Friday, 7 May 2021

It’s our second pandemic Ramadan

The Beginning

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A belated Ramadan Kareem, everyone: The holy month is almost over, but there’s plenty to reflect on as we approach the end of our second Ramadan under covid-19. This month, we’re taking a more historic approach to Ramadan, reflecting on the history of the Ramadan traditions we know and love, as well as how other cultures celebrate around the world. We’ve also put together a list of things to do and sights to see during (or after) the holy month to immerse yourself in the Ramadan spirit — although there are new covid-19 restrictions to be wary of — as well as a number of apps and platforms that can come in handy during Ramadan and beyond.


This year marks the second Ramadan to fall during the covid-19 pandemic, but (relatively) laxer restrictions this time around mean many are able to engage in some of the traditional gatherings and activities associated with the Ramadan. People took to the streets and markets to mark the start of the holy month, shopping for nuts, sweets and decorative Ramadan lanterns (watch, runtime 5:59). "There is a stark difference between this year and last year," one shopper, Amira Karim, told Reuters, adding "This year, I can feel Ramadan."

Taraweeh prayers and umrah are back: Last year, Ramadan fell during the first round of pandemic-related lockdowns. Mosques in many countries were closed and Muslims were restricted from sharing the communal meals or charitable activities that characterize the month. This year in Egypt, mosques have been allowed to reopen, though worshippers should wear masks and maintain social distancing measures, and taraweeh prayers should be limited to 30 minutes. Many have been looking forward to reclaiming this cherished ritual. “It’s a whole other feeling, and the spirituality in Ramadan is like nothing else,” 68-year-old Egyptian Magdy Hafez, who is accustomed to praying Taraweeh at the mosque, told the Associated Press. In Saudi Arabia, worshipers are also allowed to perform the year-round umrah pilgrimage during Ramadan, provided they are vaccinated or recently recovered from covid-19.

And dining out is (partially) allowed: While cafes and restaurants were only open for takeaway last year, Cabinet has allowed establishments to remain open for most of the day to host limited Ramadan gatherings. Restaurants are now required to close their doors after 9pm, but are allowed to resume deliveries around the clock.

Though still no charity tables: Mawa’ed Rahman and large indoor gatherings including funerals or celebrations are still banned.

Other Muslim-majority countries are also relaxing restrictions: In Saudi Arabia iftar gatherings are limited to 20 people this year, while in Indonesia people are allowed to gather in restaurants, malls and cafes, which can open at 50% capacity. In Israel, 10k vaccinated Palestinians in the West Bank were allowed to pray in the Al Aqsa mosque at the start of the month

Though others are cracking down in fear of a third wave: Iraq has imposed a curfew from 7 pm to 5 pm, as well as a full lockdown on weekends, while Gaza has imposed a nighttime curfew to limit gatherings. In India, which is currently in the grip of a fierce third wave, authorities are appealing to citizens to avoid mass gatherings during Ramadan as the country faces a record surge in covid-19 related deaths.

And some Ramadan traditions remain a casualty of the virus: In Saudi Arabia, the government has banned Iftar street banquets traditionally held to feed the poor, dubbed the “Tables of the Compassionate” and prevented mosques from serving free meals during the month. But the month’s spirit of giving still persists for many, with charitable individuals organizing the distribution of “Ramadan bags” filled with rice, oil, sugar and other food items to distribute to families in need.


While Ramadan is a uniting time for Muslims around the world, each community has its own unique celebratory customs to ring in the holy month: There are more to Ramadan’s customs and traditions than Egypt’s mesaharaty drummers and lanterns. Below are some of the varied ways people celebrate Ramadan in different parts of the world.


Before the month of fasting begins, Indonesian Muslims on the island of Java typically partake in a bathing ritual called “Padusan,” in which the faithful soak themselves from head to toe in natural water sources such as holy wells, springs or rivers. The idea is to symbolically cleanse themselves spiritually and physically for fasting and prayer during Ramadan. Bathers walk in a group to their chosen destination, with baskets of food on their heads and gather for a communal prayer and ritual bath and meal, traditionally eaten off of plantain leaves. Hot springs have a very significant spiritual and cultural importance in Indonesia, especially on the island of Java.


