Reflections of Ramadan in the Middle East: A Journey of Faith and Hope

Malick Elias

I looked forward to the arrival of the Holy month of Ramadan with excitement and jubilation and hoping that I would be able to build upon my achievements from last year.

Last year, 2011, I began the Holy month in London of which I spent the first ten days living out of suitcases and having to break and begin my fast in a hotel. The whole atmosphere for me was less than spiritual. I made several visits to nearby mosques for the Taraweeh prayers and to catch up with old friends, but a mixture of factors led me to catch the earliest flight back to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to experience the rest of Ramadan there and I did not regret it. I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of Ramadan in Dubai and at the end of the month I was left with the feeling that through my prayers and fasting I was blessed. Six to seven months later those feelings remained with me.

Anyway, I had decided to spend Ramadan 2012 in the region; the first ten to fifteen days in Dubai and the rest of the month in Egypt. I had always wanted to celebrate Eid ul Fitr in Egypt. I recall some years earlier I spent the first ten days in Alexandria and enjoyed the atmosphere. I intended very early in the year to spend the Holy month either in Syria or Egypt, both countries of my in-laws. Allah, however, ordained that I would be heading for Egypt and so I relished the idea of spending time and Eid with them homelands. Apart earlier experiences of spending Eid in Saudi Arabia, which I did not enjoy as an expat, because despite living there for nine years I still felt like a foreigner when I compared celebrating Eid in my childhood years . In Trinidad, the West Indies, where I was born and grew up in a Christian family Christmas was a season of preparation which begun at least two months early with the local radio channels playing their seasonal Christmas carols catalogues followed by hustle and bustle of home redecoration, the buying new clothes and gifts, the hanging blinker lights and paraphernalia on Christmas trees and the baking and cooking of festive delicatessen. Eid in Trinidad took on the same celebratory mood of exchanging visits to friends homes after the congregation prayer. The Eid I experienced in Saudi Arabia was no comparison. Do not misunderstand me here, spending particularly the nights of Ramadan in either of the Holy cities is a once in a lifetime opportunity and well worth doing. But Eid is best spent with friends and family.

I wanted to get an insider’s view of how Eid is celebrated in Egypt and given that I would be with my in-laws I anticipated that it would be special. I had heard fascinating stories of Ramadan in Egypt and besides, it was post revolution and I thought that this would be a brilliant opportunity to asses the country, its people and how it had affected my in-laws for instance – a micro model of what life may be for others.

I arrived in Egypt on the first of August already filled with the enthusiasm and high expectations of reaping many spiritual benefits from me stay there.  I started the month mostly being on my own as my wife had left before me at the start of the month after receiving news of the illness of her sister. I knew that the family would be in unsettled so I decided to delay joining my wife to give them time to adjust. Ramadan in the UAE can be a deeply spiritual experience if that is what one seeks. The malls and restaurants are quiet as the serving of food and beverages by cafes and restaurants are forbidden to the public during the daytime of the fast. At night all statuses of society gather together in mosques standing shoulder to shoulder and toe to toe praying to the recitation of the Holy Quran and follow the Imam in prayer. This is usually one of the best social and spiritual features as mosques – like my local mosque – pride themselves by inviting some of the best readers of the Quran which can transform any hardened heart. By the time I got on the plane to Egypt on the first of August my transformation was underway and I imagined myself during the last ten days of Ramadan in seclusion in one of the nearby mosques to where I intended to stay.

I landed in Alexandria late evening so there was not much to see, except the poorly lit roads as we drove through an industrial region, the air thick with the smell of petroleum which almost made me feel faint and gave me a sick feeling in my stomach. An hour later I arrived at my in-laws and they seem pleased to see me. Egyptians have a way of analysing you at first acquaintance – though this was not the first time of meeting my wife’s family they quickly analysed me as I recall someone commenting on my choice of clothing: ‘I told you he would wear a shorts and shirt.” I had previously told my wife that I was going to wear traditional wear to save on space in my suitcase. In fact I wanted to wear Tawbs or Kandoras a traditional grab of the Middle East but slightly similar to what peasants and overtly religious folk wear. I had intended to gauge the responses of others as I walked through the streets to the mosque in traditional attire. Surprisingly pleased that no one bothered me on my way to and from the mosque, except that one evening me and my wife went to a ‘middle class’ cafe on the corniche the night before the end of Ramadan and we were stopped by the doorman and told that all three floors of the venue were booked by clients. She had warned me earlier not to wear the traditional garment, but I refused to believe that it should hinder me in any way. I did not believe a word the young host told me, but I refused to believe the cafe had been booked at all. It is true to say that at the previous times I went to the place there were no wearing traditional were apart from the women some who wore just western clothing without headscarves, others  who were clad in layers of western clothes to meet Islamic dress codes and few wearing face veils so I found it strange that I would be seen as persona non grata . The experience left me thinking that there was an invisible line beyond which toleration ended and subtle prejudices prevailed.

