Web Exclusives: Raising Kate
a PAW web exclusive column by Kate
Swearengen '04 (email@example.com)
holy month of Ramadan
Fasting and observing
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
oclock, 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
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 theres 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 Princetons 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 dont
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?
Same man (to Nerida): Christian?
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 Im 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 doesnt think its 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
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
Unions 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 its
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. Shed be a hit at Lawnparties.
You can reach Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org