Cover

THE HOLIEST MONTH

JONATHON GATEHOUSE December 17 2001
Cover

THE HOLIEST MONTH

JONATHON GATEHOUSE December 17 2001

THE HOLIEST MONTH

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

The “Delicious Ramadan Special” advertised in Arabic on the poster plastered across the windows of the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet sounds like a good, greasy deal. Two pieces of the Colonels best, two “Crispy Strips,” rice, potato or bean salad, bread, dessert, and quamar el-deen, a traditional apricot drink, for the equivalent of just $5.50 Canadian. But few of the people gathering outside the neighbouring Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque for a charitable meal can afford such a luxury. As the sun slips behind Cairo’s office towers and apartment blocks, they arrive by bus or on foot from the poorer parts of the city. Women, empty cardboard boxes balanced on their heads, join the food line snaking through the courtyard to the mosque’s front door.

Others, with children sometimes in tow, join the men at the tables inside the special tents for a sit-down dinner, their pride protected by the brightly patterned walls.

The kids hand-test the strength of the fruit-punch drink boxes while the men and women—seated on opposite sides of the tents—sneak peeks inside the white takeout containers volunteers from the mosque have placed in front of each chair. At sunset, the opening syllables of the imam’s prayer crackle over the loudspeakers, signalling an end to the day’s fasting. People fall on the food, erupting in laughter and conversation. “This is the generosity of Ramadan,” says Zakaria Shaaban, pointing at the rice, stew and flat bread inside his container. “It’s a noble act from the businessmen for the simple and the poor.” The skinny 43-year-old carpenter with the dirty white windbreaker looks around at the other tables and smiles broadly. “Ramadan is the most beautiful thing in the world, and so is Islam.”

Nearly 1,400 years ago, Mohammed ibn

Abdallah was having a mid-life crisis. Business was good, life was comfortable for his family and friends, but something seemed to be missing. He was increasingly bothered by what he witnessed—the growing gap between rich and poor, the callousness and cruelty the citizens of his town showed towards one another, the declining importance of religion in evemlay life. In the ninth month, as he had usually done, Mohammed left his home to contemplate these problems. In a cave high on Mount Hira, outside Mecca, he prayed and fasted, asking God for guidance. This time, on the night of the 27th day, he awoke with the sensation that someone else, a very powerful presence, was with him in the cave. Mohammed couldn’t move or speak. He lay there, gripped in the arms of the angel Gabriel, until words—poetic phrases of great beauty—suddenly began to spout from his mouth. The year was 610 A.D. It was the first revelation of the message of Allah—the holy Koran—to his people.

Today, Islam, the religion founded by Mohammed, has 1.2 billion adherents around the globe. Ramadan, the ninth month on the lunar calendar, is their holiest time of year, a period of worship and contemplation coupled with bursts of all-out celebration. Pious Muslims mark Ramadan by fasting each day between sunrise and sunset, abstaining from all nourishment, drink, tobacco and sex, until darkness falls. They say prayers five times a day; many occupy their quiet moments by reading the Koran aloud, satisfying another of Allah’s commands. Muslims are also required to show increased charity and tolerance for the poor during Ramadan. The holy book promises divine rewards for those who observe the fast—one of Islam’s five pillars— and harsh judgment for those who break their bond without good reason.

This year, as American B-52s and fighter jets continue to pound the Taliban despite pleas from Muslim leaders for a holy month halt to the bombings, as Israeli tanks rumble through the West Bank, Ramadan has taken on a different

mood. In Egypt, the most populous Arab nation with 70 million people, where the holy month is celebrated like nowhere else (or so its citizens love to boast), the party rages on, but the wells of peace and love show signs of running dry.

The open-air stall on the narrow street in old Cairo’s Bab El Khalk neighbourhood is a riot of gold-hued tin and coloured glass. Tarek Abu El Adab watches as a customer struggles to solve the logic puzzle and fit three fragile, four-foot-high fawanees into the backseat of a Hyundai. El Adab’s family have been selling the traditional Ramadan lanterns for more than 60 years, and they have learned a thing or two about marketing. “We’re very humourous,” he says, between puffs on a sheesha, the ubiquitous Arab water pipe. “At the time of the Gulf War there were Patriot lanterns, and Stealth plane ones.” This year’s hot seller is the bin Laden, a mediumsized lamp with a pointy, missile-shaped top. “We’ve sold right out of those,” he says.

