In it, I explore how public health was transformed in Egypt soon after its occupation by Great Britain in 1882. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the Egyptian state had invested substantially in health to boost the nation’s economic and military strength, and, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, to address European concerns about the potential for diseases to be transmitted along trade routes. In the process, a certain amount of negotiation was required with the Egyptian population regarding how treatment would be delivered, by whom, and where.
The 1883 outbreak of cholera—one of the most feared diseases in the 19th century—provided the newly established Anglo-Egyptian government with an opportunity to restructure the public health infrastructure in Egypt in a way that reduced cost significantly (an important factor, given that Egypt was heavily indebted to British and French banks). The Anglo-Egyptian administration’s new policies were based on attitudes about what constituted modern medical practice, the appropriate relationship between medical provider and consumer, and the ways in which the consumer was expected to behave.
I argue that this is a key moment of transition in which public health in Egypt came to bear the hallmarks of “colonial medicine,” a system that has been described throughout much of the colonized world, in which personal hygiene practices and the acceptance of medical care were seen as necessary markers of modernity and progress—even when such restrictions came at the expense of nearly fifty thousand Egyptian lives.
Sitting down to write this while Ramadan is still going on. In fact, this week is a holiday triple-header: Today, Sunday, April 16, is Coptic Easter. Tomorrow is Sham Al-Naseem, the traditional Egyptian spring festival, and Thursday is the first day of Eid al-Fitr, the “feast of the breaking of the fast” which ends Ramadan.
There’s no way to ignore Eid. Look at these ads I got from Amazon:
I’m trying really hard not to read anything into Amazon suggesting that what I need for Eid is a case of deodorant (they also think I need Tide detergent and a jumbo pack of diapers).
So, let’s get into it shall we?
Are there Ramadan decorations like there are Christmas decorations?
One of the things you hear over and over in Egypt is that Ramadan is different here than anywhere else in the Islamic world (I have nothing to compare this to, so maybe they say this everywhere else, too).
One of the unique things here is that, as Christmas decorations revolve around various permutations of pine trees (Christmas trees, wreathes, etc.), in Egypt decorating for Ramadan revolves around the fannous, or lantern.
In fact, there are more than a few decorations combining the fannous of Ramadan and the candle associated with the Easter vigil — in Orthodox Christianity the big Easter service is very late on Saturday night; churches descend into total darkness, and then at midnight candles are lit to symbolize the resurrection of Jesus. Traditionally it’s supposed to be a “miraculous flame” but the last time I went to one you could hear them trying to get the lighter to work.
You can find actual lanterns and things that approximate lanterns everywhere, although the best selection is in the area known as Taht al-Rabaa’, in the old city of Cairo between Port Said Street and Bab Zuwayla, and then continuing into the tentmaker’s market, Khan al-Khayamiyya.
How does life change during Ramadan?
I’ll be honest – the first day of Ramadan I really wasn’t sure what to make of things.
So, to answer the question: how does life change? Not much happens between, say, 2 pm and sunset (which right now is around 6 pm — Egypt is doing Daylight Saving Time this year for the first time in seven years, but they decided to push the start back until after Ramadan ends).
The collection I’ve been working in closes at 1:30 and there’s another rush hour as most government offices seem to let non-essential personnel go home around then. Most smaller stores close around 3 so that people can go home to prepare for Iftar (breakfast, which, literally, combines the two words “break” and “fast”).
Then, around 8, things open back up again until 2 am (which is when the government decided things need to close down). Then there’s another meal (suhoor) before fasting starts again for the dawn prayer (fajr), which this morning was at 3:57 am; many people then read the Qur’an (it’s tradition to read/recite the entire text over the course of Ramadan, and during the month Anghami — which is the Middle Eastern version of Spotify — has popular reciters and the section of the scripture for that day ready to go).
So, yes, many people do, in fact, stay up all night and then sleep in the afternoon – I’ve been told this is an Egyptian thing but it seems kind of like it would apply everywhere else, too.
This generally means that by midafternoon, there’s a notable energy lag, which is why not a lot happens after about 2 pm.
The third week of Ramadan is the longest. Even as a non-fasting non-Muslim in Egypt, I have noticed this. The first week people are getting into it, the second week people are in the groove. The third week … is long. The fourth week, everyone’s ready for Eid! Hope you made your plane/train/hotel reservations months ago — everyone travels, and I’m kind of looking forward to having Cairo to myself … or as much as one can in a city of 22 million people.
I often tell students (and other groups that I work with) that, while the first comparison that most people make is between Ramadan and Lent, there’s a case to be made that it’s really to Christmas. It’s when people see family, everyone gets together, and there’s. so. much. food. I’ve been to a couple of Iftars and walked out staggering beneath the weight of my own bloat every time. Even when you think you’re done eating, someone will come along and inform you that you’re not.
and so. many. desserts.
Every family has their own traditions. I can’t even start to generalize. Google “Ramadan recipes.”
In Egypt the quintessential Eid dessert is “Kahk al Eid” (or “Eid Cake”). Currently there are signs everywhere for them – and, yes, you can get them from Amazon (although why would you want to??).
So, a couple of weeks ago I did a photowalk in the Old City at night to see all the Ramadan doings (a photowalk is where a group gets together and wanders around and takes pictures of things). I had been told that if you want to see the “real” Ramadan in Egypt, that’s where to go.
It was noisy. It was crowded. It was on the warm side. And it was incredible.
And just to get a feel for how it was to be there…
There are, of course, many other aspects of Ramadan I didn’t address here, but this has been my experience — so far. If things get wild during Eid, there might even be a part 3!
