The narrow streets of Ezbet Hamada, a small low-income neighbourhood in Matareya in north Cairo, came alive with the sound of traditional Ramadan songs.
There was a palpable air of excitement as thousands of residents prepared for the ninth 'Ramadan In Matareya' communal iftar on Thursday.
Held annually, 'Ramadan In Matareya' began in 2012 with five friends who sat together for an iftar on a street in Matareya on the 15th day of the holy month.
What was supposed to be an intimate meal turned into an elaborate one after people began to join meal as the night progressed, Hassan Mehana, 64, a resident of Matareya, told The National.
The year after, the friends decided to make it a bigger event and invited all the residents of Ezbet Hamada. Since then, the communal iftar is held every Ramadan.
This year the banquet was prepared to feed more than 5000, most of whom are residents living in the neighbourhood. People sat side-by-side along tables decorated with Ramadan-patterned cloth running down narrow streets.
The maze of six connecting streets was incredibly crowded on Thursday as diners, food bloggers, camera crews, reporters and onlookers gathered to witness Egypt's largest iftar.
Residents of buildings overlooking the iftar tables sat on their balconies and cheerfully clapped as they sang along to the traditional Ramadan songs being played from the PA system which the area's locals had rented out for the occasion.
“It’s the best day of the year, we wait for it every year,” Manar Ibrahim, 28, a resident of Ezbet Hamada, told The National.
“Everyone from the neighbourhood comes down and we end up spending the whole night together. It’s also so exciting to see our streets on television because there are always people filming and posting them online. The event is famous now.”
The main course ― grilled chicken with a side of yellow basmati rice and roasted potatoes ― was prepared on grills and in enormous pots that sat on burners set up in a dead-end alley.
On a nearby table, a variety of Ramadan desserts were waiting to be served at the end of the meal.
However, for many of the iftar attendees, it was not the food that brought them there, but the warm, familial atmosphere, the loud music and the chance to have a chat with their neighbours or perhaps to make a new friend.
Once limited to residents of Ezbet Hamada, the communal iftar over the years has come to draw people from the other end of Cairo. And Ezbet Hamada residents have welcomed them all.
Many newcomers came to know of the iftar from social media after photos from previous editions went viral, or from the television segments that have been made about it.
The success of the communal iftar has made Ezbet Hamada’s residents proud. On Thursday, groups of young men huddled together in celebration as they chanted “Matareya”.
The iftar decorations have similarly become more elaborate each year. A decade ago, they were limited to Ramadan lanterns and rows of shiny streamers. Today, the event has its own logo and all those who are serving or organising wear uniform t-shirts with the logo printed.
The meal is funded through a neighbourhood pool to which residents contribute each month. However much has been collected at the end of the year is spent on preparing the food, laying out the tables and decorating the streets for the annual event.
“We really put a lot of effort into making the meals delicious, we want everyone to have a good time,” said Ahmed Magdy, a volunteering chef and a Matareya resident.
“I personally make sure that the first plate of chicken is just as good as the last. And we never turn anyone away. When we’ve run out of food, so many of the people living here prepare extra meat, appetisers and desserts in their homes and they bring it out to feed the people.”
The communal joy is felt by attendees, both men and women, which is not a common sight among Egyptians who often adhere to conservative traditions.
“This is my first year to go down to the street. Usually, I watch from the windows because there are a lot of men from other neighbourhoods. But this year, after my father encouraged me to go down with him, I came and I just love it!” May Hussein, 23, a university student, told The National.
Most residents who have homes with balconies overlooking the streets, left the entrances of their buildings open so that people could climb up to their roofs to watch the festivities.
Communal charity meals known as Mawa’ed al Rahman (or Banquets of the Merciful) are common during the holy month, however, they are usually organised by more affluent Egyptians who want to give back to the poor.
"The difference is this is an event by the area’s residents for the area’s residents, it’s not for charity, it’s more like inviting your family over for dinner," Mr Mehana said.
The event was cancelled in 2020 and 2021 when lockdown rules were still applicable during the Covid-19 pandemic, making this year's event the ninth iftar in 11 years.