The crisis over the illness of my wife’s sister had simmered and my in-laws made every attempt to look after me as the days and weeks passed. But I could not fail noticing the impact the uncertainty created by the revolution was having upon their hopes for the future and trust for each other particularly their new leaders. The majority of my in-laws were anti-Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as opposed to my wife who held out optimism, hope and faith in God that Egypt had elected wisely. Me, I am too old to wave flags for any one in particular. My position is one of optimism too, but I believe that in a healthy democracy you need an opposition and a critical eye. So I spent most of the time urging her not to respond to the taunts of her dear mother and others and at times the relationships in the home reached near crisis point. It is very seldom that Egyptians have a non-passionate discussion. The general ideological argument was that one cannot mix religion with politics. Politics is seen by many people as involving corruption, lies and deceit and religion the proper antithesis of politics. Once confronted with this view I queried that it did not make sense to have corrupt, lying and deceitful men and women looking after the affairs of the nation and that perhaps was the reason behind mismanaging the country’s resources by men of power. There was also the argument by both those in my household and ordinary critics of the MB that they trusted the Salafis more that the Ikhwan because they understood the uncompromising views of the Salafis as opposed to the MB who were likely to have a multitude of meanings.

The day after President Mursi, resigned General Tantawi and members of the army old guard, I saw both a respect and fear from critics towards him. Demonstrating that he had the power to remove them seem to undermine the hope that many had in his removal from office by the army and at the same time gave rise to a sense of respect for his political acumen. People in Egypt respect strong leaders. On the home front political arguments went quiet for a while, but pessimism of what the future may bring remained high.

In early August I had decided to meet with friends who lived in Cairo and to catch up with the old days. It is one of my least favourite cities I liked going to in Egypt. The city lit up my five senses and places me on high alert. In previous visits, my experience of Cairo was that is was overcrowd and polluted. But there were places to see and one such place I enjoyed visiting was the Syed Hussain mosque where members of the Holy Prophets family had been buried. My last visit during Ramadan was disastrous. In a nearby restaurant where I ended my fast we were overcharge for the meals on the basis that there were city taxes had to be paid by each customer, which I accepted. However, when it was time to receive my change we had to negotiate for it. Firstly, by asking for it when the waiter did not seem to want to give us our change and secondly, when he did eventually hand it to us, he fell short of the correct amount for which we had to argue for the full payment of monies owed. The change from the meal – the some of sixty Egyptian pounds – did not last a half an hour with me, when after praying in the al-Husain mosque, I was approached by a very pleasant young man who managed to win the amount from my grip by way of pleasantries and a sad story of unemployment and family commitments, which he was unable to meet. In hindsight I regretted giving him the large sum of money and thought it would have been wiser to break it up into smaller coins when later approached by many beggars asking for small change.

The rampant begging throughout both cities defaced the pride of those cities. Perhaps it was because it was Ramadan, the month of charitable deeds, but for those like myself who find it hard to refuse a Muslim in need, I felt like I had committed a sin every time I refused to give and there were many times I refused to give because I could not distinguish between the needy and those who made a profession out of begging. The desperation the beggars created defeated the love I wanted to feel for the time I spent in Cairo. I returned to Alexandria spiritually defeated, ill and lost 6 days of not fasting.

In Egypt people work very hard to survive because of the tough economic realities. That much is very clear on the ground as one gets a sense that most people one engages with in any transaction is hustler. If you are not aware of prices you will pay a bit more than those who know what the real prices are, and at times some situations are challenging. One night we hire a cab from the City Centre and agreed to pay the sum of 30 Egyptian pounds to take us to Gamal Abd Nasr street. The driver did his best to drive around the traffic spots to get us home quickly. We greatly appreciated this and had decided to give him an increased fee for 45 Egyptian pounds. At the end of the journey he demanded 50 and insisted that he be given this amount. I am sure that for any of you who are travellers to many countries that these observations are normal, I expected more from Muslims. But as I noted, poverty can destroy ones dignity. And as my sister in-law confided in me she said that the biggest problem facing the people of Egypt and the source of much discord within families, is money or the lack of it.

