Sitting among Madonna’s tassel-tipped corset, a jumpsuit worn by a member of ZZ Top, and other framed memorabilia, Egyptian families wait at their empty tables in silence. A 50-inch flat-screen television overhead plays music videos of the Killers and Nine Inch Nails, while waiters weave aimlessly around the booths. As the sun dips below the Nile, a Red Hot Chili Peppers video is unceremoniously interrupted—the guitar solo replaced by a solemn, baritone voice. “In the name of Allah, the most merciful,” it begins in Arabic. Selected verses from the Koran are recited over stark images of pilgrims in Mecca. Within minutes, the Red Hot Chili Peppers return, and the diners head toward the buffet, which, rather than serving the Hard Rock Cafe’s normal fare of burgers and fries, is stocked with grilled meats, stuffed grape leaves, and rice pudding—traditional dishes for the iftar, or post-fast meal.
Like Rio during Carnival, Cairo is arguably the wildest city in which to celebrate Ramadan—the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and the holiest, according to Muslim tradition. While the month of daytime fasting is traditionally meant to inspire intensive worship and rededication to the teachings of Islam, these spiritual elements are often eclipsed by the nighttime festivities that occur from iftar until the pre-dawn meal of sohour. In Cairo, the cafes and public squares remain packed with Egyptians smoking water pipes and reveling with friends until the early hours of the morning, giving Ramadan a party-all-night, sleep-all-day attitude more befitting the Sunset Strip than the Hussein Mosque. Increasingly, the month-long holiday also has a commercial component. While “Western” establishments like the Hard Rock Cafe have always offered exoticized Ramadan menus for bright-eyed tourists, now wing-tipped Egyptians are eschewing their dining room tables for these elaborate productions. Everyone from McDonald’s to Lipton Tea is wishing their customers a Ramadan Kareem through seasonal promotions, and a recent iftar at the Cairo Grand Hyatt doubled as a launch party for the new Mercedes Benz.
But not everyone is happy with what some have called the “Christmasization” of Ramadan. Revivalist Islamists, whose religious movement has been gaining strength in Egypt, have expressed concern that the holiday has lost its religious purity. In a recent interview with Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram, Egyptian Sheik Ali Gomaa condemned the “confusion of priorities” of those who participate in the festivities of Ramadan but shirk the religious aspects of the month: “Wrong is all around us. There are those who adopt the attitude but fail to be righteous.”
For the fundamentalists, what has happened to Ramadan is symbolic of the threat posed to Islam by secular and Western culture. “We as Muslims should resist the imported media that we receive through the satellite dishes and that diverts Muslim attention from fulfilling their religious obligations during the month of Ramadan,” wrote conservative Islamist and Al Azhar University Professor Mohye Eddin Abdel Halimin last week, in the newspaper Al Sharq Al Qataria. The latest target of Islamist scorn are maidat al rahman (charity tables) sponsored by entertainers during Ramadan. Some religious leaders have gone as far as issuing fatwas prohibiting the poor from eating at them. “Money earned by dubious means, including entertainment, is haram [forbidden], and the poor should not be eating from these mercy tables,” said Souad Saleh, one of Egypt’s most dynamic preachers.
In their attempts to expunge these elements of popular culture from the celebration of Ramadan, Egyptian Islamists are hoping to restore the Muslim holiday to the sacred religious festival they claim it once was. But, by emphasizing religion to the exclusion of culture, the Islamists may in fact be endangering the role played by Ramadan in Egypt for centuries.
THERE’S NO QUESTION that Ramadan has become more commercialized in recent years. The Fawazir Ramadan—televised riddle programs that air after the iftar and whose viewing has been a popular family tradition for decades—are now overridden by the promotion of multinational corporate interests through incessant advertising and extravagant prizes. Homemade fawanees lanterns, traditionally carried through the dark alleys of Cairo by gleeful children during Ramadan, are now mass-produced imports from China.
But, other than Islamists, few Egyptians seem to think that the holiday has been corrupted. In Gamaliyah, a lower-class Cairo neighborhood, I expected to find people yearning for the “good old days.” But, rather than bemoan the licentious Ramadan TV shows or excessive feasting, Sami Bannam, a middle-aged man in traditional dress sitting in a cafe after iftar, said, “People aren’t having as much fun as they used to.” When I asked a family who had just broken their fast at a local mosque whether they considered themselves religious, all I got were confused faces. Finally, one of them responded, “What does that have to do with Ramadan?”
This is the biggest flaw in the Islamist conception of Ramadan as a purely religious holiday. Rather, Ramadan is a relic from a bygone era in Egyptian history when religion was culture—the two intertwined in a way that made them virtually indistinguishable. As far back as the nineteenth century, British Arabist and Cairo denizen Edward Lane described the late-night festivities of Ramadan in his Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians. “Many Egyptians, in the evenings, visit coffee shops,” he wrote, “either for the sake of society, or to listen to reciters of romances, or musicians, who entertain the company at the coffee shops every night of the month.” This festive, almost secular formulation of Ramadan continued into the twentieth century. “We grew up with it even back in the Nasser days. We were always celebrating during Ramadan; there was always this sense of banqueting,” says Egyptian sociologist Mona Abaza. So it is not Ramadan that is changing—Ramadan is functioning as a synthesis of religion and culture like it has for centuries. What’s changing is everything else.
This synthesis is being threatened as Muslim countries in general (and Egypt in particular) begin to confront modernity—much as the West did generations ago. The response of revivalist Islamists is to extricate all signs of culture from religious observance in an attempt to restore an imagined past of religious purity. Ramadan remains one of the last holdouts against this strategy. “It is one of the few intact things left from the Old Islam, with its seamless mixture of high religion, customs, culture, and just plain weirdness,” says American University in Cairo historian Mark Sedgwick.
This conception of Ramadan also helps to explain why Shia-Sunni divisions, which are taking center-stage in places like Iraq and Lebanon, are strikingly absent from the celebration of Ramadan in Egypt. Though Egyptians are almost entirely Sunni, many of the traditions that have come to define Ramadan for them—the lanterns, the chanting, the ceremonies—are particularly Shia in character, dating back to the time when the Fatamids reigned. But, when I asked Egyptians how they felt about practicing Shia customs, I was generally met with blank stares or shrugs. “People don’t even know about the Shia remnants, because the celebration of Ramadan has become such an integral part of the national culture,” Abaza explains.
TO MOST EGYPTIANS, there is nothing strange about breaking your fast while listening to Bon Jovi. Though the face of popular culture has certainly changed over the past centuries, its role in Ramadan has remained remarkably constant. It is the Islamists who are threatening the holiday’s traditional character. “We never used to see the zebiba [an overt sign of continuous prayer] during Ramadan, and middle-class women, though religious, were not predominantly veiled,” complained Galal Amin, a prominent Egyptian intellectual, in Al Ahram.
But, as Islamists gain increasing support in Egypt, Ramadan will continue to be a primary battleground for their war against Western culture. The extent to which Ramadan can maintain its symbiotic character—combining both zebiba and ZZ Top—will be a litmus test for how the Muslim world grapples with modernity. “The forces of globalization and consumer culture do not have to undermine religion,” Abaza says. “Religion just has to adapt.”
This article originally ran in the October 30, 2006 issue of the magazine.