A Fast for the Body, a Feast for the Soul

    I remember Ramadan for the street life more than anything, which was the lanterns outside a lot of the shops and buildings, the little streamer decorations that they have out,” said Aisha Saad, a semester-long study abroad student at the American University of Cairo, as she reminisced about the Egypt of her youth while resting in a campus courtyard. “In the evenings, little kids going around with the little lanterns,”

    Raised in Egypt until the age of six and transplanted to Greenville, North Carolina, Saad grew into a devout Muslim. Embracing her first Ramadan as an adult in Egypt, her experience of the culture mixed both foreign awe and native understanding, creating a unique and insightful perspective on a facet of Muslim life in Egypt many exchange students can only touch on.

    Ramadan, the most holy month of the Islamic lunar calendar, falls between Sept. 13 and Oct. 12 this year.

    “A lot of people see Ramadan as just the physical fast … a month long, sunrise to sunset, abstaining from food and drink,” Saad said. “The other component to the fast is also the spiritual fast, so it’s supposed to be abstaining from bad thoughts or treating people in a bad way. There’s a character component to it as well.”

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    Editor’s Note:


    David Harvey, a UCSD transfer student, records his studies abroad in Cairo.

    As a child, Saad was eager to participate, and fasting marked the transition. While most children wait until age 10 or 11, Saad started early.

    “I fasted my first full Ramadan when I was eight,” she said with a laugh neatly framed by a chic, soft-pink- and gray-striped hijab. “I remember how hard it was and how grown up I felt.”

    Despite exemptions, children, pregnant women, diabetics, the ill and travelers are rarely seen eating publicly. Fewer shops are open, and most restaurants close their doors from sunup to sundown, while those that remain open shade their windows.

    Cairo’s streets still emit a constant stream of noise; people still go about with their work through hunger and thirst. Ramadan is more than religious — it is cultural, and many living in the country fast only by default.

    Ben Barclay, studying at AUC for one semester fasted not by default but by choice. He spent one week of Ramadan fasting in an attempt to further submerge himself in the culture.

    “Many students,” said Barclay, “including myself, study abroad with the intention of cultural immersion. And Islam is such a pervasive force in Egypt that it can’t really be severed from Egyptian culture. I wanted to personally experience the challenges of the fast as a method of cultural exploration, but I also wanted to foster some sense of solidarity with the people with whom I had surrounded myself.”

    Barclay fasted not only for himself; he also attempted to bridge cultures among family and friends by blogging about his time in Egypt.

    He thought it was important to discuss Ramadan in particular on his blog because “it serves as a conduit to my friends and family in the West, where Ramadan is generally overlooked,” he said. “Additionally, more often than not (at least in the Midwest), Muslim piety is mistaken for militant fundamentalism. By writing about my participation in the Ramadan fast, as well as depicting its overwhelmingly festive nature, I hope to offer a view of Islam and Muslim culture that is contrary to the mainstream portrayal.”

    One image of Ramadan for students and foreigners here is an increase of beggars around the city who man the sidewalks throughout the day and participate in street-side sunset feasts, or iftaars — the breaking of fast at sunset.

    “Here you have a part of the [Ramadan] street life, they’re called Ma’ida Al-Rahman, the tables of mercy,” said Saad. “Those are funded by private donors or by mosque communities, sometimes restaurant establishments and those are to provide iftaar specifically for the poor.”

    Another Ramadan icon is the increased prominence of the call to prayer. From the high vantage point of Azhar park in Islamic Cairo, the prayers of the city, called out from each mosque minaret, can be heard as one chant — drowning each other out, complementing and confusing each other and pouring across the city at dusk as the last light trickles beyond the horizon.

    The sound begins and breaks quickly in the evenings, calling for the iftaar feast, and picks up again to mark the fifth prayer and the night prayer.

    “I remember the night prayers, the taraweeh prayers, which are pretty iconic of Ramadan as well, because those are two to three hours long depending on where you go, and it’s a huge congregation,” Saad said, having spent several hours the previous night at a taraweeh prayer with her cousins. “It’s a regular practice … to have the taraweeh prayers in the evenings after the fifth prayer, which is isha, and most sheiks, the ones who recite or who lead the prayer, try to finish with recitation of the Koran over the month of Ramadan.”

    According to Saad, even the people who don’t regularly attend congregational prayer at the mosques do go to taraweeh.

    “There’s almost a cultural component to it other than just religion,” said Saad.

    Despite the extrinsic differences, Saad maintains the belief that Ramadan is largely a personal event but explained how the community affects the personal experience of the fast.

    “It’s more moralizing that you have a lot of the surrounding community also participating.” Saad said. “It makes it easier to participate beyond the physical fast when in Cairo. The not eating, not drinking feels exactly the same, but having opportunities to attend different events or … exercise the spiritual part of it, [is] definitely easier here, just because everybody else is making an effort to do it.”

    While many people might assume Ramadan is celebrated differently in a Muslim country, both the U.S. and Egypt are similar in their practices.

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