Ramadan this year started on June 18th. In 2001, my husband and I were living in Giza, right in front of the pyramids. A few months after 9/11, Ramadan began and we were blessed with a special experience.
The days before Ramadan in Cairo are filled with anticipation. Paper and tinsel streamers appear across inner courtyards and wide roads. Lanterns and miniature mosques made of everything from crepe paper to recycled tin are hung and lit at night. Everyone waits for the sliver of moon to appear and to hear the official news announcing the start of the 30-day fast.
“Ten days eating. Ten days cake. Ten days new clothes. This is what they say about Ramadan,” Mr. Ashraf told us the night he drove my husband and I to his home for Iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daylong fast.
Mr. Ashraf is a sincere and gentle man of immense bulk. At first he appeared a bit frightening, with broad hands that look as if they could knock your head off. He told us during our first trip together that he had been teaching computer science at the university for $100 per month, but found taxi driving more lucrative. He was our preferred taxi driver while we lived in Giza during the year 2001, and my husband and he developed a special friendship while driving through the snarl of Cairo traffic. Even though their worlds, experiences, and way of thinking would always make them strangers to one another, their mutual appreciation and genuine liking became stronger with time.
“You always need three times money during Ramadan,” he continued that night in the car. “To buy meat. To buy sweets. To buy clothes. You know, everybody like Ramadan because stomach takes a rest and every night with family. One night with my mother. One night with my brother. One night with the mother of my wife.”
“And you, Mr. Kees,” he turned to my Dutch husband. “You are like brother to me. Really. I mean this. Tonight we eat with my brother.”
The significance of this statement was not lost on any of us. Only three months had passed since the tragedy of September 11th, and the idea that East and West, Christian and Muslim, might be brothers seemed a small miracle in the midst of the world’s fear.
He turned the car down an unpaved narrow street and parked. We entered the dark foyer of an apartment building and carefully climbed the unlit concrete steps to the first floor. Mr. Ashraf opened the door and bid us to enter. “You are welcome.”
We timidly walked into the living room which was furnished with gilded chairs and a sofa out of a Louis XIV decorating showroom. One wall was completely wall-papered with a giant photograph of a river stream. Mr. Ashraf sat us down and then disappeared with great agitated excitement. Soon his 15-year-old son, Wusem, appeared through the same door that had swallowed Mr. Ashraf. “Welcome to Egypt,” he said and as quickly disappeared. Wusem was a perfect miniature of his father, only without the mustache.
We sat listening to the television blaring Ramadan tunes in the next room and the busy shouts of preparation from the entire family. We were then invited into the dining room, which also had one entire wall papered with a series of waterfalls. It was there we met Mr. Ashraf’s wife, Huwayda, and 9-year-old daughter, Chulut.
The room was sparsely furnished, and we all took our places at the table which was set with individual portions of chicken, rice, peas and carrots in a tomato sauce, and a dish uniquely Egyptian called molokkia. This green slimy soup-like broth is made of minced Jew’s mallow (a leafy herb) and chicken stock. Tablespoons of molokkia are poured over rice to flavor it.
We started with a hot bowl of “bird’s tongue soup” so named for the pasta that floats in it has the shape of what birds’ tongues might look like. Huwayda’s hair was completely contained under a chic head wrap and her smooth skin was the color of café latte. Our eyes met across the table and we each seemed to approve of the other. She spoke little English but understood more. “My wife say you bring light into our house,” Mr. Ashraf translated for us.
The tender chicken was then devoured with relish with our fingers. Mr. Ashraf kept smacking his lips and saying to me, “Eat. Eat. The chicken is very good.” In fact, that was his ploy all evening, telling us how one thing or another “was very good,” which any polite guest would agree with and then prove by eating all the more.
After the meal, our fingers saturated with chicken grease, we were ushered into the bathroom to wash our hands. On the floor in one corner swimming in a basin was a catfish, saved by the little girl from death the other evening. It had narrowly escaped being part of the feast of fresh fish. We returned to the living room while everyone else became busy with the cleaning up and preparation of the tea and desert. Every so often, Wusem would appear in the doorway, beaming, “Welcome to Egypt.”
Soon the children came to show us with great solemnity their new clothes for Ramadan. I noted the matching pink bows on Chulut’s jeans and jacket and we balked at the size of Wusem’s new sneakers. His huge hands and feet exposed his immanent growth into manhood. Then the children retired to the room they shared, and their parents returned with mint tea and a plate piled high with katayef, a sweet delicacy of fried dough filled with hazelnuts.
“The katayef are very good,” Mr. Ashraf said pointing to the twenty sweets that sat in front of me. What could I do? Of course, I had to overindulge. Everything in the end was washed down with two glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice, the second glass only appearing after I agreed that it was “very good.”
After all this gorging, Mr. Ashraf returned the conversation back to sacrifice. “You know. Fasting is good. You learn that you can control many things. Everything is for only looking, but no touch. Water, food, your wife. And after, you learn that you can make this.
“My mother learned me one thing. What you put in a glass, that is what you drink. You put in sugar, you drink sugar. You put in tea, you drink tea. You put in something not good, you drink that. It’s the same with your children. It’s the same with your life.”
And so with that, we said our thanks and goodbyes. We felt blessed for such an evening with a family that had generously taken us in for the Iftar meal. Ramadan seemed to reflect all that is human — piety and gaiety, charity and ostentation, sacrifice and indulgence.
Photo of Ramadan lanterns and Konafa sweets courtesy of Bernadette Simpson via Wikipedia Commons