Even at the level of the middle classes, whose income derives from business at home and money sent from working relations abroad there is much uncertainty and strain upon families. The prevailing sense of lack of opportunity and an unclear future for young people are major sources of uncertainty that loom over their lives. Many teenagers, manly boys, think of escaping to the West or nearby courtiers to forge a future for themselves. Girls think of marriage early on because it is their hope to leave home and build a future for themselves. But for this to happen the boy has to have a home and hand over huge sums of money upfront to get married. Hence, it is still favourable for couples to marry with relatives to keep what wealth they have inside of the extended family. Fathers who work in neighbouring countries spend great lengths of time away from home and this places more stresses and strains upon an already burdened household. Moreover, the education bill for families who try to invest in their children’s futures are extortionate. Class sizes are huge and the real education takes place after school through private tutors. My heart goes out to the people and I understand why smoking is endemic in many families. I looked on as I watched the young children of my in-laws’ household spend hours watching films on the television having very limited places to go, except to visit each other. Visiting each other is how the stronger and better-to-do members of the family supports the less able extended family members so homes are always active, especially during the school vacation. The planners did not consider children at all, when they were building the cities. There are no visible parks or too few to remember. In Alexandria there is a very long coastline which is either being bought or rented by private companies and so the public beaches are on the decrease. I get the impression that domestic life in many families is becoming dysfunctional as TV Soap operas are what bring families together and shape their future dreams and aspirations. Could you then imagine spending the day lights of Ramadan indoors with family?

Tackling social injustices is just the tip of the iceberg in Egypt. A whole rethinking of city planning is desperately needed and Egypt needs a leader akin to a dictator with a kind heart to relocate most people to the city outskirts and reconstruct the city spaces exclusive for business, knowledge and leisure, similar to that of Dubai.

After all Eid ul Fitr did meet my expectations even though I was not very familiar with the dietary customs of eating on the first day after Eid. The Eid prayer was fantastic as my local mosque was transformed by officials into an all female prayer hall and men and children occupied the surrounding streets. Everyone seem to have made a commitment to attend and observe the ritual prayer. Spending Ramadan in Muslim countries can enhance ones spirituality or challenge it too, but I guess Eid is what you make it wherever one’s family and friends may live.

Upon leaving Egypt, I thought about my whole experience and concluded that I found many Muslims , but few visible signs of believers. I still yearned for the feelings of faith that I felt after last years Ramadan, which I spent in Dubai.

As I returned to my residence in the UAE and hustled from one terminal to the other to book a rental car, I forgot my suitcase in the taxi. At first, I could not believe that I actually did that, and resolved to forget about it because I was certain that it was gone forever. I was persuaded by the car rental agent to report it to the airport police. I did and was greeted by a young officer, in plain western clothing with a very pleasant countenance who assured me that he would have my suitcase back with me in twenty minutes. He drove with me to another terminal where a central computer system was located, which recorded every transaction of each taxi in the city. He asked only three questions: where did I take the taxi, how much did I pay and at what time. I was immediately shown the picture of a man who was phoned and asked whether he had my suitcase. He confirmed that he did, but that he was in another city. The officer instructed him to drop off his passengers and to return the luggage to the airport police station – and to my amazement I had my suitcase once again. I contrasted that had the same incident happened to me on my visit to Egypt that the likelihood of having it returned to me was slim. Not because of someone stealing it, but because they were not as organised as I had seen in Dubai. The kindness and support of the police immediately restored my hope in a bright future for the people of the region.

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Malick Elias

The vision of 'Vivaislam' is to provide a space for Muslim and non-Muslim activists to air their voices on how best to organise and manage their world. The aim is to focus upon recommending solutions to issues of social injustices, freedoms and citizenship facing predominantly Muslim and non-Muslim societies, rather than offering descriptions of problems. It is our hope that these voices will reach the echelons of power and influence.

2 thoughts on “Reflections of Ramadan in the Middle East: A Journey of Faith and Hope”

  1. Interesting I also experienced some of the same issues the time I spent in Egypt ,im happy you think the future is bright remember the future is not orange its Islam 🙂

    1. Assalamu ‘Alaykum,
      Do not get me wrong. I fully resented the hustling I saw, and I think we have to expose all the wrongs we want see put right, wherever they may occur; but in the end we remain hopeful that Muslim nations get it right and make us proud.

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