Cairo: Chickens huddle in crates near the butcher’s block. A shopkeeper stacks mangoes, his hands sticky, drawing flies. Labourers linger in thinning shade and mothers tilt toward home with groceries. A thirst rises. It will be hours before it’s quenched. Even the ice man, bent and dripping, hurrying through Quran verses spinning from an old radio, does not allow water to pass his lips. He waits — like everyone else in this listless street market off the Nile — for the heat to ease and the shadows to lengthen.
During this Ramadan month of spiritual renewal, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. They celebrate and give alms to the poor. But this year, although the rituals and late-night feasts unfold as they have for centuries, Egyptians, who have endured seasons of political unrest and economic collapse, are more sombre than festive.
“It doesn’t have the same feeling,” says Jehdan Abdul Moaty, who sells eggs from a shop tucked between train tracks and the river. “People are worried. They’re much quieter. They’re stepping back and not spending as much. We’re trying to regain ourselves after all that has happened.”
A woman with a heavy sack slips into the shop and sits beneath the fan. She closes her eyes and rests for a moment in the breeze. “We’re up to it,” says Abdul Moaty, returning to her conversation. “We’ve been through worse.”
The early promise that Egypt would stoically rise from the revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak has turned into a longer, more painful narrative of protests and political battles between Islamists and military men. Crime has soared, the economy has tumbled and confidence — from metalworkers’ to stockbrokers’ — has ebbed.
One columnist described his country as a “mirage state” and a flimsy imitation of the “real thing it mimics.” But Egyptians possess a quiet, often good-humoured, patience buttressed by a sense that whatever is happening is happening to all of us. This kinship cracks at times. Yet life and its burdens amble on amid moments of rage and prayers murmured at twilight.
“When you’re young, you carry no hardships,” says Sayed Alef, who has been selling mangoes since he was a boy in alleys cluttered with twisted springs and spare parts that promise reinvention in a neighbourhood of desperation.
“But now you feel the hardships because things aren’t where they should be.”
Down the alley, in a building off an open square, chairs are stacked and empty pitchers sit near embroidered canvas. Ragged boys saunter, a few kick a soccer ball, waiting for the rich to come with their Ramadan charity and fill “God’s tables” with dates, smashed beans and a bit of meat. God provides, but the boys have learned he does not hasten the sunset. There are hours to go and they head back toward the alley. Alef lifts another box of fruit. Sweat runs through his white stubble. The market crowd thickens. A woman with a curved knife makes music mincing greens on a silver platter next to an old man in a tunic — he could have blown in from a distant century — who has just awoken and doesn’t feel like talking.
“Egyptians are the same this year as we were last year. We’re religious,” Alef says. “The good will be good. The thug will be the thug. I think, though, we all want to get closer to God as we get older.” Ramadan streamers blow in the alley. Mohammad Badawi, who with his three brothers runs four shops, is worried about crime and how people are so preoccupied with making a living that they may be straying from God. Egyptians, he says, are generous, the mosques are full, but something feels out of rhythm.
“It will get better,” says Badawi, a big man with a skullcap and a grey-black beard. “After the pain there is pleasure.”
Every day, though, there is news no one wants to hear: Workers strike, foreign investment is down, tourism is hurting, garbage mounts, and electrical outages are frequent. The military has yet to relinquish power to Islamist President Mohammad Mursi. Guessing who’s in charge is like watching the intrigue on one of the Ramadan TV serials of trilling strings and ancient conniving.
“Even the bad,” Badawi says, “try to be good during Ramadan.”
The call to prayer rises and men and boys hurry toward mosques, slipping off shoes and sandals in doorways, washing themselves and prostrating for absolution. The mosques are shadowed and cool; every call to prayer is an hour closer to iftar, the ending of the fast. Mothers, wives and daughters are home cooking, and streets fill with scents of spices and the rattle of stirred pots. There is solace in the anticipation of the meal, but also a sense of unease about the clamour across the Arab world.
The revolts that Egypt help inspire are filled with bad news. The bloodshed in Syria seems endless, as do the protests in Bahrain and Yemen is perpetually teetering. Egyptians follow each turn with dismay. But for many, this Ramadan, which has fallen during summer’s sultriest days, is a time to contemplate failings and redemptions closer to home. It is the Quran — recited in offices, squares and train cars — that soothes with cadences learned through the centuries. A father will tell his son: Listen. Maadbouly Mohammad fasts and fixes fans in the narrow shade outside his shop, which is filled with dust, tools and plugs. Holding a screwdriver, a tangle of wires at his feet, he has been at this job for 35 years. He works next to a man tinkering with a lawnmower and not far from a cobbler threading the needle of a vintage sewing machine.
Mohammad has three daughters and one son. His boy, he says, “must grow up to be better than me. That is my dream. Maybe he can be president.”
Those words would have never been uttered 18 months ago, but today such possibility, if still unlikely, doesn’t sound so fantastical. “The revolution gave us our dignity, and that will never be harmed again,” he says. “We pray. We laugh. We get back to work. As long as we have hope, we endure.”
Mohammad returns to his copper and tiny screws, and a few alleys over, the ice man is on the move. Back bowed beneath two heavy blocks, he scurries, trailing droplets of water, as if in a private storm. He slips under the overpass, sidling by the chicken roaster, whose fire has not yet been lighted because it is Ramadan and no one eats in the brightness of the day, not even the dapper men who sit cross-legged at cafes, reading newspapers and fixing Egypt’s ills over empty tables. The ice man climbs the steps over the train tracks. He rushes through the traffic and crowds on the other side, the sun shining off his diminishing blocks. His steps slow. He disappears beyond a mosque toward workmen and unfinished houses. He is nowhere to be seen when the sun slips beyond the Nile. The roads empty, lanterns are lighted, weary faces smile and the city hushes in a sacred breath between day and night. God’s tables fill and poor boys reach for water pitchers and dates, just the way the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) did centuries before them. The fast is broken. The boys wash up and follow men into mosques to give thanks.