Almost two weeks before the month of Ramadan, children in the UAE go for Halloween-like trick-or-treating, known as “Haq Al Laila” — an annual event that aims to educate the UAE public about the holy month and promote the values of sharing and giving. Children don their traditional costumes on that day and roam the streets of their neighborhoods chanting songs of blessings from door-to-door and collecting sweets and nuts in bags called “Kharyta,” from their neighbors. The tradition takes place in mid-Sha’ban — the Hijri month before Ramadan. The festivity — like many other Ramadan customs and traditions — is shared by many other countries across the GCC. It is known as “Gargee'an” in Kuwait and “Garangao” in Qatar, and is celebrated in the middle, rather than before the beginning, of the holy month.


After breaking the fast at sunset every day, Iraqi men gather at coffee shops to play some folk games — one named “Al Siniya” (the tray), and another game of deception called “Mheibes” (the ring). In Al Siniya, a playing die is hidden underneath 11 cups arranged on a tray, and players must attempt to find it in the fewest number of guesses. In Mheibes, two teams ranging in size from a few dozen to several hundred players attempt to hide a ring among them, while members of the other team must guess who has the ring. Decades ago, Iraq’s government would organise Mheibes tournaments that would host hundreds of participants and bring together communities from across the country, but the state-sponsored games were later brought to a halt during wartime in the early '00s. Individual community members, however, still keep up this get-together Ramadan tradition that lives on today.


After iftar, a guest poet is nominated to recite “Raivaru a traditional form of Ramadan poetry in the Maldives composed of three or more verses, entertaining guests with words of spiritual significance. Raivaru is not a Ramadan-exclusive tradition and has been used as a teaching tool, a way to pass on gossip, and a source of entertainment in the Maldives. The country’s rich cultural history steeped in Islamic faith has seen the adaptation of this traditional form of folk poetry to suit Ramadan traditions. The tiny island’s traditional iftar fare includes fish cake and fish balls, and post-iftar celebrations include folk dancing, ballad singing, and flying kites.


The history of Egypt’s Ramadan: Most of us take for granted the traditions and spectacles that make spending the holy month in Egypt an unforgettable experience. Many of the festivities that distinguish Ramadan today originated during the Fatimid caliphate, which ruled much of the Arab world for nearly 200 years between the 10th and 11th centuries AD and established Cairo as its capital.

The traditional Ramadan fanoos (lantern) was said to have come into existence after locals carried candles on wooden bases to light the way for the arrival of Fatimid caliph and Cairo founder Al Mu’izz li-Din Allah Al Fatimy on the fifth night of Ramadan in 969 AD. Since then, the fanoos has become synonymous with the holy month, and its function evolved from a traditional lantern to an ornament throughout the Arab world.

We would also not have a “mesaharaty” if it weren’t for Egypt: The practice dates back to Mecca’s Bilal ibn Rabah, who was history’s first mu’azzin (prayer-caller) and the first to roam the streets on Ramadan nights to awaken people for sohour. But the more recent use of a drum, which is the most distinguishing feature of today’s mesaharaty, began on the streets of Cairo. The practice began during the Fatimid era when caliph Al Hakim Bi Amr Allah ordered people to sleep after the Taraweeh prayers in the late evening and had his soldiers pass by houses to awaken people for their final meal before fasting began at dawn. Fouad Haddad and Sayed Mekawy’s iconic 1950s television show “El Mesaharaty” then made the “mesaharaty” a star in Egyptian and Arab folklore, giving the character new life.

Cairo was the first major city to fire a cannon at dawn signaling the end of the fast. One legend says the tradition, which became known as sounding Madfa’ El Iftar (the Iftar Cannon) started after Mamluk sultan Sayf Al Din Khushqadam tested a cannon he received as a gift in 1455. Khusqadam, coincidentally, fired the gun at dusk, and locals thought this was a signal to break the fast. Today, the word madfa’ (cannon) is used throughout the country to refer to the time at which Muslims can break their fast. The original cannon at the Citadel fired again this year after being out of commission for three decades.

And let’s not forget Mawa’ed El Rahman and the Ramadan tent: Charity iftar tables (Mawa’ed El Rahman) were first seen during the reign of Fatimid caliph Al Aziz Billah. They became widespread in Egypt under King Farouk I, and were open to travelers and working class people from all walks of life. The more lavish Ramadan tents, commercial venues for people to gather after iftar, are another tradition owing its popularity to Egypt. Some accounts claim the tents date back to the Fatimids, while others say they’re relatively more recent and evolved from “saradek” tents Egyptians set up as places to offer condolences.

