Even the poor dine during Ramadan
Many of Egypt's needy flood Cairo to take advantage of the city's annual outpouring of charity.
The usually teeming Cairo streets, where you ordinarily have to fight to hear yourself think amid the blare of horns, are suddenly deserted in the soft Ramadan dusk.
But Hoda Sharawi Street is suddenly festive. Colored lights hang from trees above tables and mats that merchants have set in front of stores to create dozens of makeshift restaurants.
Expectant crowds wait for the call to prayer to break the daily fast, sitting quietly in front of plates of rice and stew. Many of the country's poor have flooded Cairo to take advantage of this dusty ancient city's greatest annual outpouring of charity.
Along this street, men bustle about seating late-comers, handing out sweet dates (tradition has it that the prophet Muhammad broke his fast with dates) and urging their guests to be at ease.
Finally, the call to prayer rumbles over this vast city – first one voice wailing out "God is great" then joined by hundreds more from every point of the compass.
Plates and glasses clink and inky-glasses of sugary tamarind juice are drained. The stringy pulp of dates are sucked from their pits, then the 2,000-odd diners turn to the business of a meal.
There are hundreds of locations similar to the ad hoc charity dinners on Hoda Sharawi throughout Cairo this month. Neighborhood merchants, mosques, film stars, and even belly dancers set up tables on streets, under overpasses, and along the Nile where all are invited to eat. But the convention is that only those that really need it should avail themselves.
Not too many years ago, signs alongside the tables would ostentatiously announce the identity of the benefactors, but that has since gone out of fashion, largely because of the impression that seeking public approval for charity isn't charity at all. No one knows how many free meals are dished out nightly, but it clearly runs into the hundreds of thousands.
"These are great days for us – one month a year it feels like all our problems are solved,'' says Ismael Mohammed, a wizened father of 10 who lives on a small pension from the electricity ministry. "The rest of the year, it's a constant fight."
As in many other religions, feeding the poor and other acts of charity are seen as highly commendable within Islam. The paying of zakat, a fixed annual portion of one's income to the poor, is among the five pillars of the religion. With the emphasis on charity, many Islamic festivals focus around the giving of food to the poor. On Eid al-Adha, when animals are slaughtered to commemorate the end of the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, the meat is distributed to the needy.
Outside Hassan Zemho's antique store, where Mr. Mohammed and about 200 others, most pensioners or day laborers in tattered clothes are eating, talk turns to the roots of this tradition.
"The Koran is very clear on this: If you've done well, you must do good for others during Ramadan," says Hani Hassan Zemho, who helps run the antique store with his father. "This is the season of mercy when we all have to try to be better men."
At the root of the dawn-to-dusk fasting during this lunar month, when tradition states the Koran began to be revealed to the prophet Muhammad, is a desire to generate a feeling of equality among all Muslims.
But Ramadan, too, reveals the class divides in this country. While the wealthy have lavish spreads at their homes or eat at the city's five-star hotels and top restaurants – with weight gain an often ironic side effect of the month-long fast – the diners at Egypt's charity tables feel lucky to get a decent meal at all.
Food prices typically soar, as traders take advantage of increased demand, straining the budgets of even many Egyptians who have ful-time jobs. In Cairo today, an egg costs about 1 Egyptian pound (15 US cents) and a whole chicken about 20 pounds ($3.30). While that doesn't sound like much, Cairo's legion of street sweepers earn just 80 pounds a month and often support an extended family on that salary.
So this month is the rare occasion when Cairo's working poor, who typically subsist on fool, a type of stewed bean, enjoy chicken or meat. "Islam gives great merits to those who feed the poor, and I wouldn't feel right about eating better this time of year if I wasn't sharing,'' says Ahmed Abdul Rasul, who runs a large grocery on the edge of Western Cairo's Bulaq al-Dakrur, a poor area where donkey carts haul trash over pitted streets.
"We feed market porters, street sweepers, people like that. The government has stopped controlling prices and it seems the traders who control the chicken and meat have no mercy, so we feel we have to do this," he says.
Mr. Mohammed polishes off a small bowl of rice pudding and pushes his plate away with a sigh. "It would be better if the other 11 months of the year were like this,'' he says. "But at least now we don't have to worry about food and can focus on what really matters, God and mercy."