Cairo in the full heat of Ramadan

It’s 6:14 in the evening in Cairo, and 140 Muslims are lined up banquet style on the bank of the Nile across from the Marriott Zamalek. A hotel worker scurries across the street shuttling plates of rice, chicken and gravy, placing dishes carefully in front of each anxious visitor, but nobody is eating. A palpable tension hangs at the table; some diners banter back and forth, gesturing cautiously as they avoid bumping into their full drinks and salad bowls; some stare sullenly into the distance; a few lie with their heads on the table unconscious.

Ramadan is in its last week, and the effects of fasting during the daylight hours are starting to show on the faces and in the interactions of Cairenes. Emotions run high on the streets of the city, and as the sun beats down on hungry residents it seems that the smallest infraction can set a temper off. Even those working in the full shade and air conditioning show the weight of the fasting – seem irritable, less patient. Who wouldn’t be?

As I pass by the waiting dinner party and under the 26th of July bridge I wave to the sulking parking lot attendant as he scowls at me and then dive through four lanes of traffic. Brown and gray are not just colors here, they’re the tapestry on which Cairo is painted, filthy cars kicking out smoke and blaring horns as they pass dusty, dilapidated store fronts and acid rain-etched columns. The small respite from this madness comes in Zamalek, where the tree lined streets vainly try to soak up some of the non-stop city blare and hide the permahaze that hovers hundreds of feet above the city.

And then, from deep in the depths of urban Cairo to the east the call to prayer rings forth. Iftar, the traditional breaking of the fast, has arrived. It’s time to eat.

Like clockwork, the rows of dinner guests dig into their food. Now in Zamalek, where I’m currently heading to the market, the shops button up and commerce slams to a halt. Pockets of shopkeepers and residents filter into the street, many seated on the sidewalk in communal circles, many in the traditional Egyptian dress. At the gas station, workers hide at a table positioned behind stacks of oil as they ravenously tear at a loaf of bread while a few unlucky staffers finish up washing the city off of a 1960’s fiat.

A foreigner among Cairenes, I navigate the suddenly crowded city streets, avoiding eye contact with diners and getting closer to the store in mind. On my way out of Cairo airport earlier in the week, I earlier exchanged pleasantries with a group of security guards breaking fast on the side of the street next to their booth. Spotting my curiosity, one held up his bag of milk for me – it’s tradition and polite to share with anyone on the street once fasting breaks.

Today, though the gesture is appreciated, I’d rather not distract anyone from their current meal. Turning off the main thoroughfare and onto a side street, I reflect that Ramadan in Cairo has definitely had an impact my my tourist’s take on the city. Many of the public works and attractions operate on abbreviated schedules so as to accommodate hours for fasting and napping. Alcohol is almost never-consumed, and even restaurants that normally serve it tend to abstain.

And then there are the people. Fasting and sleeping at strange hours brings brings out the best and worst in people. Innocuous, simple tourist questions can quickly become matters of irritation among guides, taxi drivers have little patience for English and it seems that the weight of everyone’s temper balances on the edge of a knife.

After Iftar, however, everything turns on its head. Finally with a stomach full of food the relieved Cairenes head out into the street to finish their day to day business. The city teems with life, with many shops staying open well after midnight and many of the citizens staying out later. Much further into the night, they’ll still be up having their breakfast suhoor right before preparing for another long day of fasting.

As for me, this Iftar meal isn’t necessary but it’s interesting to practice the tradition while deep in the gristle of Cairo. I pick up one Cornish hen and a stuffed pigeon for the pure sake of adventure and make my way back through the melee towards the hotel.

“Welcome back,” says the now-attentive parking attendant, in English as I pass back through the lot. I smile. In the fifteen minutes since I had been away, Cairo is now a completely different city.