Ramadan has been a good experience so far, despite the fasting bringing a clawing thirst and dryness of throat by late afternoon. Siwa is almost a ghost town during the day but really comes alive after 10pm when final prayers are done, with motorbikes, cars, donkey carts dashing around the streets, making the central blocks almost as chaotic and difficult to cross as streets in the big cities. I would not usually be in the centre so late in the evening, but I must go then to get meat for Habibi as the butcher is also running to Ramadan hours.
Everyone has eaten and refreshed themselves and looks happy, and after 15 hours without liquid (and cigarette free for the many smokers) there is a huge sense of relief that must be part of the cause for the smiles. When I say everyone I mean the men, the women of course are not evident, I only sometimes see them moving between the houses where the men are gathered to eat, or piled into donkey carts with children going to visit extended family.
There are tables and chairs in new locations throughout town, outside cafes and on rooftops, with strings of lights drawing people to these spots, and there are many more Siwans than usual coming in to town at night, sitting in these pop-up café spaces, or on the green square in the centre to share a leisurely tea or coffee or smoke with friends, playing board games or watching the televisions in the cafes, or just driving or wandering around greeting each other, picking up kofta sandwiches or other snacks from the additional outdoor kitchens some cafes have set up at their street front, or doing the shopping.
Everyone is supposed to have new clothes for Eid at the end of the month, so many of the stores have increased their stock of ready made clothes; displayed at their entrances are outfits for children, and for the women dresses in vibrant prints or more refined black offset with a trim of light- catching silver, and shimmering scarves. Half a dozen additional tailors have opened around town, making the long shirts and pants the men wear, and the tailors are bent over their sewing machines as men fill the small stores choosing white, sand or pastel cotton for their new garments.
Added to my regular evening stops of vegetable seller and butcher is most nights a visit to see Mish Mish the cat at Abdou’s café (who gets a tiny taste of Habibi’s meat) and then Bessie the dog. Bessie was once owned by someone but became a friendly stray who hangs around Champione cafe, and she now has three pups. She is a very thin dog with a sad face but when you show her affection she follows you and her eyes smile. One day when I returned from Alexandria on the 6am bus, I was jostled by a pack of roaming wild dogs as I walked to my house, Bessie came to my rescue, cut in front of them and walked to the house with me, and waited until I got inside, keeping them at bay. Before she had the pups I had not noticed she was pregnant, as she remained scrawny, and I am amazed she managed the energy to push them out in this heat. They have taken up residence on the steps of a store near the café, and the talented salt carver who has a store nearby looks out for the pups when Bessie goes wandering, and makes sure she has water. The pups initially just lay about looking exhausted by the heat, but they have grown each day and are now fat little bundles with their eyes open and showing enough strength to survive. When I visit the black one crawls over my feet and tries to suck on my toes, he seems to think I am a second mother; they are already used to me patting them, and Bessie lets me handle them with no sign of concern. If I did not already have my beautiful monster cat Habibi, I would love to have the black pup, who is the most curious and social of the three.
Meanwhile Mish Mish (apricot in Arabic, as her fur is that colour) the young cat at Abdou’s has been in heat and I expect will show signs of pregnancy again soon. Desexing doesn’t exist here, so the poor cats just have litter after litter, from an early age. Her last kittens disappeared soon after they could walk, we don’t know their fate. Even the tiny bit of meat she gets from me and whatever scaps the kitchen gives her seems to be making a difference and she now looks sleek instead of all bones, so maybe the next litter will fare better.
I enjoy hearing the different prayers from the mosque just behind my house. While I don’t understand much, they do seem to vary from the usual round of other months. A few mornings back, I woke about 4am to hear a beautifully sung prayer coming from only one mosque, instead of the usual chorus of many mosques. I do not know why this man was chanting alone, but in the still and cool dark it was exquisitely calming, especially in comparison to the yells of children and the thud of the drum announcing it was time to start fast again which filled the street only two hours earlier, when I was trying to settle into sleep.
I did mess up one fasting day – I went to get cheese for the evening meal, but in the middle of the day. The store assistant, who was not to know I was fasting because I am a foreigner and don’t wear hijab, offered me a bite of cheese to taste first. He knows that I usually buy gibna rumi, “Roman cheese”, the hard, parmesan-style cheese, but this day I wanted the soft feta-style cheese, so it was natural that he should ask me to try it first to be sure I liked it. I was a bit hazy due to fasting and just didn’t think, and normally it would be impolite to refuse the offered sample, so I ate it and a second later reaslised what I had done! I have now learnt just how mindful or your actions you need to be in Ramadan, and probably how I should be more mindful of my actions at all times. I have since been advised that if you break fast accidentally like this is is not a disaster, only if you break it and do so with intent or mindfully is it wrong.
Below is the link for a brief article on fasting I would like to share, as I have received some sharp criticism for doing this, not from Muslims, but from non Muslim friends. Some of this woman’s positive experiences I can echo. I would like to remind those who criticize the practice that Christian and Jewish traditions also dictate fasting and many other dietary restrictions, and not just at one time of year. I am doing this for, among many reasons, the reminder of how fortunate I am compared to so many people, the sense of awareness and focus, and the sense of community. I know, as the critics have said, that many Muslims do not keep the fast, but the same applies to many others who claim to be devoted to other religions and spiritualities but do not meet their commitments. I can only say – judge a religion or philosophy by its teachings and recommendations, not by the practices of a selection of its followers.
The article is by Kristiane Backer, who as a host on the music channel MTV Europe became an icon of 1990s pop music culture. In 1995 she converted to Islam. She shares some personal Ramadan experiences and reflects on the meaning of this month of fasting. Fasting from Anger, Impatience and Negativity http://en.qantara.de/wcsite.php?wc_c=8366
I am not taking on the requirements and expectations of Islam or of Siwan or Egyptian culture all at once, but some of them gradually. I have already needed to learn SO much just about local customs that have nothing to do with Islam. After nearly nine months here, I am trying to be a bit less hard on myself than I was at the start, when I often got angry with myself for “not knowing” what to do or say. The first six months I kept saying to my Egyptian partner here “I just can’t do anything right!’ But now I realise how very different our worlds are and that for me it is like learning to walk and talk all over again – except a child has no preconceptions to overwrite or fight against, and I have decades of ingrained habits and ways of responding to everything.
“Schwier, schwier” we say of how I am learning Arabic, “bit by bit”, “slowly, slowly”, and schwier schwier I am changing to fit more comfortably into life here.