Love it or hate it, you can't mention Ramadan without talking about the drama series that dominate the television screens of Arab families during the holy month. It doesn't matter where you are on the planet - if you come from an Arab family, someone is watching at least one show. With the internet and satellite dishes, discussing which shows we would be following was just as much part of the conversation growing up in Canada as where we would be dividing our iftars each weekend, or which school gym we would visit to pray tarawih, the nightly Ramadan prayers.
And it didn't matter how terrible the shows were. My sisters and I would sit around the TV while my mother prepared tea and howled at the terrible acting, ridiculous plot lines or the hideously made-up actresses. Sometimes a show would grab us, making us somewhat emotionally invested (did her husband just secretly marry his mistress? Are they going to get divorced? But what about the millions of dollars he stole?) and we'd stay up waiting for the next episode, calling home to see what happened if one of us was working or at a friend's house that evening.
This year, Egypt alone has produced 60 shows at a cost of US$120 million (Dh440m). It's mind-boggling. But every year there are at least one or two shows that strike a nerve with the public, dealing with an important or sensitive matter, and this year a few have been the talk of the city. Al-Gama'a, a series about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political group that is banned but tolerated in Egypt, has divided people. While the production is impeccable, critics have pouted at the blatant pro-government stance of the show, saying that it is getting audiences ready for upcoming parliamentary elections later this year, in which Muslim Brotherhood members usually enjoy great success because of the charitable contributions they make to their communities.
Another show that has grabbed audiences and made them laugh, but also think, is the adaptation of the blog-turned-bestselling book I Want to Get Married. The story of a middle-class Egyptian girl in her late 20s, who documents all the nutty suitors who ask for her hand in marriage, highlights a major problem in Egypt, where marriage is very highly regarded but where modern, educated women are finding it hard to get married, mainly because of the entrenched patriarchal ideas that men have found so difficult to let go.
When speaking about the Ramadan shows, people always lament the commercialism of Ramadan - the tents, the excessive sheesha smoking, the sugar, the TV shows, the bloated stomachs. Yes, the month of reflection and self-restraint has become a circus of gluttony, but it's a fact of life. Christmas in the West has the same problems - the crazed malls, the overspending, the maxed-out credit cards. When I began observing the holy month in Egypt four years ago, I remember missing my Ramadans in Canada. Waking up with my mother for the early morning meal of tea and French toast, the snow falling at iftar, the late, late prayers in gyms or our small mosque, our English services, being the only one fasting in the office. There were also the community iftars, with food from around the world - Muslims joined by faith in a country to where our parents had moved to give us better lives.
But after spending three Ramadans in Egypt, I have realised that the main elements that make Ramadan special also exist here. Ramadan may be less about religion for many families, and more about tradition, but it is those traditions that make Ramadan memorable. I discovered that many Egyptians who don't practise the faith on a regular basis during the year will make a point of trying to fast during Ramadan and being home for family meals throughout the month.
Some who may not pray during the year will make the effort to go to the mosque a few times, exploring the boundaries of their spirituality. It is a time, yes, when we eat too much and are out of commission during the day, but it is also a time when so many of us ask how we relate to our faith and our relationship with God and community. The sense of the month makes us give our money to charitable causes more readily and makes us want to make our mothers happy by being home in time for dinner.
So maybe it's OK to watch one more dubious show or have that extra piece of baklava. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo.