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Egyptian Muslims Savor Ramadan Traditions, Some Worry About Growing Commercialism


The Muslim holy month of Ramadan is drawing to a close. For many Egyptians, the month of fasting also brings cherished traditions, including special dishes and social gatherings that last long into the night. But some people worry that the true spirit of Ramadan and its emphasis on charity are lost amid the increasing commercialsm that has sprung up around it. VOA Correspondent Challiss McDonough has more from Cairo.

Some of Egypt's Ramadan traditions are centuries old, while others developed more recently. Egyptian Muslims look forward to eating special dishes such as the sweet dessert known as Kunafa, believed to have originated in the Fatimid era. They also look forward to watching the very modern phenomenon of the Ramadan TV mini-series.

On Ramadan evenings in some parts of Cairo, it is difficult to remember that this is a month intended for fasting and prayer. One of Egypt's more modern Ramadan phenomena is called a Sohour tent, a place for people to spend the evenings socializing over the late-evening or early-morning meal called Sohour, the last thing they can eat before beginning to fast again at dawn.

In one tent at a fancy restaurant on the banks of the Nile this week, a mostly young crowd watched soccer, listened to pop music and played cards while chatting and smoking water pipes known locally as "shisha." Another Sohour tent at a five-star hotel draws an older crowd to tables in the garden, while families with young children play at a temporary amusement park. Some tents book famous singers to perform for high-paying crowds.

What all of these places have in common is money - lots of it. Most Sohour tents this year are lined with brightly colored banners and booths put up by commercial sponsors of the events.

Admittance to the cheapest of these affairs costs about $15, and most of them are more expensive, making them off-limits to most Egyptians. But even people who can afford them are not always interested in partaking in this new commercial side of Ramadan.

A well-dressed 38-year-old housewife who gives her name as Soha says the tents have nothing to do with the spirit of Ramadan. She bemoans the advertisements, shisha-smoking and dancing and says she is not even tempted to attend.

The lavish scenes at the Sohour tents stand in stark contrast to the tables and chairs set up underneath a bridge not far from the five-star Marriott hotel. These are charity tables, another local tradition, where Cairo's poor come to break their daily fast at sunset with the meal known as Iftar. The food is free, provided by local businesses or individuals.

One of the key principles of Ramadan is providing charity for the poor. Donations made during the holy month are believed to bring the giver closer to God.

Soha says charity tables are good, they are a sign of social solidarity and should be year-round.

But Soha, like some other Cairo residents, also notes that the number of people begging for money on the streets increases dramatically during Ramadan. She says it can be difficult to tell who is really deserving and who is just trying to take advantage of Ramadan generosity.

Soha says this is something new. This number of beggars is not found in the country all year round. Where do all these beggars come from?

One street in the Dokki neighborhood is lined with people in wheelchairs, begging for a few piasters (cents) from motorists and passers-by. Another road on the island of Zamalek is crowded with sweet-faced, disheveled children, ostensibly selling bags of lemons and bundles of fresh mint, but also eager to accept handouts.

Carrying a battered handmade broom, Suleiman Sayed Nasr is weaving his way between stopped cars in the mid-afternoon traffic jam, speaking quietly to anyone with a window open. Some roll up their windows, while others press tattered bank notes into his hand.

He says he extends seasonal greetings to all the drivers, and accepts whatever they have to give, but he adds that he does not pester anyone.

Nasr has been sweeping the same street corner in the wealthy Zamalek neighborhood for 37 years. The city pays him a salary of about $50 a month, but Egyptians traditionally supplement the income of low-wage public sector workers like him with small tips of five or 10 cents apiece. Nasr says he earns up to an extra dollar a day through donations, and for him, that is a lot.

But he says outside of the holy month, people are less generous now than they were in the past - and less polite.

He says that only during Ramadan, this blessed month, are people kind to us.