Some traditions can even be traced back to the Pharaohs: Egyptians were said to have taken inspiration from Pharaonic etymology to give us the celebration song “Wahawi ya Wawahi Eyaha,” which some say is derived from a phrase ancient Egyptians used to hail queen Ahhotep I, whose name in standard Arabic is “Eyah Hotep.”

Ramadan has provided plenty of literary inspiration: Many Arab literary works were inspired by Ramadan and its rituals, including Nubian author Mohamed Khalil Kassem’s 1968 novel “Al Shamandoura,” which depicts how Nubians celebrated Ramadan, Jurji Zaydan’s “17 Ramadhan,” which takes place entirely during the holy month, and Naguib Mahfouz’s “Khan Al Khalili.”

In recent history, Ramadan was witness to the crossing of the Bar Lev line during the 1973 October War when, Egyptian troops broke through impenetrable Israeli fortifications along the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, and Muslims among them did so while fasting. Army commanders had chosen Operation Badr as a codename for the crossing, drawing inspiration from the Battle of Badr between the early Muslims and the tribe of Quraysh, which also took place in Ramadan in 624 AD.


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Covid-19 has accelerated the digital transformation of everything from our social lives to our shopping habits, and the way we do Ramadan is no exception. From online shopping to charitable giving and entertainment, various apps and services are changing how we experience the holy month.

Consumption sits at the top of our tech-mediated habits during Ramadan with 22% of adults surveyed in Egypt saying they spent more time shopping online last Ramadan because of the pandemic, and 41% saying they use their phone more during the holy month. A separate AdColony survey conducted in the Middle East and North Africa last year found that 82% of respondents mostly use their smartphones for online shopping and 51% of Ramadan shoppers prefer to buy stuff through apps. This comes after Google search analytics dubbed last year’s covid-ramadan double whammy “the most digital Ramadan of all time.”

So, what are people using to go about fulfilling their online shopping needs? Amazon-owned Souq sells everything from home furnishings to kids clothing and groceries and delivers right to your doorstep. Saudi Arabian online retailer Noon offers much of the same and even has a dedicated Ramadan Home Essentials section for all your cooking, cleaning and hosting needs. The Dutch online trading platform OLX is another huge player in Egypt that allows users to directly list and purchase things like homes, cars and appliances. If you’re looking to browse the dizzying array of e-commerce websites available in Egypt right now, Yaoota provides an online shopping search engine that aggregates results from across platforms like Souq, Jumia and Tradeline.

With hunger occupying a larger chunk of our brain capacity this month, food delivery services offer a major convenience: Platforms like Talabat (formerly Otlob), Mrsool and El Menus connect users to hundreds of food outlets and deliver meals right to your doorstep, while Mumm works with home based cooks to provide and deliver meals. If you’re not into the whole eating out thing, you can order groceries online through Instashop and 1Trolley, or order freshly baked goods from Breadfast. Carrefour and Gourmet also have their own home delivery apps. And with restaurants and cafes now required to close by 9pm, these platforms can be your best friends for sohour for the last week of Ramadan.

We’re also relying on tech now more than ever for our post-iftar entertainment needs with most Ramadan series available to stream on Shahid or Watch iT, who in 2019 began drawing ramadan series away from YouTube and onto their own platforms. Streaming app Hekayat also provides access to Egyptian and Arab series from elsewhere in the region.

But tech hasn't just made us more sedentary this month, it’s also made charitable giving way easier: The Neya app allows users to connect with the causes they care about most and offers easy access to volunteer work and donations to specific organizations, causes or people. If you’re looking to do good by providing food, the UNFP’s ShareTheMeal program allows you to purchase someone a meal for as little as USD 0.50 and the Egyptian Food Bank accepts online donations to provide iftar for one person for as little as EGP 25. Tekaya offers users and businesses a platform to sell meals and uncooked food ahead of their expiration date to those in need. You can also sign up as a consumer on their platform if you are in need of a fresh, reduced price meal.

Other apps worth mentioning for facilitating religious observance during the holiday include Muslim Pro, which notifies users of the call to prayer, has a Quran recitation feature and includes its own electronic sebha. Qibla Compass, which is essentially a compass with no points other than a sign which directs you towards the Kaaba in Mecca, is also popular.

Your top 5

Your top 5 pieces of business and economic news in April:

  • Higher education outfit Taaleem debuted on the EGX, ending the country’s IPO drought.
  • Russia agreed to resume direct flights to Egypt’s Red Sea resort towns.
  • Egypt will embark on a three-year structural reform program to support private sector-led economic growth.
  • Back-to-back railway accidents put Egypt’s ailing railway infrastructure under the spotlight.
  • Egypt’s non-oil private sector contracted again in March, but businesses are the most optimistic they’ve been in a while.


With flickering lights and fawanees decorating streets nationwide, Egypt is a sight to behold during Ramadan. The country also has no shortage of gorgeous monuments and events to visit if you’re looking to really immerse yourself in the holy month’s culture and history. Here are a few picks to consider before Eid rolls in:

Bab Zuweila and Mosque of Sultan Al Muayyad: Bab Zuweila is a massive gate surmounted on either side by the minarets of the Al Muayyad Mosque. Built in the 11th century and considered part of the original Fatimid fortifications, the gate used to be one of three main portals to the city (the other two being Bab Al Futuh and Bab Al Nasr) and is a must-see sight in Islamic Cairo. The Mosque is open to visitors and offers one of the best views of Old Cairo at the summit of the steep steps leading to its minaret. The Mosque was built by the Mamluk Sultan al Muayyad Saif al Din Shaykh. As the legend goes, the Sultan was imprisoned at the same site, and vowed to turn the location into a center for worship and learning if he escaped and came to power.

Moez Street: It wouldn’t be a Ramadan list without Moez El Deen Street. Previously the main street through the city when it was built in the 11th century, many mausoleums and palaces were constructed along the scenic route. The street also hosts a bustling neighborhood, home to thousands of craftsmen making items to be sold in Khan Al-Khalili, which intersects the street’s midpoint. A walk down the usually elaborately-decorated street, some shopping, and a sohour at one of the many cafes in the area is sure to offer maximum Ramadan vibes. The street will also be home to the cultural and artistic Ramadan Nights Festival which is organized annually by the General Authority for Cultural Palaces. The festival’s activities include environmental craft workshops and art exhibitions as well as bazaars selling products by women and youths.

The Museum of Islamic Art: Founded in 1881, the museum’s collection spans from the 7th century Umayyad dynasty to the 19th century Ottoman Empire. There you’ll find over 100k displays reflecting the greatness of Islamic civilization in Egypt as well as the rest of the Arab and non-Arab world, and conveying how it has flourished and changed throughout history. Worth checking out are the collection of Persian and Turkish pottery that the museum bought in 1945 and an entire section dedicated to different copies of the Quran.

Bayt Al Suhaymi and Bayt Al Razzaz: If you’re in Moez Street, make sure to also visit Bayt Al Suhaymi in Darb Al Asfar, which was once one of Cairo’s wealthiest streets. Bayt Al Suhaymi, built in the 17th century, was one of the grandest homes in Cairo. The house was restored in the past decade and is now a physical example of medieval Cairo’s finest non-monumental architecture. Meanwhile, Bayt Al Razzaz is a historic residential complex located in the district of Darb Al Ahmar which was created by Ahmad Katkhuda Al Razzaz, the heir of a wealthy Ottoman rice merchant, in the 18th century by joining two adjacent palaces. The eastern half of the house is believed to have been owned by the Mamluk Sultan Qaitbay who oversaw the transformation of the urban landscape of Cairo in the late fifteenth century.

The Museum of Islamic Ceramics: The museum is an underrated establishment in the heart of Zamalek, located in the palace of Prince Ibrahim in Zamalek. The palace itself boasts impressive Islamic architecture and decorations, while the museum offers a splendid collection of ceramics acquired from different Islamic countries.

Wekalet El Ghoury: The Ghouriyya Complex is just south of Al Azhar Street and was built as a multi-use space in the 16th century. It has since been restored to offer a performance venue and housing and exhibit space for artists. Head to Wekalet El Ghoury to catch a tanoura show every Saturday, Monday and Wednesday for an amazing sohour with a performance.

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