Also, for the educators out there, my videos are Creative Commons licensed!
It’s been a while since I’ve posted widely; apologies for that. Other than a visit from spouse in which we traveled all over Egypt for two weeks, my life in Cairo has been somewhat routine, with me on a schedule of home –> research –> home –> Arabic class –> home.
In other words, living the dream.
However, I am spending my first Ramadan in Egypt and wanted to spend some time describing what it’s like.
What is Ramadan? I’m so glad you asked!
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar (sometimes referred to as the hijri calendar, as it has the prophet Muhammad’s flight–hijra–from Mecca to Medina in 620 as its beginning point, and often abbreviated AH or simply H).
Hijri dates are not fixed in place; the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, ten days shorter than the Gregorian calendar (and without leap years), so over the course of a 36 year cycle Ramadan (and the rest of the Islamic holidays) occur ten days earlier every year and wind up back where they started.
This year (2023), Ramadan began in Egypt at sunset on March 22 and will end at sunset on April 20. Dates can shift depending on geographic location because the month begins and ends with the sighting of the new moon.
Ramadan is the holiest month in the Islamic calendar; according to Qur’an 2:185, the prophet Muhammad received the first verse of the Qur’an during Ramadan (known as Laylat al-Qadr, or the night of power, although there is disagreement between the various madhhabs and sects as to exactly which night of the month that is).
Most people are aware that Ramadan is observed by fasting during the daytime: no eating, no drinking (no, not even water), no smoking, no sexual activity. No bad thoughts is also supposed to be on this list, but I’m not sure how that works in combination with the other four (I get cranky without food and am mystified by people who “just forget to eat.”).
“But what if …”
So, since I’m envisioning this post as something of an educational resource, let me acknowledge some familiarity with the ability of students in middle school (and undergraduates) to come up with infinite hypothetical questions and scenarios with which to bombard teachers.
“What if you’re on a spaceship and the sun sets every 90 minutes…” for example (answer: Mission Control usually follows a set time–with NASA it’s Houston time–so you’d just follow that. There have been religious opinions (fatwas) issued to address living in areas where the sun doesn’t really set in the summer — if I recall the most recent one was that Muslims who live in, say, Norway can fast according to the schedule in Mecca, which is much closer to the equator.)
But, in my experience, the answer to the basic question at the heart of most of questions is this:
If fasting is going to harm you, you’re not supposed to do it. Fasting is supposed to be an act of faith, not an act of self-harm.
So, for example, people who don’t have to fast include:
children who are too young to fast
women who are pregnant or menstruating
anyone with a medical condition that is incompatible with or would be made worse by fasting (diabetics, people who have medication that must be taken on a regular schedule with food, etc.)
someone who is literally starving to death
travelers are also on this list, although some people exploit this loophole; for a long time it was not uncommon for unscrupulous wealthy folk from other parts of the Middle East to rent out a hotel suite in Cairo for the month so they could claim they were “traveling.” This doesn’t seem to be a thing anymore, although maybe most of them are going to Dubai or Beirut these days.
In Egypt, for example, most restaurants that are open during the day during Ramadan put up curtains or screens or something to allow people to eat with privacy (and to avoid rubbing it in the face of those who are fasting), but it’s not like you’re wandering around a desert with no hope of finding anything to eat. Supermarkets are open normal hours, and cafes may not be as full as usual but they still have customers. There are plenty of tourists, foreign residents, and, in addition to the above, 15% of Egypt’s population of 100+ million is Christian — mind you, the Copts have their own fasting regime for Lent…
It’s really no one’s business if you’re not fasting:
Enough with the food already!
However, all of this emphasis on fasting, especially in, say, American school textbooks, tends to give a pretty dour impression of what Ramadan is all about.
For example, this ad for the South African peri-peri chicken franchise Nando’s shows a young man eagerly waiting for sunset (it looks like it was filmed in Dubai).
The Nando’s advert was notable because, given the realization among companies in majority non-Muslim nations that Muslim families tend to have buying power, there’s been some well intentioned (as in, the stuff the road to Hell is paved with) efforts to try to be more inclusive in advertising, especially in the past few years.
The Nando’s ad is one of the better ones–I have definitely seen people sitting at tables waiting out the last few minutes before breaking the fast, although usually it’s done with soup and a date.
However, some of the American entries this year were a bit cringe, such as this ad (with commentary from the friend who posted it on Instagram):
Oh my. Where to start with this one?
That’s not the hand gesture Muslims make while praying … and normal prayer isn’t done at the table like that either.
It appears to be the middle of the day.
If it’s just mom, dad, and kid, she probably wouldn’t have her hijab on.
And what in the world is on top of their plates?
A for effort, D for delivery.
For the record, the reason for all the hype is that said companies have caught on to the fact that there are other parts of Ramadan. There is lots (and lots, and lots) of food. And, even more notably, Eid al Fitr, which comes at the end of the month, is one of the main gift-giving holidays on the Islamic calendar.
Today’s home page of Amazon Egypt, for example, looks like this:
When Ramadan began … and I do mean, at the exact minute Ramadan began … I got at least 15 texts and notifications from various shopping apps wishing me a blessed month and sending a promotional code. Including one of the beer and wine delivery services (which I realized much, much later was actually a subtle note saying they’d see us when the month was over).
So … what does Ramadan look like?
This post is getting a bit long, so I’ll stop with the basics. In the next installment, I’ll share what it’s been like in Cairo this month!