My first Ramadan

Ramadan starts in a few days. Previously I have only been in Egypt during Ramadan for a week, this will be my first experience of the full month and three days of Eid celebrations after it. I am going to attempt to follow Ramadan which means no food, liquid, smoking or sex during the day. Muslims fast to discipline their body and mind, the absence of food and drink and other pleasures provides an opportunity to concentrate on prayer and worship, and not having the luxuries of life makes it easier to reflect on life and be grateful for what we do have and think about those who don’t have these things we often take for granted.

Muslims use this month to start afresh and give their life a new direction. Ramadan brings people closer as they forgive each other for past misdemeanours, forge new and positive relationships and treat each other with greater respect.

People stay up all night or sleep briefly and get up before the sun rises to eat Suhur, the last meal before the day’s fast. You can have your usual breakfast at this time. Then you do not eat or drink until the sun sets and it is time for Iftar. I almost wish I was in Australia where the days are now shorter, because in Egypt this means last eating just before 4am and breaking the fast just after 7pm – about 15 hours.

I know I can go without food, as I will make up for that with meals in the evening and into the early hours of morning as everyone does. I have often worked long days in Australia with no breaks for meals. But the liquid is a concern. I drink much less coffee here, so I won’t get coffee withdrawals as I would have done if attempting this on the amount of coffee I drank in Australia. The difficulty is the 40 degrees plus temperatures now in Siwa, with the house I estimate at about 35 degrees from 9am to 9pm.

Ramadan meanings ‘scorching heat’, and this year it falls in the hottest month in Siwa (Islamic months follow the lunar calendar, in the same tradition as the Jewish community, so the dates change each year), so it certainly will live up to its name. I am drinking about 8 litres of water during those daylight hours at the moment, and 3 more litres in the evening, as well as tea. My ankles have been swelling slightly in the heat, not surprising as I have poor circulation, but annoying and sometimes they are tender. I will try to just keep wiping myself down with a wet cloth, and maybe keep my feet in a bucket of water while working or reading. I suspect I will not be able to do as much on the computer while fasting, which is ok as computer is constantly overheating now during peak temperatures and needs to be turned off regularly to cool down. I plan to use Ramadan days for mostly reading research and lying quietly, and do what work I can in the nights, between meals. There is apparently nothing wrong with rinsing your mouth when you’re fasting, as long as you do not swallow any water after doing so, and that will keep me from feeling too parched.

I plan some days to do early morning ie pre sunrise walks to Cleopatra Spring, where I can sit and read in T’s café, and spend time in the water, then break the fast with some dates so I am not too weak before the 40 minute walk home for dinner.

I also hope to have a day in Mersa Matruh to swim and then enjoy the street festivities in the evening, before minibus back to Siwa (four hour trip through desert each way, which should not be unpleasant if done early morning and late evening). While the beaches now are crowded with visitors from Cairo and Alexandria escaping city heat, someone told me the other day that during Ramadan days “only the Christians will be on the beach, and there aren’t many of them”. I guess this is because Muslims will be resting or are just cautious – it is not forbidden to swim during Ramadan, but only if you are confident no water will enter your mouth or nose. Mersa Matruh main beach doesn’t have big waves to get dumped by, unlike beaches in Australia, so I should be fine swimming there and in the springs here.

Ramadan has similarities to the Jewish holy day Yom Kippor which is a day of forgiveness, penance and purity. During Yom Kippor it is forbidden to eat, drink, bath or engage in other pleasures of the body, the aim is to free the body from its limitations and focus on spiritual development and cleansing of the soul. The day is for asking for forgiveness of anyone that you have wronged, to free yourself from sins and negativity and enter the New Year (Rosh Hashana) with a clean heart. People ask forgiveness from God and each other. I just realized – Yom is Hebrew for day, Yoom is Arabic for day; and the many similarities between Muslim and Jewish practices may surprise some people as these religions are so often portrayed as being violently opposed, but as both religions came from this part of the world, and Islam draws on traditions and also venerates the prophets of Judaism and Christianity, it is natural there are some echoes and mirroring.

There are many traditions associated with Ramadan and I will mention some of these in future posts. In Egypt, the street decorations include lanterns, many are commercially manufactured now, but you still see some handmade, and often made by children. This is apparently an 800 year old tradition, originating in the Fatimid era when the Caliph Al-Muizz Lideenillah was greeted by people holding lanterns to celebrate his rule. From that time lanterns were used to light mosques and houses. The pictures here were taken about 10 years ago when I enjoyed part of Ramadan in Luxor and Cairo.

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