Blackouts and Ramadan changes

You know it is hot when the evening call to prayer is done without the usual microphones, just by the muezzin calling unamplified from the mosque.

This is an intimate experience, even more moving than the usual plaintive call, and this is how it would have been done originally of course, for centuries. You don’t hear the echo of the amplified calls from the many other mosques, only the call from the two or three nearest your home, and it is like a friend calling, rather than the more authoritative tone of the electrified voice. But what does this have to do with the heat?

Well, almost every evening now we have a power failure in Siwa, I suspect because everyone is running their ceiling and other fans, or for the few that have it, their air-conditioning. Fortunately most people cook with gas, or we would probably have these blackouts even more frequently in summer, at dinner time.

The blackout means I need to try to have the netbook charged up most of the time, if I intend working in the cool of the evening. The light from the screen, combined with a candle, is fine to work with. If I don’t intend working, the blackout is enjoyable for that call to prayer, and I light a candle to mark the way into the house, then sit outside. Without the street and house lights the stars appear intensely white and in their thousands, as they appear when you move out of Siwa and into the surrounding desert at night.

The blackout reminds me just how far out into the desert and surrounded by it Siwa is, and the town feels momentarily more like an impermanent camp than a settlement. The only light other than candles or other light are the occasional headlights of passing cars.

Many of the men and children who are not already out enjoying the cooler air now move outside to their chairs and mats to chat. Some bring music on their mobile phones, to while away the time while the TV is useless. It is lovely to hear the voices and music in the dark and sit with Habibi watching the moon and stars. While I only understand bits of conversation, it pleases me to hear the older Siwan man who lives across the road talking familiarly with the young police officer who lives opposite my place, and who comes from another part of Egypt and so is away from his family and friends, and to hear the children singing and playing, and sometimes their squeals or the adults collective sighs when the lights come back on.

Little B. next door came in one night to see Habibi, she does not like the dark and always asks me to turn on the lights, even just to go down the hall to the other room where Habibi is. She was a bit scared of the candle at first, but soon overcame that to get to Habibi and pat her. A. accompanied by the other girls brought me fresh olives, and managed to show me by candlelight how to pack them with salty water into a jar.

Another evening I was having my usual coffee on the way home from vegetable shopping, when a blackout hit. One of the staff brought out a candle, melted the end and stuck it to an ashtray so I would have light (I was the only foreigner in the restaurant, not many tourists here now). I don’t have enough Arabic to tell him that I was happy without it, just as the Siwans gathered there were, sitting in the dark watching people passing and using our mobile phones if we needed light to move around.

Second morning of Ramadan and Siwa is virtually closed. The butcher was open, which I was relieved to find as I went to get Habibi’s meat last night and they were closed, although I hung around town until 10pm thinking they may open after evening prayers. I guess it is better for them to open in the day, people get meat for the evening meal, and then they are closed for the breaking of fast and prayers. Most of the other stores are closed, only the fruit and veg man and the grocery that is always open even during usual prayer times, to cater for tourists and those not at the mosque, and three others (I suspect there are nearly 30 small grocery stores in the central part of town). There are very few donkey cars, cars or people on the streets.

N, my favourite smiling pastry and fancy breads baker has gone home to Alexandria to be with family, but will be back in a few days. This is a relief as the plain bread bakeries are not open at their usual 8.30am, and I have not yet worked out if they open at all in Ramadan. Maybe the women bake all the family bread during this time, if that is the case it is a massive amount of extra work for them on empty stomachs and in the heat. The chicken bbq men also seem to be closed. I will try to go into town after 10pm, once prayers are over; maybe they are working then as people eat throughout the evening, or maybe they too are visiting family in other places, or just taking it easy this month as people eat more home made meals and not takeaway. Many have family visiting from the cities or even Libya, and family meals are a central part of Ramadan, being thankful for food and other blessings after the day’s fast.

The prayers during Ramadan are longer and the call and response of those around 1pm is especially beautiful, with many more people attending the mosques than in other months. I suspect most don’t work in their gardens now, and even if they work in other jobs that prayer time is more of a priority this month.

The adults mostly stay indoors during the daylight hours, many just sleep between prayers to avoid the pangs of thirst, nicotine withdrawal and hunger. But the young children don’t fast and they don’t go to school, so more than usual are wandering the street. I wonder how their parents keep them amused and relatively quiet. Patience must be difficult in families of up to 12 children, when they do not have the diversion of school and Mum and Dad are fasting. TV serials made just for this month are incredibly popular, but they don’t occupy the whole day.

I haven’t yet managed to get into a work at night sleep some of the day routine, but after a few days exploring the daytime differences I must try to adjust. I can’t sleep soundly at night as so much is happening outside then, so I am still tired when I wake at 5.30am, and during the daytime the heat is making it difficult to concentrate on writing.

Habibi is surviving without too much complaint. Her breathing rate has increased to cope with the heat, as has that of other cats I have observed – some even hold their mouths open as we see birds do in the heat in Australia, almost panting like dogs. She has taken over most of the space on my desk, as this gets her closer to the window and any slight breeze. She also has a boyfriend, a ginger cat who comes calling (howling actually) for her. Habibi has been desexed and desexed female cats are not supposed to go into heat, but she must be doing something to attract this devotion. He mostly just sits outside the front door and they look at each other, but sometimes if he can’t see her, he will do a mad dash into the house to find her, and shoot out the bedroom window, or climb onto the chicken coop behind my place, and howl through the bathroom window, which is disturbing if you are in there.

He doesn’t seem to want to hurt her, and she doesn’t hiss at him, so I am happy to let him visit for now. She has even let him come in and snaffle some of her dry food, which I had to stop. I guess she misses cat company, having had two beautiful cats in the home we shared for a year before moving here. There she used to let the male (also ginger) cat come into her room and snaffle food, and only gave him an occasional smack on the thigh as he passed, so maybe she thinks this one should have the same rights. I still find it strange seeing so many male cats with balls, lounging about and proudly showing them off. We are so used to seeing male desexed cats in Australia, that what is actually normal now seems abnormal to me.

On a more serious note: please help the starving horses at the pyramids by adding your name to this http://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/401/793/585/ Camels, donkeys and horses take tourists riding around the pyramids as part of the essential Egyptian touring experience. It is terrible to see this is happening to the horses and many people will be shocked by this, but keep in mind this is a country of 90 million people where many are unemployed and many rely on tourism for their living; when tourism suffers, feeding families is the first priority for these people, so outside assistance (government or external funding) is needed to help in these situations.

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One Response to Blackouts and Ramadan changes

  1. Sue says:

    A lovely piece Sue. Really enjoyed reading it. Made me understand the attraction of Siwa.
    Thanks so much. S

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