LETTER FROM CAIRO - `It´s Ramadan´--say no more (CHICAGO TRIBUNE) E.A. Torriero CAIRO, EGYPT 11/28/02)
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CAIRO -- Hamdy Mahmoud, a senior planner in Egypt´s Department of
Agriculture, needed some figures that he didn´t have at his
fingertips. So he telephoned downstairs to department analysts. No
one answered--in the middle of the morning.
"Praying?" he asked after someone picked up the receiver on the third
try. "Do we have a department full of sheiks?"
"Ramadan," he muttered after hanging up. "Ramadan."
On many days in Egypt, it is difficult to get most anything done in a
timely fashion. The holy month of Ramadan, however, puts the nation
in near paralysis and on edge.
The observance is the time of the year when Muslims around the world
abstain from food and drink during daylight. It´s designed for people
to pray and focus more on God and less on earthly travails.
But to everyday folks trying to navigate chaotic Cairo, Ramadan bears
much of the blame for whatever goes wrong this month. And in an
unwieldy city of more than 13 million inhabitants, much does go
wrong, especially when people are grumpy from staving off hunger and
After two beat-up taxis nearly bumped in the City Center, the two
drivers argued about Ramadan´s effects on each other´s psyche. The
scene was fuel for the widely held belief in the Arab world that
drivers´ already bad habits get even worse during the annual ritual,
now in its third week.
"In Ramadan, people drive like lunatics," said a Cairo cabbie after
narrowly averting a crackup. "Hunger makes people more aggressive."
Navigating the crowded streets is not the only problem. Trying to get
answers in offices is a virtual chess game between the short-tempered
public and workers lethargic without their customary tea and coffee.
At an Egypt Air office, computers on the fritz one late morning made
it impossible to reconfirm a flight for that evening.
"The computer is down," a clerk said with a shrug. "It´s Ramadan."
"Well can I come back later this afternoon?" she is asked.
"No, we close early," she said. "It is Ramadan."
At a Western Union office, a customer is told that office hours are
limited to the morning and late evening during Ramadan. But there is
no money available after dark to pay out wire transfers because
commercial banks are not open.
"Nobody works at night," the clerk explained. "Ramadan, you know.
Come back in the morning."
There are, of course, benefits to Ramadan. Families see a lot more of
each other and break the fast with a ceremonial daily mealtime known
During iftar, the streets of Cairo are remarkably clear of the city´s
legendary traffic. One Westerner last week took to driving out to the
Pyramids in suburban Giza during the mealtime just to experience the
A trip to the airport from the city--one that can consume nearly an
hour in normal traffic--took less than 15 minutes as millions were
"Ramadan," the hotel driver said, offering a passenger a thumbs up as
his Mercedes hit almost 80 m.p.h while it whipped through barren
The Egypt Air office at the airport was deserted--save for the lone
clerk who quickly reconfirmed a flight on a seemingly reinvigorated
"Iftar--the best time to fly," he said with smile.
Well, not exactly. Any ideas about changing money at the currency
kiosks quickly faded when the clerks were nowhere to be found after
they left to eat.
The airline check-in lines were jammed with Egyptians in white robes
and sandals waiting for one of three flights to Mecca, the sacred
Islamic city in western Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, many counters went unmanned because airport workers, too,
were out for dinner.
"I´m going to miss my flight," one Western passenger yelled in
frustration as the line seemed not to be moving.
"Don´t worry," an airline supervisor said. "The plane will leave
late. It´s Ramadan." (Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune 11/28/02)
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