Ramadan-the ninth month of the lunar Muslim calendar, is when the Qur’an was said to have been revealed to the Prophet Mohammed. During this month adult Muslims fast-they abstain from eating, drinking, and sex, from sunrise to sunset. The elderly, sick, and pregnant are exempt. -Culture Smart Egypt
Saturday was the start of Ramadan and it was also when the kitchen decided to serve veal for dinner. Ana and I opted out by crossing a line through our names on the meal sheet posted outside the cafeteria. Just for the record, the cooks at the school make amazing meals three times a day and the soups are a grand slam out of the ballpark. The bread (buns, flatbread, sliced, etc.) is made daily and the produce is purchased each morning and I challenge anyone to finder a redder tomato or a sweeter watermelon or a tastier fig, which leads me to wonder if this is life outside genetically modified fruits and vegetables?
In the eyes of the chefs at school, it doesn’t matter if you are petite or large, they subscribe to the belief that any person who dares to stand in their line will be scooped a super-sized portion on your helpless plate. The key to not being overfed at the trough (pronounced troff) is making eye-contact, the second you divert your attention away from the server, you will be punished by a mountain of food. Ultimately, you are in control of your own meal destiny and while maintaining eye contact in only part of the solution to securing a healthy waistline, other precautions such as using hand gestures while simultaneously uttering phrases such as “no,” “half,” “less,” and so on will curb the cook from bullying you into additional pounds.
Just to confirm veal was indeed being served last night, we walked down to the kitchen and did a reconnaissance mission before one of the cooks had a chance to spot us. We made it safely out the door undetected to the gates of the compound and on to Schutz Street. One of the staff members had mentioned a great falafel place about 15 minutes from school. On our walk we noticed that we didn’t have to dodge cars and you could count the number of people out of the street, did we just enter the Twilight Zone? Then occurred to us that the majority of the city had been fasting all day and the iftar (breaking of the fast) was minutes away. That was when we realized that we might have accidently committed ourselves to missing dinner. We walked around the neighborhood and noticed vendors and other workers sitting in front of plates of food ready to rewarded after a long day of spiritual cleansing. Even more interesting were tables of food set up in alleyways and the ends of city blocks for people who are away from family (vendors, city workers) and the homeless. The concept behind these communal tables (provided either by a wealthy family or mosque) is that no one should be alone at iftar. As a cultural note, Egyptians are family centered; the idea of independence is a foreign concept them, as it is said, most fear the idea of being alone.
While Ana and I were discussing Ramadan, we watched people race home and we learned through our conversations with some of the Muslim staff at school about the significance of spending iftar with the family. We both wondered out loud that it was like having Thanksgiving dinner for a straight month. We naturally started to name dysfunctional family holiday films such as, Home for The Holidays and countless others that have flooded the market since the 90’s. Would it be like competing for attention and enduring the pains of sibling rivalries every night for an entire month? Then I remembered my friend's stories about her and her siblings taking turns getting "kicked out" of their parent's house after the holiday meal, apparently tensions would escalate to that point. She would joke about making a schedule since there is four kids in the family and it would get confusing on who's turn it would be the following year. Maybe that’s how we Americans are; too independent and detached for our own good.
The silence of a city of six million was awoken by the maghrib (sunset prayer) over the loudspeakers throughout Alexandria. It was about that time we found ourselves standing in line with several others at the Chicken Man (Kimos) down the street from our school. After a twenty-minute wait we got our bag with a rotisserie chicken, 5 pitas, a salad, 2 mezes (think-appetizers or tapas), and a bag of cheese flavored potato chips for 26 Egyptian Pounds (about $4.70 usd). I only had a twenty on me, but Kino told me not to worry and to pay the rest later. That is how they roll here.