Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)

December 4, 2002:

The holy month of Ramadan
Fasting and observing in Cairo

By Kate Swearengen '04


Ramadan has come to Cairo. The traffic picks up at about 2:00 in the afternoon; by 3:00, it has reached Nassau Street levels, and by 4:00, when Muslims start heading home to break the fast with their families, Cairo becomes a mosaic of beat-up blue Fiats and black-and-white taxis. Seen from far away, the cars form a solid mass of hot steel, and only the black exhaust smoke can squeeze into the interstices. “Bumper-to-bumper” would be a misrepresentation, for the West has no expression that does justice to this kind of gridlock. Ramadan traffic is bus accidents, collisions between cars and donkeys, fights, and everywhere the bleating of horns. By five o’clock, the streets are empty. It could be 15 minutes before you can get a taxi, but once you find one, a drive that ordinarily takes 30 minutes will only take five.

Ramadan lasts 30 days — from early November to early December — and from sunup to sundown during this holy month, Muslims are not allowed to eat, drink, smoke, or engage in sexual relations. Upon hearing this, one American University scholar in my medieval Islamic civilization class expressed concern for Muslims living north of the Arctic Circle: “Do they have to do that for six months?”

During Ramadan, all the streets and shops are decorated with Christmas tree lights and colorful glass lanterns. Some people say that the custom of setting out lanterns originated with the Fatimids — the Martha Stewart Dynasty of the early middle period — who viewed votive decorations as a reflection of the divine light. Others say that the lanterns are a purely modern phenomenon that has no basis in historical or religious tradition, much like fruitcake in the West. In any case, Princeton would be advised to import a lanterns: They look cool, and would be a big improvement over those dinky little luminaries that line the walk outside Prospect House whenever there’s a [Get] Loaded Donor soiree.

There are two principal meals in Ramadan: iftaar, which is held directly after sundown, and suhur, which is held at about 3:30 in the morning. At the behest of my American University Islamic civilization professor — a product, incidentally, of Princeton’s Near Eastern Studies department — a friend and I went to a public iftaar that was held under the 26th of July Bridge, in Zamalek. The public iftaars are generally intended for those who don’t have the resources to feed themselves, but this one seemed popular with the neighborhood shopkeepers and bored young men. The entire area under the bridge was crowded with rickety wooden tables covered with plastic tablecloths, and there were about 100 people there. Nerida and I walked by, realized that not only would we be the only non-Arabs at the iftaar, but also the only women, and decided to walk back to the hostel and order a pizza. But as we were leaving, one of the men spooning out bowls of noodles saw us and motioned us to come in. We ended up at the end of a table of six men.

Man across the table: “Russian?”
Kate: “No.”
Man: “Russian?”
Kate: “No.”
Man: “Russian?”
Kate: “Nyet.”
Man: “Okay.”
Same man (to Nerida): “Christian?”
Nerida: “Yes.”
Man: “I am Christian, too. But so what, I am eating here anyway. Ha ha ha. Phone number?”

In addition to a new eating schedule, Ramadan means new television specials. This year, the most hyped and most controversial series is The Rider Without a Horse, a political history of Palestine that has the Anti-Defamation League up in arms. The series makes frequent reference to the so-called International Jewish Conspiracy — a plot that is limited, as far as I’m concerned, to the C.J.L.’s efforts to draw students from the residential college cafeterias by offering superior Sunday brunches and the best chocolate chip cookies on campus — and to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Personally, I think the series is pretty campy. I wish I had been in Cairo last year, when the most-watched Ramadan program was Haj Metwalli, about an Egyptian man with four wives. Haj Metwalli was such a hit that journalists wrote angry editorials complaining that Egyptians were too wrapped up in the program to pay attention to the heightened Israeli military presence in the West Bank. I asked my colloquial-Arabic tutor about the series and its attendant criticism, and she responded that she doesn’t think it’s possible for a man to have four wives and treat them in the equitable manner that Allah enjoins. I told her that there are Mormon men in Utah who have 20 wives, which confirmed all her worst suspicions about my country.

Ramadan has also brought changes to the American University. Classes are shorter and meet earlier. The Coptic and study-abroad students have become evasive smokers, lighting up far from their nicotine-deprived Muslim counterparts. The Student Union is hosting a Ramadan Charity Tent at which several prominent Arab singers will perform to benefit development in Ein el-Seera, a suburb of Cairo. The musical performance has generated a lot of controversy, most of it directed at the Student Union’s decision to invite Elissa, a racy — by Arab standards, at least — Lebanese chanteuse. One indignant young man wrote to the Caravan, the student newspaper, to sound off on the issue: “I hear the current Student Union president is using charity as an excuse to hold such an event in Ramadan, as it seems that the money coming from the event will go to charity. Well, if it’s going to charity then you might as well do the best job possible and bring Fee Fee Abdou, the belly dancer!”

Indeed, why not invite Fee Fee Abdou? If not to the Ramadan Charity Tent, then at least to Princeton. She’d be a hit at Lawnparties.


You can reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu