Trini in Egypt: Ramadan and renewal
By Natalie Williams
The holy month of Ramadan across Egypt and the Muslim world came charged with political significance: it had momentum, but at the same time, a sense of calmness.
It was the first holy period celebrated under the new administration of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. And to my mind, the winds of change are palpable.
Following the presidential elections that swept the popular ex-general to power, life on the ground in Egypt has morphed into new experiences for my family and me, as we mark one year since we moved to Cairo.
It has been an interesting era for the Egyptian people and for me and my family in our adopted country.
Mercifully, the elections passed without the violence and bloodshed that had come to characterise our time in Egypt, following a series of revolutions and uprisings.
But now, almost overnight, daily life as we had come to know it is being transformed.
Car seat belts are mandatory and now strictly in effect.
Drinking hot tea from a glass mug (with no handles) whilst driving a taxi is officially banned.
Littering is properly penalised. Street vending is now banned and the crackdown even more vibrant.
The 20 million people who live and work in Cairo, alongside an equal number of cars, microbuses, motor bikes, trucks and hundreds and donkeys, are being encouraged to cycle more, in a campaign led by President Sisi himself.
At the same time, rules and laws have come alive once again across the capital and Egypt as a whole.
Taxis fares and fuel prices have also gone up, and with this, food prices too.
And because these changes all coincided with Ramadan - a time for peace, reflection and sacrifice - I suspect The Wise One and I have experienced a holy month like no other under this new political dispensation and rigour.
Discipline and order
The new president is of solid military stock and prefers a life of discipline and order.
Cairo certainly needs it – and, it seems, is in fact capable of functioning at a more measured pace, as demonstrated during Ramadan.
For starters, Cairo, and really all of Egypt, became extraordinarily quiet and peaceful for the duration of the holy month.
While fasting was under way, the streets were fairly deserted, with the hubbub of cafe society silenced, as shops, cafes and restaurants closed for some hours.
The Ramadan effect
Traffic congestion was largely dissipated, and with Ramadan came a renewed respect for the silence that the mind and soul craves when living in a city of 20 million people.
The ebb and flow of Nile boat traffic slowed to a leisurely pace, while the garish neon lights wrapped around the vessels temporarily switched off.
And the beloved Corniche - the “developed” landscape that runs the length of the Nile - became a tranquil, private walking route as people stayed indoors to sleep and cope with the hardships of fasting rituals.
Many a day, I felt as though I had been transported back to Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo of a bygone era - and I loved it.
Experiencing the holy month for me in Cairo is very different from my native Trinidad and Tobago, home to half a million Muslims who make up the second-largest ethnic group on the island.
My memories of Ramadan in Port of Spain are all about festivities, parties, feasts and a Caribbean cultural melting pot of food, music and religious tolerance of every creed and race.
And it is because of the warmth, generosity and inclusion of my Muslim friends that I love this period so much and have come over the years to appreciate all that it signifies.
Back in Cairo, a city that assaults your senses at the best and worst of times, lanterns - big and small, colourful and shiny - lit up the alley-ways and streets.
And paper chains, flapping in the wave of a Nile breeze, all added to a glorious ambiance we were experiencing for the first time in Cairo.
(For our first Ramadan in Cairo, we were stuck in a hotel, trapped under a state of emergency and a military curfew.)
Rhythm of Ramadan
So from my balcony, under a canopy of a huge flamboyant tree and bougainvillea in full bloom, night after night we enjoyed the voice of the Mesaharaty - the man who beats the drum calling all Egyptians and Muslims across the city to awake from their slumber, to feast in the Suhour or late night meal of Ramadan, before the fasting cycle begins again.
On a simple human level, it was good to experience supermarkets drained of chaos and to wander the streets of Cairo devoid of hustlers and crowds. But significant problems lingered on in daily life, for locals and foreigners alike.
Fast-breaking Iftar dinners were marred by the daily blackouts across Cairo, some lasting two hours.
And the evening call to prayer was often interrupted by elders groping for torches and matches.
"These power cuts really affect me and my work at my language school," one Cairo native, Rifat, told me. "I lost hours and hours of preparatory work and it is just so frustrating."
Heading out to dinner recently, our dear friend and host, Richard Cross, said to the Wise One and me: "Bring empty stomachs for a feast, oh and candles and a lighter gun."
Attacks and shortages
There are now regular attacks on security forces and even electricity sub-stations – an enduring legacy from the toppling of Egypt's first democratically elected President, Mohammed Morsi, one year ago.
Fuel shortages still cause strife at petrol stations, tourists are still staying away from the great pyramids and iconic Egyptian monuments, and the country's heritage is under real threat from looters.
Meanwhile, poverty and unemployment still run high.
Sadly, some within the educated classes are leaving Egypt.
Whatever your political views, it is never good for a society when university graduates become obsessed with ditching their mother country for so-called “greener pastures”.
A few local friends with life options are choosing to leave Egypt.
Nadia, a young vivacious half-Irish Egyptian whom we have grown so very fond of, feels slightly hopeless about jobs and life in Egypt and is packing up and shipping out to seek purpose and fortune elsewhere.
"I can see the opportunities in Egypt, but whether a lack of motivation or means, these opportunities don't seem to translate into actual business or jobs. I hope Egypt reaches its full potential. For me, it's time to leave," she tells us.
Georgina, too, is desperate to leave, despite a great job at a local embassy.
She is fed up with Egypt and eager to try for a life in the US.
But there are signs of hope, such as a recent $25m loan to Egypt to build vocational and training centres, specifically to target unemployment amongst young Egyptians.
And hope can be found too, fundamentally, in the new president's almost dogmatic attitude that Egyptians must “get up and get” collectively in to problem-solving mode.
He wants this attitude to infect the entire society and this could never be a bad thing.
Not long ago, Egypt played a starring role in offering to be at the centre of ceasefire talks between Hamas and the Israelis during the height of the horrific killings on both sides of the Gaza Strip.
As a result, there was a sense of pride that ran high amongst the locals whom I regularly check in with about current affairs and local politics.
Egypt's attempts failed, but this didn't matter on the ground.
This same sense of pride emerged when my local taxi man Ashraf beamed up into his rear-view mirror to explain the installation of dozens of colourful tents that had popped up all over Cairo.
"Those are the free Iftars tents to feed the people. No one will go hungry. No money, no problem. We look after each other in Egypt,” he told this Trini in Egypt.
Let's hope this is true for the future of this great nation.
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