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A man carries traditional Ramadan lanterns called "Fanous" at a stall ahead of Ramadan, in Cairo, Egypt March 31, 2022. Image Credit: Reuters

Cairo: For Hajji Hassan, this Ramadan is particularly different. For the past two years, the 58-year-old man stopped hosting street charity parties to the poor, an age-old feature of Ramadan in Egypt, due to a government ban prompted by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Much to joy of benefactors like Hajji Hassan and the needy, the government last month announced allowing mass charity banquets again.

“Since I learnt about this decision, I have started preparations for reviving this good tradition, which is a symbol of social interdependence,” said Hajji Hassan, who declined to give his full name, saying he does not seek publicity.

The man, who is a dealer in household appliances, added that he has hired employees to set the scene for serving free cooked meals spread out on tables inside a tent-enclosed site near his house in Cairo every sunset in Ramadan when Muslims break their day-long fasting.

“They include a cook, waiters and cleaning workers, who comply with health rules in doing their jobs,” Hajji Hassan told Gulf News.

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People shop for Ramadan lanterns at a market in the central Sayyida Zeinab district of Egypt's capital Cairo on March 30, 2022. Image Credit: AFP

‘Tables of the most gracious’

The tradition of street charity is known in Egypt as Mawaed Al Rahman, literally translating as “tables of the most gracious”.

Authorities’ lifting of the ban on this type of charity is part of removing several anti-coronavirus curbs including allowing mosques to reopen their annexes where such banquets could be hosted and mourning ceremonies are held.

Tough times

“The government decision has come in its proper time in view of the latest wave of high prices,” Hajji Hassan said.

In recent weeks, Egypt has experienced hikes in prices of some staples blamed on global inflation and fallout from the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Russia and Ukraine are main wheat suppliers to Egypt, which is a top importer of the grain.

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An assortment of colourful lanterns long associated with Ramadan in Egypt. Image Credit: Supplied

The Egyptian pound last month depreciated by around 16 per cent of its value against the dollar, driving up prices of different goods.

The Egyptian government has set up food outlets across this country of over 100 million people to sell commodities at low prices. The government has also fixed prices of non-subsidised bread that had gone up in the wake of outbreak of the Ukraine war.

“Our [charity] meals include meat or chicken, rice and cooked vegetables,” said Hajji Hassan. “We also serve some juices and dried dates to our guests to eat as they end their fast at iftar,” he added.

“May Allah accept our deed and reward us for it in the Hereafter,” he supplicated.

Some beneficiaries are already grateful. “The return of Mawaed Al Rahman is a welcome charity to people like me who can’t be at home at the iftar time,” said Saeed Abdulqawi, a worker at a hypermarket. “I can’t afford the high prices of iftar meals or go home in Al Marj [a Cairo suburb] and then return to my work later. So, Mawaed Al Rahman is a good solution,” the father of three added.

Who initiated this tradition?

The tradition of street charity parties in Egypt dates to the ninth century, according to some historians. It was initiated by Ahmad Ibn Tolun, who ruled Egypt for 16 years starting from 868 AD.

Ahead of this year’s Ramadan, licensed charities financed by donations, stepped up their efforts to offer charity boxes of dry food to the less fortunate right to their houses across Egypt.

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An assortment of colourful lanterns long associated with Ramadan in Egypt. Image Credit: Supplied

The boxes include such staples as lentils, rice, pasta, edible oil and other goodies needed in Ramadan when consumption rates usually increase.

During Ramadan, volunteers are also seen on Egypt’s roads in the pre-sunset hours distributing juices and dried dates to the people, who for one reason or another, have failed to be at home for the iftar meal.

Muslims traditionally break their fast in Ramadan by eating dates, following the example of the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him).

Lighting up Ramadan nights

Festive lanterns are another time-honoured feature of Ramadan in Egypt. Usually in the run-up to the month, parents accompany their children to buy for them lanterns from among a wide array, enhancing their joy about the advent of the lunar month. This year’s collection is no exception. Stores are displaying locally manufactured lanterns draped in colourful tent cloth, or taking the shape of popular TV or cartoon characters. Some lanterns play popular Ramadan songs while they emit dazzling lights.

King-size and exquisitely decorated lanterns are, meanwhile, hung by hotels and Ramadan-themed coffee shops to welcome customers who show up in the post-iftar hours. Tiny lanterns and crescent-shaped objects are popular as house ornaments in Ramadan.

First candle-lit lantern

Chinese-made lanterns had for years outrivalled the local metal ones in Egypt. In recent years, the locally made lanterns have, nonetheless, staged a strong comeback. Egyptian manufacturers of lanterns have replaced candles with tiny lamps to vie with battery-operated lanterns made in China. Local manufacturers have also come up with colourful variations of lanterns made of copper and wood.

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An assortment of colourful lanterns long associated with Ramadan in Egypt. Image Credit: Supplied

According to some historians, the first candle-lit lanterns came to be known in Egypt on the seventh day of Ramadan in 362 AH (Islamic calendar) on June 11, 972 AD, when residents of Cairo took to streets in the evening to welcome the arrival of their new Fatimid ruler Al-Moez Lidin Allah.

Some people in the big crowd were carrying lanterns while happily singing. From then on, the candle- lit lanterns have become associated with Ramadan.

With anti-virus restrictions now largely eased in Egypt, many people prefer to have their iftar meals at open-air places. A popular destination is Islamic Cairo famed for Al Azhar Mosque, the Khan Al Khalil bazaar and cafes where the Ramadan atmosphere is strongly felt.

As part of the recently eased COVID-19 curbs, daily opening hours of stores, restaurants and coffee shops are extended until 2am and religious lessons are allowed at mosques during Ramadan.

In the same vein, parties are permitted at hotels’ indoor halls in line with health precautions.

Egypt has recently seen a significant drop in COVID-19 infections amid mass vaccinations. Around 52 per cent of the nation’s targeted categories were fully vaccinated against the disease until March, prompting relaxation of curbs, according to the Health Ministry.

However, the government has said that wearing face masks is still mandatory at indoor places.