Cairo Muslims Party Through Ramadan
Jan. 26, 1998
CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ It is midnight in Ramadan, and the party is just starting to swing.
On a cruise boat moored on the Nile River, every table is full. The air is thick with smoke from water pipes. A singer in a green suit weaves through the crowd, belting out a song about a lover who sets his heart on fire. Everyone joins in on the chorus: ``Fire! Fire! Fire!''
During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, devout Muslims fast by day, abstaining from food, water and sex. They recite passages from Islam's holy book, the Koran, and mosques overflow at prayer times.
But at night, especially in Cairo, many party.
After the evening meal to break the daily fast, Cairo lights up _ and crowds up _ like no other time of the year. And like no other Muslim country.
Ramadan, which began on Dec. 30, marks God's revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed some 1,400 years ago. Muslims see the month of daytime fasting as a means to learn patience and rise above physical needs. Islam also encourages coming together with family, friends and neighbors.
In Egypt, special rules are observed during the holy month. Discotheques are closed, and alcohol is available only to foreigners. There are no performances by the country's famed belly dancers.
The places to be are Arab-style cafes, set up on Nile cruisers or under special tents at hotels and restaurants and shopping malls.
The cost for an evening with entertainment and a pre-dawn meal can run to nearly $50, or more than some laborers earn in a month.
``I'll take a Ramadan night to New Year's Eve any day,'' said 19-year-old Ahmed Abdel-Sattar, listening to music on the Nile cruiser.
Then he jumps off his chair and starts to dance. His friends applaud.
Most entertainers _ whether professional singers or street vendors who have set up small stalls that draw customers with blaring tape decks _ stick with traditional or pop Arab music during Ramadan rather than Western tunes.
Beverages of choice are mint tea, thick Arabic coffee or ``sahlab,'' a thick, milk-based drink topped with coconut, cinnamon and nuts. In crowded coffee houses, even non-smokers take up water pipes _ devices used to smoke tobacco, often flavored with apple or molasses.
Cinemas show movies late into the night, and many stores have more customers at night than during the day.
In central Cairo, makeshift outdoor cafes with plastic tables and chairs line the outer walls of the Hussein Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Cairo.
Here, families go for prayer and can have fun afterwards _ for very little money _ at the street bazaar.
Thousands visit at night, stopping at stalls that street vendors have set up to sell glittering costume jewelry, prayer beads, velvet hair ribbons, religious books and tambourines.
One visitor on a recent night, Anwar el-Sabwa, shooed away a young girl who was twirling a smoking incense burner in his face _ and blowing kisses _ as part of her sales pitch.
``If I wanted peace and quiet I would have stayed at home,'' says el-Sabwa, who says he comes almost nightly to the Hussein Mosque plaza. ``Here I find great, noisy fun.''
On an alley behind the mosque, another kind of Ramadan night is taking place.
Men cluster around a table checkered with numbers and motifs that include a crown, a flower and a heart. Egyptian pounds are laid on the squares, and a man in a traditional Arab robe throws two dice to determine which squares pay off.
Boraie Abdel-Samei, 60, who runs the table, knows the Islamic stricture against gambling but insists ``this is not gambling. It is just for fun.''
He adds: ``This is to celebrate Ramadan. Is there anyone who doesn't celebrate Ramadan?''
The holy month ends this week, perhaps Wednesday or Thursday depending on the sighting of the new moon. Then comes the three-day Eid al-Fitr, or the feast of the breaking of the fast, which most Egyptians spend at home with their families.