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Ramadan in Egypt years ago
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 10 - 06 - 2016

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Samar Yahya
The days and nights of Ramadan are like no other throughout the year; Ramadan takes on its own special routine. Everywhere in the whole world you find Muslims preparing weeks ahead the beginning of Ramadan.
One country which is very famous for its festivities and celebrations of the month of Ramadan is Egypt. Anyone who has ever spent Ramadan in Egypt knows that it has a unique taste in Egypt. Old times of Ramadan in Egypt had its matchless taste and flavor.
As a child living in Cairo, the first symbol that we grew to associate with the advent of Ramadan is the beautiful lantern. As for the origin of the use of the lantern in Ramadan, there are many stories. The mot well known among these stories goes back to the Fatimid Caliphate, when the Egyptian people took to the streets holding lanterns to celebrate the arrival of the Caliph, Al-Mu'izz Li-Dinillah, which took place in the holy month of Ramadan. It was during his Caliphate that the center of the Fatimid Dynasty was move from Northern Africa to Egypt. Fatimids founded the city of Al-Qahiratu or Cairo, which means "The Victorious".
Ever since the tradition developed, and every Ramadan you see children holding and playing with lanterns, until today. This tradition has even spread to other Muslim countries.
I remember when I was a child. We used to go with our parents to choose and buy lanterns and to play with every night during Ramadan. At times when Ramadan came during summer vacation, we as a family used to gather with our cousins. As children we showed each other our lanterns and played and sang special songs that welcome Ramadan at home. The tradition has lived on until today.
Another memory of Ramadan in Cairo is the decorations in the streets. When I was growing up, the youth and children living within the same neighborhood used to cooperate together to buy the required materials and make the designs then decorate the outer side of buildings and houses.
One day prior to the beginning of Ramadan, we used to see many vendors preparing special stalls for kunafa, a crispy shredded wheat crust that is stuffed with sweet cream. The stalls would also sell qatayef, very similar to pancakes that are then filled with nuts, cinnamon, and raisins, or sweet cheese. The qatayef are then baked or fried and soaked in a thick sugary syrup. Egyptians tend to eat traditional oriental desserts during Ramadan and are not attracted much to cakes during Ramadan.
During Ramadan many Egyptians make a drink from licorice extract at the time of Iftar to quench the thirst. Back then, we used to see many licorice sellers dressed in a special costume, pushing their wagons and calling out to people to come take some of their cool licorice drink. They roam the neighborhoods before sunset.
Another popular drink is Qamar Eldin. It is made by soaking dried apricot paste in water to make a delicious juice. We were keen to have this juice ready at the table for breaking the fast and also at the pre-dawn or suhoor meal.
For iftar, especially on the first day of Ramadan, people cook several dishes, and families gather to enjoy the breaking of the fast together. Main dishes include stuffed vegetables zuchinni and eggplant, stuffed with a mixture of rice and ground meat and spices. A green leaf dish called mulukhiya is the king of all dishes. My mom also used to make pasta with béchamel (white sauce), rice with nuts, baked and roasted chicken, duck, goose, and much more. Soup must never be missing on the iftar feast.
All of this is followed by kunafa or qatayef and a cup of tea with mint.
Alternatively for desert, my mother would make a delicious compote made of dried figs, apricot, prunes and raisins boiled in sugar syrup and left in the fridge to be served cool. This desert is especially linked to Ramadan.
For suhur, we usually ate Egyptian white cheese, yogurt, cucumber and fava beans. I remember a family tradition for the suhur meal of eating some of the dishes prepared for iftar, but since we did not have much of an appetite when breaking the fast, we would eat the foods later on in the night for the suhur meal.
The night caller, or Al-Mesaharaty, is another Egyptian tradition. He roams the streets, walking around the village or city banging on his small hand held drum, waking up people for suhur.
In older times, the night caller would stand in front of each home and call the inhabitants by their family name, he knew everyone by name in the village.
One more habit for all Egyptians in old and present days is to buy nuts before Ramadan to use as goodies or as filling for desserts, especially for the kunafa and qatayef.
During Ramadan, neighbors and relatives used to exchange main dishes and desserts at the time of iftar. Families were keen to share with neighbors and friends the taste of their cooking and desserts.
Firing of the cannon is another Egyptian custom during Ramadan. It signals the time for the beginning and ending of the fast.
The old stories say that it began when the soldiers Mamluk Sultan Al-Zaher Seif Al-Din Zenki Khashqodom tested the cannon he got from Germany in Ramadan by firing it at sunset, at the exact time of iftar. The people of Cairo thought that the Sultan was alerting them to the time for iftar.
Realizing that such a custom could increase his popularity, dignitaries advised him to continue this practice, which persisted until today.
At the time when radio stations were not many and television channels were limited to two channels, Fawazeer (riddles and contests) were the main characteristics of TV shows in Ramadan in Egypt.
At the time of iftar soon after the call for Maghreb prayer, on the main radio station a famous radio anchor used to air a riddle every day. For the whole month, the questions revolved around one theme, for example famous historical sites, famous characters in history. It was the highlight of our day, we gathered around trying to solve the riddle.
On television, another quiz used to be aired daily as well.
In Cairo one of the main districts that people love to visit during Ramadan is Al-Hussain district. It is one of the sites where we used to visit at least once during Ramadan and have iftar or suhur there. It has famous cafés where one can enjoy different kinds of iftar or suhur. To me, suhur was always my favorite time to go out with my family.


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