Deeper inside the bazaar’s maze, past the shops selling lingerie and belly-dancing costumes, is a modest fruit and spice stand with the grand moniker The Ghoureya Etara Company. The owner has set out three large bins of dates—the fruit Mohammed ate to break his fast—marked bin Laden, Bush and Blair. “The big date represents the big towers he brought down,” says the shopkeeper. “The Bush dates are thin and tall, and the Tony Blairs have a small head and small body—they look like him.” Egyptians know the pain and fear that terrorism brings too intimately to take much pleasure in the devastation of Sept. 11. The Grand Imam of Al Azhar Al-Sharif, the Islamic academy in Cairo that is the definitive religious authority for Sunni Muslims around the world, has repeatedly denounced bin Laden and his jihad. Islam “is against terrorism, whatever was its source or place, because killing unarmed innocent men, women and children is an inhumanitarian act against the principle of all monotheistic religions and is rejected by proper minds,” proclaimed Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawi.

Ramadan is party time in Egypt. But with the mood soured by Afghanistan and the Palestinian question, some wonder if the celebration is too loud.

‘No one can tell the United States what is right or wrong’ said one man. ‘It’s like the world is a soccer net and there’s no goalkeeper.’

But in the streets and marketplaces, there are small expressions of satisfaction, like the secret schoolyard cheers when a victim finally bloodies the nose of the class bully. Zakaria Ahmed, a patron at the El Fishawi coffee house, a Cairo hot spot for more than 200 years, contemplates his own reaction to the New York and Washington attacks, fingering his prayer beads as he watches a conga line of chanting teenagers push their way through the crowd of latenight Ramadan revelers. “As a Muslim, what happened in the States doesn’t satisfy me or gain my approval, but what’s happening in Afghanistan doesn’t make me happy either,” he says. “No one can tell the United States what is right or wrong. It’s like the whole world is a soccer net and there’s no goalkeeper. They can shoot the ball wherever they please.”

Many people express doubts that bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda network were really behind the attacks. The 19 Arabs aboard the four hijacked planes couldn’t possibly have carried out such a complicated plot, goes the joke, because they would have been too busy arguing about who should be the ringleader. “What evidence is there that it is Osama bin Laden?” asks Norhan Ismail, a middle-aged woman from Upper Egypt who has recendy moved to Cairo to look for work. “Why is the U.S. punishing a whole country? A lot of innocent women and children have been killed.” Her younger friend Reham, who sports a blue veil and matching eye shadow, chimes in. “How can this communication and planning come out of a country so run down by war?” she demands. “My opinion is that it came from Israel, not Egypt or any other Muslim country. They are the ones with the capabilities. It’s Israel that creates problems for the whole world.”

The two young women in the tight blue jeans and form-fitting sweaters perch on the edge of the bandstand, hands clasped behind their heads, hips swivelling around the melody. The crowd, mostly collegeaged guys, climbs on the chairs and tables to get a better look, hooting and clapping

appreciatively at the impromptu display of belly-dancing. On the walls, there are posters of Ricky Martin shaking his bon-bon and looking adoringly at a can of Pepsi.

The Ramadan party is sponsored by a local brewery, but there isn’t a beer in sight —Egyptians aren’t allowed to consume alcohol in public during the holy month. But the middle-class kids cramming the upper deck of Le Pasha, an old Nile steamboat turned floating party palace, don’t need any extra stimulation. They sing along with the band’s synthesizer-driven music, laughing and shouting at the twists of fate in the backgammon and card games spread across the room.

It’s 2 o’clock in the morning, and no one seems to be fatigued. “Ramadan is not what you see here,” says Samir Hashem, 26, tapping his cellphone nervously against a pack of Marlboros. “We’re trying to celebrate being happy.” Hashem suggests that only 20 per cent of Egyptian society is behaving the way he and his friends are. Everyone else is praying, fasting, reading the Koran and trying to be closer to God, he assures me.

A lot of them are also watching TV Ramadan is like sweeps week in the Arab world, as networks trot out special mini-

series, song and dance extravaganzas, and game shows that tap into the holiday spirit. This year’s most popular program is a Barbara Walterish interview show, Howar Sareeh Geddan Geddan—A Very, Very Honest Interview—where Arab celebrities confess their darkest secrets.

