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Egypt's mood is subdued this Ramadan

After enduring political unrest and economic collapse, Egyptians are more somber than festive as they mark Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.

August 11, 2012|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Muslims are handed a free meal in a Ramadan "Merciful Banquet" tent as they wait to break their fast in Cairo.
Muslims are handed a free meal in a Ramadan "Merciful Banquet"… (Khaled Elfiqi, European…)

CAIRO — Chickens huddle in crates near the butcher's block. A shopkeeper stacks mangoes, his hands sticky, drawing flies. Laborers linger in thinning shade and mothers tilt toward home with groceries. A thirst rises. It will be hours before it's quenched.

Even the ice man, bent and dripping, hurrying through Koran verses spinning from an old radio, does not allow water to pass his lips. He waits — like everyone else in this listless street market off the Nile — for the heat to ease and the shadows to lengthen.

During this Ramadan month of spiritual renewal, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. They celebrate and give alms to the poor. But this year, although the rituals and late-night feasts unfold as they have for centuries, Egyptians, who have endured seasons of political unrest and economic collapse, are more somber than festive.

"It doesn't have the same feeling," says Jehdan Abdelmoaty, who sells eggs from a shop tucked between train tracks and the river. "People are worried. They're much quieter. They're stepping back and not spending as much. We're trying to regain ourselves after all that has happened."

A woman with a heavy sack slips into the shop and sits beneath the fan. She closes her eyes and rests for a moment in the breeze.

"We're up to it," says Abdelmoaty, returning to her conversation. "We've been through worse."

The early promise that Egypt would stoically rise from the revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak has turned into a longer, more painful narrative of protests and political battles between Islamists and military men. Crime has soared, the economy has tumbled and confidence — from metalworkers' to stockbrokers' — has ebbed.

One columnist described his country as a "mirage state" and a flimsy imitation of the "real thing it mimics." But Egyptians possess a quiet, often good-humored, patience buttressed by a sense that whatever is happening is happening to all of us. This kinship cracks at times. Yet life and its burdens amble on amid moments of rage and prayers murmured at twilight.

"When you're young, you carry no hardships," says Sayed Alef, who has been selling mangoes since he was a boy in alleys cluttered with twisted springs and spare parts that promise reinvention in a neighborhood of desperation. "But now you feel the hardships because things aren't where they should be."

Down the alley, in a building off an open square, chairs are stacked and empty pitchers sit near embroidered canvas. Ragged boys saunter, a few kick a soccer ball, waiting for the rich to come with their Ramadan charity and fill "God's tables" with dates, smashed beans and a bit of meat. God provides, but the boys have learned he does not hasten the sunset. There are hours to go and they head back toward the alley.

Alef lifts another box of fruit. Sweat runs through his white stubble. The market crowd thickens. A woman with a curved knife makes music mincing greens on a silver platter next to an old man in a tunic — he could have blown in from a distant century — who has just awoken and doesn't feel like talking.

"Egyptians are the same this year as we were last year. We're religious," Alef says. "The good will be good. The thug will be the thug. I think, though, we all want to get closer to God as we get older."

Ramadan streamers blow in the alley. Mohamed Badawi, who with his three brothers runs four shops, is worried about crime and how people are so preoccupied with making a living that they may be straying from God. Egyptians, he says, are generous, the mosques are full, but something feels out of rhythm.

"It will get better," says Badawi, a big man with a skullcap and a gray-black beard. "After the pain there is pleasure."

Every day, though, there is news no one wants to hear: Workers strike, foreign investment is down, tourism is hurting, garbage mounts, and electrical outages are frequent. The military has yet to relinquish power to Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. Guessing who's in charge is like watching the intrigue on one of the Ramadan TV serials of trilling strings and ancient conniving.

"Even the bad," Badawi says, "try to be good during Ramadan."

The call to prayer rises and men and boys hurry toward mosques, slipping off shoes and sandals in doorways, washing themselves and prostrating for absolution. The mosques are shadowed and cool; every call to prayer is an hour closer to iftar, the breaking of the fast. Mothers, wives and daughters are home cooking, and streets fill with scents of spices and the rattle of stirred pots.

There is solace in the anticipation of the meal, but also a sense of unease about the clamor across the Arab world. The revolts that Egypt help inspire are filled with bad news. The bloodshed in Syria seems endless, as do the protests in Bahrain. Yemen is perpetually teetering and the Persian Gulf is on edge between Iran, Arab monarchies and a rising populism.

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