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Egypt's iftars: A time for community but also division

As Ramadan comes to an end, Egyptians reflect on the good, the bad and the often flashy experience of iftar
A typical family iftar in Egypt (MEE / Ali Asifa)

CAIRO - With the Ramadan coming to an end most likely on Thursday or Friday, families are about to gather for one their last iftar meal of the year. The sunset meal that breaks the day-long fast is one of the most symbolic moments of the holy month and is central to the daily routine of Ramadan.

It can be shared with family, friends or strangers, but throughout the month, “I have to run, I have an Iftar” is probably the most common sentence shared by Egyptians and expats alike during Ramadan.

Ramadan begins

The first few days of the holy month are usually spent at home with close family. For many, it is one of their favourate and most meaningful iftar meals.

“My mom starts cooking in the early morning. We will probably have any kind of food you can possibly imagine,” said Diaa, a Cairo-based student.

“Meat, chicken, mahshy - stuffed vegetables - okra and mulukhiyah, a gooey soup made of jute leaves, usually abound on the table.”

“Then [after the first few days] the endless tour of relative’s dinner tables will begin,” said Fatima, a young NGO worker.  

Many relatives will go all out ahead of Ramada, purchasing new tablecloths and curtains and even renovating whole homes to impress their relatives. It’s usual to see new furniture, dishes and pottery being rolled out for the festivities.

Time for friends

After a while, when the iftar has been shared with extended family, the next phase of Ramadan begins with the meals often being shared with friends and colleagues.

Young people, many of whom do not have their own homes, tend to organise picnics or arrange meeting at a restaurant. As time comes to break the fast, fast foods joints and Egypt’s food courts are suddenly flooded, with people spilling onto the pavements and some places setting up extra tables in the streets to accomodate the excess demand.

But Egypt is a divided country, and even Ramadan acts as a reminder of the contrast and contradictions existing within Egyptian society. On one side, near the Nile, eat the wealthy minority that mixes Arabic with English words. On the other side, only a few hundred meters away, people share communal meals in the streets.

A few minutes before the prayer that signals the break of the fast, brand new imported cars are all lined up outside Cairo’s fanciest restaurants.

An army of valets takes care to park the Mercedes, Ferraris and the like, while the guests rush in in anticipation, eager to eat dates or drink their first beverage of the day.  

In Zamalek, the upscale island of the capital, restaurants are taken by storm by businessmen and entrepreneurs, with their perfectly ironed Italian collar shirts, and women with fashionable dresses that look like they come straight out of a Fifth Avenue boutique. Even the children flash around shiny watches and expensive cellphones or tablets.

While Egyptians usually spend a great percentage of their yearly income for food during Ramadan, Cairo’s richest one percent can sometimes spend more than $100 on a meal, the equivalent of two weeks' wages for an average Egyptian.

The scenes seen here are a world away from those that happen at Mawaid al-Rahman, or charity IftarsThese are a longstanding tradition as it is believed that the Prophet himself commanded that the rich must donate money and help feed the poor during the holy month. No one is supposed to be left without food.

Food from a street Mawaid al-Rahman iftar (MEE / Ali Asifa)

Thus, all across the city, alleyways and side streets are occupied by lines of tables offering a meal to all those who pass by. The food is often provided by mosques, locals or a businessman who thinks that his generosity will pay back during the year or in the afterlife. Alternatively, a group of volunteers cook or bring vegetables and meat each day. The meal, obviously, is not as decadent as that one served in a restaurant, but it still contains some Ramadan favourites.  

Things get so busy that in order to find a place it is better to go early. As one waits, conversation is struck up with strangers.

The young and old sit side by side. During the day, the waiters all work in small nearby shops or as unauthorised parking valets, but at the iftar they rush around between the tables, serving dozens, sometimes hundreds of people with skill.

People quickly devour their rice, meat and vegetables. Some finish in just a few minutes, rushing to return to work or to their families. Some smoke, others chat, but after a while the waiters descend once again to clear the empty plates to allow Cairo to return to its busy hum.

Gouna, a 50-year-old computer seller (MEE / Ali Asifa)

But not everyone abides by the rich, poor divide. While many think that the street iftars are only meant for poor people, this is a misconception rooted in Egyptian society.

“I work around the block,” said Gouna, a 50-year-old computer seller, who says he makes a comfortable living but still chooses to come to the iftar. “I can buy my own meals for 11 months a year. Do you think that I could not afford it for one extra month?”

“You can find the poor, the ones who work in the area, the travellers, those who were stuck in traffic and were late to go home, or entire families.”

Tables like these are everywhere in Cairo because “they are for the normal people to share a meal with the community. This is the true spirit of Ramadan,” Gouna added.

Maged, a 60-year-old manager at a big communication firm, agrees. He speaks Arabic, French and English, is wealthy and lives in a big old bourgeois flat in downtown Cairo. “But I live by myself and what is Ramadan if you have to break the fast by yourself?” he said. “It is sad, so everyday I choose a different Mawaid al-Rahman and share a meal with new people.”

Prison iftars

But not everyone is so lucky. Many Egyptians are not able to spend the day with family or friends and instead break the fast with fellow inmates.

“In the end, Ramadan in prison is pretty good. Well, I mean it’s good once you get used to the heat and being locked in a 24-square-metre cell with at least another 20 people,” said Ahmed, one of the thousands of political prisoners who are currently behind bars in Egypt.

Last year, Ahmed shared his iftar with his fellow inmates. Ramadan in prison was probably the closest to the true meaning of the Holy Month that he ever experienced. Yet, it was a challenge.

“Food in prison was just terrible”, he said. “Even if you could eat it, you’d probably be sick.” During the year, prisoners would cook their own meals on a camp-stove with stocks smuggled by their friends and relatives.

During Ramadan, prison authorities strangely made no exceptions to the timetable for meals. Gooey plain rice, a stone-cold piece of meat, chicken or eggs and a watered soup with some kind of vegetables was served for lunch at noon. Ful – a dish made of fava beans, vegetable oil and cumin - was served for dinner around six. They did not care about the inmates fasting.

“We would cover the food to protect it from cockroaches, and leave it on the side. The common criminals would mostly eat it, because they were not fasting anyway,” Ahmed said.

Inmates, however, were allowed to receive home-cooked meals from their families during visiting hours that last for a few hours around lunchtime.  

“There would be some milk with dates, yogurt, meat and vegetables. Pretty good home meals. But the containers were hot and so was the cell and we had no fridge.”

Prisoners thus piled up the food under the only fan that they had, in the hope that it would not go bad, he said.

When it was time for iftar, they lined up newspapers and sat together on the ground to share the food. It was one of the most communal times that Ahmed says he has ever experienced.

A recreation of what an iftar meal looks like (MEE / Ali Asifa)

The problem, however, was with the water.

“The pipes were hot because we had running water only before the prayers,” Ahmed said.

Prison authorities promised them that they would give them ice but in “the end, we had to pay for it with cigarettes or pocket money."

It’s a decision that they almost came to regret. When a prisoner from a nearby cell saw the political prisoners putting the ice in their drinks he yelled at them to stop and urged them to put the ice in a bucket instead.

“What are you doing? Don’t you know how to survive in prison?” he snapped. “Where do you think that ice comes from? It’s made of sewage water!”