Some grouse that Ramadan has become too commercial and is losing its meaning. There’s too much emphasis on lavish feasts and parties, they say. Nothing gets done during the month, as businesses, government and schools operate on half-days to accommodate the sleepy and hungry. Traffic, always awful in Cairo, gets worse as everyone rushes home for sundown. Tempers fray. “This is a month where you are supposed to reflect, meditate, do away with the excess in your life, but it’s become just the opposite,” says Issandr Elamrani, a young writer who describes himself as a non-practising Muslim. “It’s not that people are even aware of the hypocrisy. For years the teachings have concentrated on form rather than substance.”

Sheik Fawzi al-Zafzaf, Egypt’s second highest ranking cleric, listens to the list of complaints and shmgs dismissively. “Sure it’s become more of a festive month like Christmas or Thanksgiving, but these are ‘This ÍS a month where you are supposed to reflect, meditate, do away with the excess in your life, but it’s become just the opposite’

social traditions,” he says. Chatting with a visitor in his spacious office at Al Azhar, his Excellency, a jolly little man with a passing resemblance to Oliver Hardy, admits to bigger worries this year. Why does the West always misrepresent the teachings oflslam, he asks? “It’s unfortunate that the Western media, especially in the United States and Europe, is dominated by Zionism and capitalism,” says the sheik. “When a crime is done in the name of Islam, the media should refer to Islamic scholars. If they refute the crime, then the media should blame it on the person, not the religion.” The ignorance of America and its allies, says Sheik al-Zafzaf, is most evident in their decision to continue fighting in Afghanistan during the holy month, a time of peace and forgiveness. There is anger on the streets of the Arab world, the cleric warns, anger over Afghanistan, over the plight of the Palestinian people (who are defending themselves as permitted in the Koran, he adds), rage over U.S. support for Israel. “There is a very obvious double standard. If the attacks of Sept. 11 are terrorism, then why isn’t [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharons murder of women, children and elders every day?” demands Sheik al-Zafzaf. “This anger creates not only one Osama bin Laden. It will create thousands of Osama bin Ladens if the States doesn’t solve the problem.”

Wireless microphone in hand, Shaaban Abdel Rehim works the room like a Vegas pro. A fireplug of a man with a scarred face, he looks like a not-so-successful boxer mrned Elvis impersonator, all white leather and chunky gold jewelry. A familiar black-and-white checked koffeya is wrapped around his neck as he sings his hit pop song, I Hate Israel. “I hate Israel, and will say so if asked, I hate Israel for south Lebanon, for Jerusalem, and Iraq, and Syria, and Golan,” he croons. “I love Yasser Arafat and he’s precious to me, I hate Israel.” The tony Pradaand Chanel-clad crowd at the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel claps and sings along, gleefully posing for pictures as Rehim pauses obligingly at each table. No one ever went broke pandering to anti-Israeli sentiment in Egypt.

In a country where deeply held political opinions tend to be frowned upon unless they are of the Hosni Mubarak-is-a-greatguy variety, the Palestinian question is the one issue that everyone feels free to hold forth on. Israel is occupying Arab land, its military kills innocent civilians, the U.S. arms Israel, all of the above are very wrong, goes the mantra. Whenever bin Laden and Al-Qaeda are discussed, Israel is invariably the word that comes after the phrase, “we reject the attacks, but....” All over Cairo, there are memorials to Egypt’s “glorious victory” over Israel in 1973’s Ramadan/Yom Kippur war. The less successful military campaigns—1948, 1967—aren’t similarly feted. Neither is Anwar Sadat’s controversial 1978 peace with the Jewish state.

Western support for the corrupt and repressive regimes that dot the Arab land-

scape also comes under fire. “What is the difference between the King of Saudi Arabia and Saddam Hussein?” asks Abou Elela Mady Abou Elela, a former member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and would-be opposition politician. Abou Elela has been jailed five times by the Egyptian government, most recently on charges of treason for trying to register his moderate Islamic coalition, Al Wasat (The Centre), as a legitimate party. “Why is democracy not seen to be important in the Arab world like it is in South Africa, Eastern Europe and East Timor?” he asks.

Egypt has largely eliminated its own domestic terrorism threat, but its brutal methods, including arbitrary imprisonment, torture and state-sanctioned killings, may have simply served to export the problem to the rest of the world. After all, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Cairo-born doctor who is bin Laden’s second-incommand, was defendant No. 113 of more than 300 during his first trial on terrorism charges after Sadat’s assassination in 1981. “The fundamentalists will tell you how they walked on paths of blood on their way to the interrogation rooms,” says ‘If the attacks Of Sept. 11 are terrorism, then why isn’t Sharon’s murder of children? This will create thousands of bin Ladens’

Hisham Kassem, a human rights activist. “When you look at Al-Qaeda, it is almost like a gathering of sad apparitions, ghosts, the casualties of authoritarian regimes.”

