sunset Iftar is when Muslims break their fast with family and loved ones. It is normally a huge feast. A few dates and a cup of water are usually the first foods to break the fast, while fried pastries, salads, nuts, legumes, and breads are common. Traditional desserts are often unavoidable, especially those made only during Ramadan. As dawn approaches Muslims have their Sahoor the meal before the sun rises. This is normally a smaller meal to hold them over during the entire day until Iftar.
A decorated fanous at a friends home.
Ramadan traditions vary from country to country. One of the traditions I loved in Egypt was the Fanous. For Egyptians the Ramadan celebrations include the display of Fawanees (plural for Fanous). The Fanous is considered by some the extension of the torches used in the Pharaonic festivals celebrating the rising of the Sirius star in which the ancient Egyptians were celebrating the birthdays of Osiris, Horus, Isis, Seth and Nephtys by lighting the streets with torches. Nowadays the Fanous or the Ramadan Lantern is just a decoration and entertainment for the children. I loved seeing the streets and homes decorated with these. In a lot of Muslim countries today lights are strung up in public squares, and across city streets, to add to the festivities of the month.
A decorated street in Downtown Cairo.
My experience participating in Ramadan in Cairo & why I did it.
I had always been intrigued by Ramadan and when I found out I was going to be in Egypt (a Muslim country) during it I got excited. I knew it would make it hard for me, but I was looking forward to the experience. It wasn’t until a few days before it started that I decided I would participate in it. I did it because my boyfriend is Muslim and was going to be participating in it. He didn’t ask me to do it, but thought if he is going to do it I should respect him and do it with him. When I told him I was going to do it he laughed and said “you won’t last a week”, but was happy I would do it with him. I knew it was going to be a challenge, but when he mentioned that I thought “challenge accepted”. This meant fasting for 30 days… yes no food, water, or sex during daylight hours. The thought of it alone made me nauseous. The crazy thing was this was not like any regular Ramadan, this year Ramadan happened to fall right at the peak of summer for the Muslim world making it the hottest Ramadan in over 30 years. I though great… long summer days with Egyptian heat and no water lord help me please.
The next 30 days proved to be tough. The 1st week was the hardest, just getting used to it. Before Ramadan I had never fasted before in my life. I was going to sleep full waking up hungry and soooo thirsty, it was torture. I learned early on though that it’s a mind game you must not think about it and it will be easy. Sometimes I was able to control it and others I couldn’t. I noticed though that after a few days because I would have Iftar around 7pm then Sahoor around 3am I would then stay up the rest of the night and have problems sleeping. So after a few days I realized I was kind of cheating by sleeping all day and waking up a few hours before it was time to eat Iftar again. I told my friends, but they said it was okay that a lot of people do it like that.
What I look like breaking my fast with a huge 6 liter bottle of water.
What I loved most though was the atmosphere in Cairo it changed so much during Ramadan. My friends had told me that it’s a beautiful time and that I will notice the change, but didn’t believe them. Ramadan came along and sure enough it changed. People were much nicer, I noticed less arguments and crazy things on the streets, I noticed more giving. I will never forget many things I witnessed during Ramadan, like walking through the streets right before the call to prayer and seeing people give out drinks to the bus/cab drivers, or giving out food to the less fortunate. Or the time I broke my fast at McDonalds and found it so interesting that everyone had ordered their food and sat down waiting for the call to prayer to ring to start eating (I had never been in a McDonalds with everyone not eating and waiting to eat together). Or the many times I broke my fast with him and my friends.
I mean it was just an amazing experience and now I must confess I did break my fast three times. Yes I know I am horrible, but I did. Two of them were in the shower… I drank the water cus I had been outside for one thing or another and was dying of thirst and didn’t want anyone to see me. The other was with him we both watched one of our friends eat ice cream and we both wanted some so broke it. Other than that though I did good. I mean come on… I was doing it just for him & I so it’s okay.
A card I made for all my muslim friends and readers around the world with Cairo’s skyline.
The end though was the best feeling of it all. The end of Ramadan is called Eid-ul-Fitr and is when you break your fast for the last time and enjoy the celebrations that come the next 3 days. I had my last meal with him at his friends along with his brother and his brothers friends. His brother picked us up on his Vespa and as we were speeding through the crazy streets of Cairo the call to prayer played and it felt magical. I had never been on a vespa in Cairo and then to be on it during the call to prayer for our last break fast was just an amazing feeling. I still remember it vividly and will never for that moment in time. The following days Downtown Cairo turned into a huge place of celebration. It was chaos and yet something so beautiful.
It’s been about a month since Ramadan ended and I must say it was one of the best experiences I have had on the road. No it wasn’t an amazing sunset view, or amazing sand dunes or amazing beach, but it was 30 days of determination to do something I had always wanted to experience myself. I am not a very religious person, but I respect all religions and feel like the key to understanding one an other is to also understand each others religion. Participating in Ramadan let me see just how beautiful Ramadan really is and what it signifies to the millions of Muslims around the world.
I would like to hear what you think about Ramadan and my experience participating it. Would you do it?