News / Africa

Egyptian Man's 'Table of The Merciful' Helps Cairo's Poor

People gather around 'Table of the Merciful' in Cairo's Khan al-Khalili bazaar, 12 Aug 2010
People gather around 'Table of the Merciful' in Cairo's Khan al-Khalili bazaar, 12 Aug 2010

Multimedia

Audio
TEXT SIZE - +

Many of Cairo's poor are spending this Ramadan, the Islamic month of spiritual devotion, coping with such worldly problems as electricity shortages, stifling heat and rising prices.   But a small reprieve can be found nightly at charity tables set up around the capital that feed all comers.  

At one "Table of the Merciful," tucked in a corner of the Old City's Khan al-Khalili bazaar, the women gather first, even before planks are raised as makeshift tables.   They sit patiently on the cobblestones, occasionally reining in a boisterous baby who crawls among them.   It's still an hour until the call to prayer will end the day's fast.

How tradition started

On a rooftop terrace three floors above, Essam Rashad stands stirring a massive pot of peas.  He checks on an equally impressive pan of rice and platters full of meat - all part of the iftar meal he is hosting for the dozens of people below.

A gem dealer, Rashad is somewhat of an accidental benefactor.   One night during Ramadan 15 years ago, he was stuck in traffic and missed iftar at home.  The next night, he decided to eat at his shop and asked some friends to join him.  The following night more people came, the next even more, and his life as an iftar host began.

It's a venerable Egyptian tradition, made more visible in recent decades by actors and other celebrities hiring top chefs in well-publicized fulfillment of the Islamic duty of charity.   Those over-the-top affairs highlight a paradox of Ramadan in Egypt, where lavish banquets during the month of fasting push national food consumption three times above the norm.

Who benefits?

Many of Cairo's poor are either unable to find work, or are paid extremely low wages.
Many of Cairo's poor are either unable to find work, or are paid extremely low wages.

But most "Tables of the Merciful" are like Rashad's, with simple, well-cooked meals offered humbly on newspaper.   Like the drinking water dispensers found throughout the capital, they are gifts largely of unsung patrons.  All are welcome, as the anticipation of the coming meal makes clear.

With one in five Egyptians living on less than a dollar a day, such benevolence is indeed seen as godsend.  In addition to the unemployed, there are the underpaid - policemen, workers - who turn out for a place at the table.   Rashad's friend and fellow gem dealer, Yussef, says despite government subsidies, rising prices have hit hard.

"[Essam] told me when he used to make the food, he used to throw half of it in the garbage," Yussef says.  "Today, everyone is looking for rice.  I think a lot of people have hunger.  There is a lot of problems in the economy."

Motivation

Essam Rashad, left, happily back on his sheesha pipe after a day of abstaining.
Essam Rashad, left, happily back on his sheesha pipe after a day of abstaining.

Of course, the "Tables of the Merciful" also offer a sense of community, which is much appreciated by guests including Abdel Kader Mohamed Abdel Kader, who has been spending Ramadan at such tables for 40 years.  Kader praises the tradition, saying it brings people together to eat and drink, and feel the spirit of the holy month.

As for Rashad, who makes the meal each of the 30 nights of Ramadan, he believes the blessings he receives from his good deed account for how well his four daughters have turned out, and how much his business has grown.  He says he could have earned the same rewards had he simply donated money to charity and let others do the work.  But he says there are some people who like to go through the effort, who want to serve people.  He says "that kind of person enjoys it when someone says 'I want a different piece of bread', or 'do this or do that for me.'  His back might ache," Rashad adds, "but he loves it."

You May Like

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid