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LETTER FROM CAIRO - `It´s Ramadan´--say no more (CHICAGO TRIBUNE) E.A. Torriero CAIRO, EGYPT 11/28/02)Source: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chi-0211280302nov28,0,2499478.story?coll=chi%2Dnewsnationworld%2Dhed CHICAGO TRIBUNE CHICAGO TRIBUNE Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
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 thirst.

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 as iftar.

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 wide-open arteries.

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 busy eating.

"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 intersections.

The Egypt Air office at the airport was deserted--save for the lone clerk who quickly reconfirmed a flight on a seemingly reinvigorated computer system.

"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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