Fear of pandemic wears down Ramadan’s spirit in Egypt

From the empty streets of Cairo to the Egyptian provinces, there were very few festive displays to be seen as the Islamic month began on April 24.
Sunday 26/04/2020
Cairo on the first Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in the area of Bab Zuweila. (AFP)
Unusual sights. Cairo on the first Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in the area of Bab Zuweila. (AFP)

CAIRO--Every year during the Islamic month of Ramadan, children would decorate the streets of Cairo in colourful materials while elders would bring out lights to make the nights as bright as the days.

Food vendors, especially sellers of nuts and dried fruit, would display their goods outside their shops and customers would flock to the stores to buy their share of seasonal goods.

There would be a large lantern at the middle of each street and alleyway of the Egyptian capital, and lantern sellers would display their bright, beautiful wares on their shop shelves, ready for customers.

The sellers of knafeh, a traditional Middle Eastern pastry, would set up tents across the city.

These sights were missing during Ramadan this year. From the empty streets of Cairo to the Egyptian provinces, there were very few festive displays to be seen as the Islamic month began on April 24. 

Egypt’s battle against the coronavirus has taken its toll on life in this predominantly Muslim country, including its celebration of Ramadan, the holiest of all months in the Islamic calendar.

While Mecca in Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Prophet Mohammad, the site of Islam’s holiest shrine and the centre of the Islamic world, Egypt is nonetheless an important religious and cultural centre of Islam with its thousands of mosques, some of them dating back to the dawn of Islam.

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The coronavirus has caused authorities to shut the doors of all mosques, including the al-Azhar mosque, one of the most important seats of learning for Sunni Muslims.

The closure of the mosques means that Egypt’s Muslims will not be able to organise the special Ramadan evening prayers, known as taraweeh, for the first time in Egypt’s modern history.

The authorities have also banned charity banquets where the poor usually break their fast on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities.

The government started loosening some of its coronavirus restrictions on April 24, including the lifting of a nationwide ban on commercial activities on Fridays and Saturdays. It also reduced the night-time curfew by two hours to 9pm from the previous 7pm start. The curfew lasts until 6am.

Contrary to expectations, few Egyptians are stocking up on food or other Ramadan necessities, jeopardising the business prospects of dried fruit and nut traders and throwing their industry into uncertainty.

“Clients are making themselves scarce, even as the prices are more than 20% lower than last year’s prices,” said Rajab al-Attar, one of  Egypt’s most prominent dried fruit and nut traders. “The traders will lose their investments if things remain as they are.”

Outside al-Attar’s shop, near the crowded Attaba Market in the centre of Cairo, few people are showing any interest in the bags of nuts and dried fruit on display.

Almonds, cashews, dates, raisins, walnuts, apricots, peaches, prunes, pistachios and hazelnuts cry for attention, but there are no takers.

Attaba Market itself, famous for cheap clothing and kitchenware, was closed down along with hundreds of other markets around Egypt to prevent overcrowding and to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Last year, Egypt spent $40 million on the import of nuts and dried fruit, according to the Cairo Chamber of Commerce.

This year, the imports may exceed $60 million, with most of them having entered the country in January and February before the emergence of any coronavirus infections.

Buying Ramadan-related food is not a priority this year for the average Egyptian, as citizens shelter from the disease.

“Everybody is sticking to the basics,” said Karim Ahmed, a tour guide-turned-taxi driver. “This means that I buy the food and the medicines my family needs everyday only.”

Ahmed, 43, had to return to Cairo from the Red Sea resort of Hurghada, where he worked for the past five years, in mid-March when authorities froze the tourism sector and later suspended flights to and from Egypt.

He now works for one of the nation’s ride-sharing services, but the whole business has been hit hard by measures the authorities have implemented to stamp out the coronavirus, especially the nationwide night-time curfew, effective since March 25.

Other Egyptians are negatively affected by the same measures, including millions of self-employed craftspeople and private sector workers. Some private employers have slashed the salaries of their workers while others have had to lay off their staff.

“These conditions are affecting people’s attitudes and changing their priorities,” said Khaled al-Shafi, the head of local think-tank Capital Centre for Economic Studies and Research. “They are also killing the spirit of the holy month.”

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