Heartache in Cairo: a Ramadan like no other leaves city silenced and its faithful dismayed

The coronavirus outbreak has put an end to zealous celebrations typical of the lunar month in Egypt’s capital

This picture taken on April 24, 2020 on the first Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan shows a view of closed-down shops along Khayamiya Street, or the Street of Tent-makers, in the old city of the Egyptian capital Cairo, almost empty due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.  / AFP / Mohamed el-Shahed
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With minutes remaining of the day’s 16-hour fast, the winding, narrow and dusty streets and alleys of Cairo’s medieval district were filled with men, women and children, busy with last-minute shopping for the meal they would soon eat when the call for sunset prayer rang out from the mosques around them.

They snapped up freshly baked bread, fava beans, pickles, lemonade sold in nylon bags and salad greens before they vanished inside tiny homes standing side by side with derelict buildings dating back to Mamluk and Ottoman times. As the food vendors did a brisk business, neighbourhood barber shops gave the day’s final haircuts and bookshops with shelves stacked with dust-coated copies of the Quran and writings on Islamic history and jurisprudence were getting ready to shutter down.

The street hawkers peddling worry beads, prayer rugs and knick-knacks were packing their merchandise in sacks and heading home. With the final hour of the Ramadan fast known to test a Muslim’s faith, young men killed time loitering at street corners and engaging

in seemingly idle chatter. It was business as usual for children too young to fast, taking advantage of the final minutes of daylight to play the day’s final street games before they were summoned home by their parents.

It looked like a typical Ramadan day in the poor and middle-class historical district around Cairo’s landmark mosques of Al Azhar and Al Hussein.

Well, it wasn’t. This Ramadan is unlike any other in living memory in Egypt. You can blame the outbreak of deadly coronavirus for that.

A typical bookshop in the area housing Al Azhar mosque in Cairo’s medieval quarter. Bookshops in the area sell the Quran and writings on Islamic history, hadeeth and jurisprudence. April 25. Photo by Hamza Hendawi
A typical bookshop in the area housing Al Azhar mosque in Cairo's medieval quarter. Bookshops in the area sell the Quran and writings on Islamic history, hadeeth and jurisprudence. April 25. Photo by Hamza Hendawi

Ordinarily, Ramadan in Muslim majority Egypt is zealously celebrated despite the rigours of the dawn-to-dusk fast endured by the faithful. During the lunar month, mosques are routinely packed with worshippers, outdoor markets teeming with shoppers until late into the night while families and friends gather for the sunset meal known as iftar to break their fast.

Benefactors organise group iftars on the streets for the benefit of the poor and neighbourhood residents throw a massive iftar at least once during the month to cement a sense of neighbourliness. Late at night, cafes and tea houses fill up with revellers who take advantage of the celebratory atmosphere to party.

None of these typical Ramadan activities are happening this year, much to the dismay, even heartbreak, of so many. Egypt has since February been struggling to contain a coronavirus outbreak, with 4,782 confirmed cases and 337 deaths as of Monday night. These are relatively low numbers for a country of 100 million and a health care system battered by years of neglect, but authorities have nevertheless taken the threat seriously. Over the past month, they have taken protective measures that effectively changed the social, religious and economic landscape of the most populous Arab nation, from the indefinite closure of mosques and night-time movement restrictions to the shuttering of restaurants and cafes and a ban on large gatherings and international air travel.

“If these conditions persist, our generation and those who come after us will remember this Ramadan 2020 as different, harsh and bereft of the spirituality unique to the holy month,” said sociologist and political analyst Ammar Ali Hassan. “It’s likely that this Ramadan will witness opposition against the measures introduced to contain the virus outbreak. People may be more tempted to break the rules of social distancing during Ramadan.”

As difficult as it is, the decision to close mosques was made even harder to swallow with the arrival of Ramadan. Sensing the widespread discontent over the mosques’ closure, top officials from President Abdel Fatah El Sisi to the prime minister and the grand imam of Al Azhar - Sunni Islam’s foremost seat of learning - had to explain and justify the decision to Egyptians, arguing that it was medically and religiously sound and pleading with them to respect it for their own safety.

Authorities have accused ultraconservative Salafis and leaders of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood of using social media networks to whip up opposition to the closure of the mosques, but there has been no official word of any organised dissent against the move, which was backed by the country’s top Muslim clerics.

“I am really upset over the closure of the mosques,” confessed Omar, a 33-year-old doctor from Cairo. “They could have just banned the Friday prayers and taraweeh (late night prayers performed only in Ramadan) but allowed worshippers in mosques for the five daily prayers with social distancing enforced.”

Ramadan’s spirituality, the most defining feature of the holy month, is closely associated with mosques, where observing Muslims go during the month for all or most of their five daily prayers in addition to taraweeh. It is also in mosques that pious male Muslims spend the last 10 days of the month, secluding themselves from their families and worldly temptations to pray and read from the Quran while surviving on an austere diet.

A street vendor selling freshly baked bread in the Al Azhar district in Cairo’s medieval quarter. April 25. Photo by Hamza Hendawi
A street vendor selling freshly baked bread in the Al Azhar district in Cairo’s medieval quarter. April 25. Photo by Hamza Hendawi

But, now, the mosques are on course to be shuttered for the entirety of the lunar month.

Sayed, a Cairo businessman and a longtime Salafi, has been heartbroken over their closure. Fellow Salafis he knows from his local Cairo mosque had promised him twice since Ramadan began to take him to a secret location where they can all pray taraweeh away from the government’s watchful eyes.

“Twice I went to the agreed gathering point to head from there to the location, but no one showed up,” lamented the 67-year-old father of three. “People are scared to break regulations given the threat of swift punishment by authorities. I escaped arrest as a fiery young Salafi, I don’t think I want this to happen to me now.”

The call for the five daily prayers continues to ring out from mosques across the country during Ramadan, but language asking people to pray at home, an addition that continues to startle a month after it was first introduced and a sad reminder of the strange times brought about by the virus outbreak.

Also new to this Ramadan is that the traditional Quran recital in the 30 minutes or so before the sunset call for prayers has been cancelled, perhaps to avert the possibility of zealous Muslims gathering around mosques waiting for the sunset call.

“The Quran at sunset time is a blessing and a gift from God,” pleaded Sheikh Khaled El Guindy, a prominent cleric who has his own television programme. “It refreshes and captures our hearts and calms our souls … by God, by God, people are crying over this,” he said of the cancellation of the broadcast of the Quran from mosques before the sunset or “maghrib” prayers.

With the call for the sunset prayer blaring out, people around the Al Azhar mosque rushed to a small pickup lorry that brought small iftar meals of a few spoonfuls of rice, a tiny piece of meat and a pair of dates for the poor and the homeless in the area. By the Al Hussein mosque across the street, an elderly man was distributing water, hibiscus and tea for those breaking their fast there.

While everyone ate and drank quietly, some just took a small sip of water and proceeded to offer the maghrib, or sunset, prayers on sidewalks, many without a rug.

The scene around the Al Hussein Mosque was a far cry from what it normally looked like during past Ramadans.

The kebab restaurants that were so busy serving iftar that they turned away customers were shuttered. The ancient tea houses were closed and not a single tour bus was in sight. The famous tiny stores of the Khan El Khalili bazaar were closed too.

As the dark of the night prevailed over a clear sky, street lights struggled alone to light the area and the nearby downtown district without the bright neon lights of the countless stores now shuttered until the next day.