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My version of Ramadan

I had never spent Ramadan outside the Middle East before coming to HBS.

Most of my Ramadans were spent in Cairo. The entire city changes it pace to accommodate this wonderful month. Office hours are shortened – you get to go to work an hour late. But there is a catch – imagine a city of 17 million people…and they’re all having dinner at the same exact moment.

That makes for two hour traffic jams to get to anywhere, disgruntled cab drivers (heavy withdrawal symptoms you see – they usually thrive on a colourful diet of cigarettes and Turkish coffee), and lots of chatting across car windows. If you happen to break your fast in a traffic jam (and that happened to me more than a few times) it’s truly wonderful – people just start handing out whatever biscuits, snacks juices or water they may have. Bumper to bumper, across the streets and the bridges, over the Nile and into the suburbs, Cairenes share their precious bites and break their fast together. All this against the backdrop of the city’s sunset and the sound of the call to prayer from the rooftops – it’s truly unforgettable.

Sidewalks are lined with tables called “The tables of The Merciful” where the wealthy offer meats and other delicacies to the poor. This goes on daily for the entire month. During Ramadan the emphasis on charity is huge. Last year Egyptians raised over LE 350 million (US $70M) during Ramadan for the construction of The Children’s Cancer Hospital. It was the first targeted fundraising campaign on a national scale and it was hugely successful.

Then at night the city comes alive. After people have eaten, prayed and rested, they head in droves onto the streets. On foot, in cars, mostly to Old Cairo. There is the Khan el Khalili Bazaar and the El Hussein Mosque.

Some people pray in congregation into the late hours of the night, others enjoy mint tea and sweet syrupy desserts on street side while people-watching, while others still stay at home to read verses from the Quran or watch the legendary Egyptian superstar Ramadan TV series. But whatever you are doing you are surrounded by friends and family the entire time. Greetings and blessings are distributed freely in all forms of communication – phones, sms, emails, slaps on the back. People constantly quote from the Quran and try to purify their souls through
giving to others, prioritizing their life goals and seeking to do good deeds.

Gossiping tends to dwindle dramatically during Ramadan. Everyone is

trying to be on their best behaviour and the discipline is truly refreshing.
And then surprisingly it’s all over. One day a TV announcement declares Ramadan is over: the crescent has been spotted to signify the next new lunar month. And yet the quirks aren’t over – everybody picks up the phone to congratulate everyone else, that’s 65 million people mind you – and so once a year our state-of-the-art fixed and cellular networks jam and you feel like you’re back in the 70s: you pick up the phone, wait a couple of minutes and then Yes! Finally! A dial tone. Thus begins our three-day celebration of the end of Ramadan.

By the time you read this Ramadan will be over and I will have survived my second and final Ramadan at HBS. It’s nothing like being in Cairo but friends were really supportive, the days are shorter and I’ve learnt to cook reasonably edible food. However, there’s one thing I just couldn’t handle – waking up to attend IEF at 8:30 am, twice a week, without a cup of coffee was truly brutal…

December 1, 2003
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