The cab is still kilometres away from the pyramids, paused in traffic, when the first would-be tour guide wrenches open the passenger side door. The driver reaches over to push him back out and slams the door shut, throwing his battered, antique Peugeot into gear and lurching away. Further down the road, two young men tempt death by stepping off the median. My driver curses and brakes. A third man uses the diversion to slip into the car. “You go pyramids?” he asks. “I take you.” I feign ignorance, responding in my best approximation of Quebec jouai, rolling my r’s like a Chicoutimi tow-truck driver. He stares at me for a long moment, then leaps out.

In the dusty parking lot, several men jostle for the door handle and poke their heads in the windows. Alongside the Great Pyramid, more freelancers hurl pitches from the backs of horses and camels. My French ploy is no use—they run through every European language, and Japanese for good measure, until they get a response. To my left, an elderly German couple is surrounded by ersatz Bedouins, who cajole them to take a picture in exchange for a modest baksheesh.

Hamed Awad Tartour, 27, has been hawking his guiding services and rides on his camel, Mickey Mouse, to visitors to the pyramids for the past 15 years. Things are bad, he says, way worse than in 1997, when Islamic extremists massacred almost 60 tourists at Luxor, 500 km south of Cairo. “After the Sept. 11 attack, no tourists,” he says. He pauses, smooths out the folds in his traditional galabeya robe, readjusts his Chicago Bulls’ cap, and glances over his shoulder at the empty plateau. “The government says 50 per cent of the people are still coming, but it’s not true—maybe 20 per cent. At the hotels, many people are losing their positions.” Mickey groans and loudly passes wind.

Tartour, who lives with his wife and two young children in neighbouring Giza —the middle-class Cairo suburb where

Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta grew up—figures he can hold out for another month or so before he has to sell his gold wedding band or, even worse, Mickey. His cousin Hussein has already sold one of his camels. “We’re not poor, but we’re not rich,” says Tartour. “We live life day by day.” Downtown at the tourist-class Ramses Hilton, where the only visible concession to life in an Islamic country is the presence of beef bacon at breakfast (the Koran prohibits Muslims from eating pork), business is suffering as well. Staff and security guards in the brass and marble lobby outnumber guests three to one. Ahmed Taalat, the assistant manager, says occupancy is about 40 per cent, twice as good as most of his competitors, thanks to the large number of permanent residents. “Ramadan is usually slow, but we get a lot of people from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait,” he says. “Not this year.”

It’s hard to overestimate the damage the Sept. 11 attacks have inflicted on the Egyptian economy. In the marketplace, the business people have already sorted through cause and effect. “I hope bin Laden is happy in his cave,” says Amr Fathy, who makes wall hangings for tourists and traditional Ramadan tents for big hotels and rich businessmen. “It’s because of him that I have to eat stones.”

In the once grand salon, oil portraits of Mahmoud Sabit’s forebears, sporting fezs and elaborate moustaches, line the walls. A cigar cutter decorated with a flaking painting of a Scottish terrier sits on the finely carved coffee table. The family mansion, across the street from the U.S. embassy in Cairo, has seen better days. “We’ve been on the down escalator for a long time,” says Sabit, a businessman and Islamic historian.

In a city where you can survey 5,000 years of progress during an afternoon’s walk, it’s easy to lose perspective. “Twentyfive years ago, Ramadan was more muted,” recalls Sabit, as his cat Farouk dozes contentedly in his lap. “A lot of the mosques had been turned into community centres where they played Ping-Pong.” Then, maybe 40 per cent of the population fasted, but now it’s more like 80 or 90 per cent, he estimates. Back in the days when Egypt was the power centre of the Muslim world, Sabit’s grandmother, a very pious woman, never would have considered it. Things have changed considerably since the West’s voracious appetite for oil made the Gulf states, with their stricter interpretation of Islam, rich and influential.

Someday the pendulum will swing back again, he says. Despite the acts of violence and intimidation, the dire predictions, the alarmist articles about the inexorable spread of fundamentalism, those who would twist the true message of Islam will eventually fall by the wayside. People will simply tire of being told how they must worship their God. “I don’t like having my personal freedoms infringed upon, neither does anyone else,” says Sabit. “That’s not Islamic.” Outside, the amplified sunset prayers from competing neighbourhood mosques echo between the buildings. G3