February 11, 2015

A Ramadan in Cairo

Images and words by Anthon Jackson

Cairo can be a daunting city any month of the year. From the high-rise hotels that hug the Nile, it stretches for miles and miles in all directions. Crammed with dust-coated apartment blocks, enormous mosques and vast slums all home to ten, fifteen, or even twenty million people, depending on who you ask. Even a casual stroll downtown can be an exercise in staying alive, simultaneously dodging cars, buses and crowds both on and off the narrow, uneven sidewalks intentionally built to break ankles. And in July, with sweltering heat, oppressive humidity and a few million school kids loose for the summer, you have an especially challenging city to traverse.

Adding Ramadan to the mix can make conditions even tougher.

During daylight hours food is scarce and restaurants are mostly shuttered. In the few that remain semi-open, staff, menus and hours are all severely cut. Downing water in half-closed kiosks, backs turned to the downtown streets, no amount of discretion seems enough to deter the odd disapproving glance. With empty stomachs, parched throats and spinning heads, the tension in post-revolutionary Cairo seems to thicken in the air as the day grinds along. Long mornings march on into long afternoons, the sun bearing down mercilessly on Cairo’s concrete sprawl. Moods seem to sour and patience wears a bit thin. Among dehydrated crowds, arguments slide into scuffles with just a bit more frequency. Home to some of the brightest and jolliest characters on earth, Egypt can seem a pretty grim place during these halting hours.

But as the end nears, moods lift. Just before sundown, as the colors of the sky cool quickly into dusk, tables across the city fill to just beyond capacity, overflowing into the streets. Drinks and dishes are all laid out — but not yet touched. Before the fast is even broken it seems the city’s exhausted energy reserves are somehow replenished, all the compounded stress of the day melting away into the serenity of a fast nearly complete. The heated arguments of the afternoon turn to friendly chatter. Millions on metro cars and buses sit ready, iftar stash in tow, silent in anticipation or mumbling scripture over golden pocket Qur’ans or suddenly bursting with things to say.

When the first dates and juice are finally raised, the entire city exhales as one. And late into the night, lit festively with colourful fawanees lanterns and tacky Christmas lights, Cairo keeps itself wide awake — much the way it does during less holy months.

More great images from Anthon’s travels in Cairo >

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