For my four cousins, aunt and uncle and my parents, Ramadan meant we all gathered at my grandparents' house in Cairo, no matter where in the world we were. There were Gehan, Randa, Nermine and Mohammed, my first cousins. Having been an only child, to me they were my sisters and my brother, although I rarely saw them. "Teta, Teta, when are Gigi, Dooda, Mina and Boodi coming?" I always asked, using my childhood nicknames for them and already knowing the reply.
"Ramadan," my grandmother, Suheila, would say. Then there would be that slightest clue that Ramadan was really near. It was a hallway cupboard in our apartment in Cairo's Dokki District. As Ramadan neared, my grandmother would begin stocking up on the ingredients needed for the iftar meals. The aroma of Qamar el Din, an apricot preserve much like a dried fruit roll-up, and of herbs and spices emanating from that locked cupboard signalled that my cousins soon would be coming.
"Teta, Teta, will they come today?" I asked every day. She would say no, over and over, until she finally said yes. The group would greet my grandfather, Najeed, by kissing his hand and his forehead. Prayers and fasting were non-negotiable, but my grandfather was not a strict disciplinarian. If he caught me sneaking a sip of water before sunset, he would half-smile, half-frown. At iftar time, we would have a date to break the fast, then pray. We would then rush to the table but would not dare sit or get started until my grandfather sat first.
There would be the lentil or vegetable soup, goat with rice, grilled chicken, rabbit, pigeon or my favourite, Samboosak, a pastry filled with ground beef and vegetables. I remember my aunt, Sarmad, telling me to slow down on the Samboosak and leave some for the others. That was met with my grandmother telling Hashim, our Sudanese cook, to make more. Our grandfather took his time eating while my aunt made sure we minded our table manners, including not leaving the table until Gedo (Arabic for "grandfather") finished eating.
Then the shenanigans would start. In particular, Mohammed and I loved throwing things out of the fourth-storey apartment window. Fast forward 30 years, and Gedo has passed away. Teta, now a great-grandmother, is in her 80s. Mohammed lives in New York, where he works as an asset management executive, while Randa is a schoolteacher in Maryland and has two teenage boys. Nermine is a housewife and mother of four who lives in Riyadh; Gehan is a professional photographer and artist who lives in Paris.
Ramadan still brings us together, but instead of in Cairo, it is now Jeddah, with my Aunt Sarmad's house being where the family gathers. My cousins fly in from around the world with their children in tow and history repeats itself. We laugh when Mohammed, Nermine's eldest son, wolfs down the Samboosak, prompting my aunt to have the cook prepare more. We giggle when the kids cheat on their fast and get caught having a sip of water before sunset. Then we wait to see what mischief they will create, remembering ourselves when we were their age.
Many things have changed for all of us, but we can always count on Ramadan to remind us of all that has stayed the same. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org