The shrunken sliver of the waning moon marks the few remaining days of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting. In Cairo, excitement builds for the Eid holiday, when business (already slowed by fasting employees) will halt completely in favor of family, vacation and food.
For me, Ramadan in Cairo evokes memories of Ramadan in Oman. While in college I lived for four months with an Omani family, in the household of the first of three wives. I tried to behave as similarly to my host-sisters as possible, wearing hijab and not going outside alone. When Ramadan began, my host-family did not expect me to fast because I am not Muslim; however, not fasting would have required that I eat and drink discretely out of sight. Fasting with my family seemed easier than going through the hassle of eating covertly. The first fourteen hours of fasting were hard only for lack of water, the subsequent days became easier. And the deliciously sugary and buttery food eaten during the huge "iftar" dinner was well worth the wait. But over the course of the month it was the sense of camaraderie, while either fasting or eating, that caused me to love Ramadan. The connection created by such a basic experience as enforced communal hunger and subsequent sharing of food nearly convinced me to convert to Islam! (Though this may have partly been due to the mind tricks induced by fasting.)
With these memories, I was eager to experience Ramadan in Egypt. I would attempt to fast, but wondered how the experience would feel without the closeness of a family.
As usual in Cairo, I should have been prepared for more complications.
On my second day of fasting I had an Arabic lesson with my tutor. For each hour of Arabic, I help her prepare for the GRE. The lessons are long, as we each take the role of both teacher and student. Usually Nescafe keeps us going, but today I refused. "Why?" she asked. "Well, I'm fasting," I responded sheepishly. My tutor is a member of Egypt's largest minority, the Coptic Christians. Although Egyptian Muslims and Christians had lived in relative harmony for centuries, recent years have been more tense, as Islamist hard-liners drive in the wedge first placed by European colonialism's "Divide and Conquer" policy, (the same strategy that has locked Cyprus and Lebanon into years of conflict between majority and minority groups). As Christians, my tutor's family has faced harassment; for example, her car has been vandalized eight times. I decided I would break fast for the day rather than risk apparent bias towards a Muslim way of life.
The next day I visited a friend at her home. As in all Egyptian families, the only proper way to welcome a guest is with large quantities of tea and, if the guest holds still for long enough, food. Today was no exception. "But I'm fasting," I protested, "and you're fasting as well, so I can't eat in front of you!" "Don't be silly" replied my friend, her mother and sisters, insisting that I try the dish they were preparing for iftar. One of the sisters was not fasting, as she had her period. I remembered how my host sister in Oman had been mortified to see a classmate chewing gum during Ramadan. ("Everyone will realize that she's on her period!") In general, we women are typically shy about non-intimates knowing when we are menstruating. Growing up in North Carolina, the closest girlfriends would come to mentioning it was to refer to their "visitor from the South". So it seemed unusual that in Egypt women would be so comfortable with others knowing. I wanted to ask about it, but had my own inhibitions to contend with. Maybe once Ramadan is over...
An American friend and I decided to travel to Siwa, a remote oasis near the Libyan border. Although generally traveling precludes one from fasting, it seemed that none of our fellow bus passengers were eating. Except, that is, for the Christian family across the aisle, who insisted on sharing dates and cookies with us. Unsure whether decorum would require that we accept the hospitality or refrain from eating in front of the fasting Muslim passengers, we decided to eat, (the dates looked delicious).
Once in Siwa we found that it was nearly impossible to buy food during the day. We did our best to buy it at night and keep it for the following day, but often found ourselves eating it at suhoor, the meal before dawn. Biking around the oasis, visiting Alexander's oracle and swimming in the cold and hot springs, we were careful not to get dehydrated and drank water as discretely as possible. But on the final day we went into the desert with a guide. Although he encouraged us to drink water, we ate very little, preferring to break fast with him at sundown. However, soon after eating I developed a terrible headache; the pain was so acute I eventually threw up. Recovering afterwards with lots of water and Ibuprofen, the conversation around the fire turned to the subject of men and women. We compared the particulars of relationships in Siwa and in the US, which led to a heated debate on the differences between men and women.
Our guide and I battled good-naturedly over why men have traditionally held power in nearly every society in the world.
"Our brains are bigger."
"But women often outperform men on intelligence tests."
"Women are emotional."
"And men are not?"
"Women are weaker." I was about to come up with a retort about how professional female runners might soon begin competing with male runners. But then remembered that as the sole woman in the group, I was also the only one who had shown any discomfort as a result of the day's activity. I was not in a particularly strong position to argue for women's strength.
The conversation moved on while I ruminated on whether physical weakness could actually remain a significant factor in gender politics.
Returning to Cairo, I soon had to contend with my "visitor from the South." I decided to continue fasting anyway, as no one needed to know, and as I was not praying, there was no reason to worry about being "unclean." However, by the second day was feeling terrible. A friend asked why I looked so awful. I told her. "Wait, but you're fasting?" she asked.
"Yes" I answered. "I know that Muslim women wouldn't, but I'm not Muslim, so I didn't think it mattered. It's silly to maintain the idea that women on our period are unclean."
My friend laughed at me and told me to eat right away, that the rules about women not fasting had more to do with health than spiritual cleanliness. (I ate and did feel better.)
Ramadan is over, alhamdulillah, and Cairo's fantastic street food is once again available during the day. But I am humbled by trying to jump head first into the rules, practices and mindsets of this other culture, and left with unanswered questions about myself as a woman, questions that a childhood in the States didn't teach me to ask.
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