Egypt´s mood is subdued this Ramadan (LA TIMES) By Jeffrey Fleishman CAIRO, EGYPT 08/12/12)
LOS ANGELES TIMES
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CAIRO — Chickens huddle in crates near the butcher´s block. A
shopkeeper stacks mangoes, his hands sticky, drawing flies. Laborers
linger in thinning shade and mothers tilt toward home with groceries.
A thirst rises. It will be hours before it´s quenched.
Even the ice man, bent and dripping, hurrying through Koran verses
spinning from an old radio, does not allow water to pass his lips. He
waits — like everyone else in this listless street market off the
Nile — for the heat to ease and the shadows to lengthen.
During this Ramadan month of spiritual renewal, Muslims fast from
dawn to dusk. They celebrate and give alms to the poor. But this
year, although the rituals and late-night feasts unfold as they have
for centuries, Egyptians, who have endured seasons of political
unrest and economic collapse, are more somber than festive.
"It doesn´t have the same feeling," says Jehdan Abdelmoaty, who sells
eggs from a shop tucked between train tracks and the river. "People
are worried. They´re much quieter. They´re stepping back and not
spending as much. We´re trying to regain ourselves after all that has
A woman with a heavy sack slips into the shop and sits beneath the
fan. She closes her eyes and rests for a moment in the breeze.
"We´re up to it," says Abdelmoaty, returning to her
conversation. "We´ve been through worse."
The early promise that Egypt would stoically rise from the revolution
that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak has turned into a longer, more
painful narrative of protests and political battles between Islamists
and military men. Crime has soared, the economy has tumbled and
confidence — from metalworkers´ to stockbrokers´ — has ebbed.
One columnist described his country as a "mirage state" and a flimsy
imitation of the "real thing it mimics." But Egyptians possess a
quiet, often good- humored, patience buttressed by a sense that
whatever is happening is happening to all of us. This kinship cracks
at times. Yet life and its burdens amble on amid moments of rage and
prayers murmured at twilight.
"When you´re young, you carry no hardships," says Sayed Alef, who has
been selling mangoes since he was a boy in alleys cluttered with
twisted springs and spare parts that promise reinvention in a
neighborhood of desperation. "But now you feel the hardships because
things aren´t where they should be."
Down the alley, in a building off an open square, chairs are stacked
and empty pitchers sit near embroidered canvas. Ragged boys saunter,
a few kick a soccer ball, waiting for the rich to come with their
Ramadan charity and fill "God´s tables" with dates, smashed beans and
a bit of meat. God provides, but the boys have learned he does not
hasten the sunset. There are hours to go and they head back toward
Alef lifts another box of fruit. Sweat runs through his white
stubble. The market crowd thickens. A woman with a curved knife makes
music mincing greens on a silver platter next to an old man in a
tunic — he could have blown in from a distant century — who has just
awoken and doesn´t feel like talking.
"Egyptians are the same this year as we were last year. We´re
religious," Alef says. "The good will be good. The thug will be the
thug. I think, though, we all want to get closer to God as we get
Ramadan streamers blow in the alley. Mohamed Badawi, who with his
three brothers runs four shops, is worried about crime and how people
are so preoccupied with making a living that they may be straying
from God. Egyptians, he says, are generous, the mosques are full, but
something feels out of rhythm.
"It will get better," says Badawi, a big man with a skullcap and a
gray-black beard. "After the pain there is pleasure."
Every day, though, there is news no one wants to hear: Workers
strike, foreign investment is down, tourism is hurting, garbage
mounts, and electrical outages are frequent. The military has yet to
relinquish power to Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. Guessing who´s
in charge is like watching the intrigue on one of the Ramadan TV
serials of trilling strings and ancient conniving.
"Even the bad," Badawi says, "try to be good during Ramadan."
The call to prayer rises and men and boys hurry toward mosques,
slipping off shoes and sandals in doorways, washing themselves and
prostrating for absolution. The mosques are shadowed and cool; every
call to prayer is an hour closer to iftar, the breaking of the fast.
Mothers, wives and daughters are home cooking, and streets fill with
scents of spices and the rattle of stirred pots.
There is solace in the anticipation of the meal, but also a sense of
unease about the clamor across the Arab world. The revolts that Egypt
help inspire are filled with bad news. The bloodshed in Syria seems
endless, as do the protests in Bahrain. Yemen is perpetually
teetering and the Persian Gulf is on edge between Iran, Arab
monarchies and a rising populism.
Egyptians follow each turn with dismay. But for many, this Ramadan,
which has fallen during summer´s sultriest days, is a time to
contemplate failings and redemptions closer to home. It is the Koran —
recited in offices, squares and train cars — that soothes with
cadences learned through the centuries. A father will tell his son:
Maadbouly Mohamed fasts and fixes fans in the narrow shade outside
his shop, which is filled with dust, tools and plugs. Holding a
screwdriver, a tangle of wires at his feet, he has been at this job
for 35 years. He works next to a man tinkering with a lawn mower and
not far from a cobbler threading the needle of a vintage sewing
Mohamed has three daughters and one son. His boy, he says, "must grow
up to be better than me. That is my dream. Maybe he can be
president." Those words would have never been uttered 18 months ago,
but today such possibility, if still unlikely, doesn´t sound so
"The revolution gave us our dignity, and that will never be harmed
again," he says. "We pray. We laugh. We get back to work. As long as
we have hope, we endure."
Mohamed returns to his copper and tiny screws, and a few alleys over,
the ice man is on the move.
Back bowed beneath two heavy blocks, he scurries, trailing droplets
of water, as if in a private storm. He slips under the overpass,
sidling by the chicken roaster, whose fire has not yet been lighted
because it is Ramadan and no one eats in the brightness of the day,
not even the dapper men who sit cross-legged at cafes, reading
newspapers and fixing Egypt´s ills over empty tables.
The ice man climbs the steps over the train tracks. He rushes through
the traffic and crowds on the other side, the sun shining off his
diminishing blocks. His steps slow. He disappears beyond a mosque
toward workmen and unfinished houses.
He is nowhere to be seen when the sun slips beyond the Nile. The
roads empty, lanterns are lighted, weary faces smile and the city
hushes in a sacred breath between day and night. God´s tables fill
and poor boys reach for water pitchers and dates, just the way the
prophet Muhammad did centuries before them. The fast is broken. The
boys wash up and follow men into mosques to give thanks. Special
correspondent Reem Abdellatif contributed to this report. (Copyright
© 2012 Los Angeles Times 08/12/12)
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