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Reviving Ramadan
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 25 - 08 - 2011

This year's Ramadan has seen the revival of community spirit and numerous personal initiatives that have rarely been seen before,says Nashwa Abdel-Tawab
For years, we have been writing more about the celebrations that take place during Ramadan than about the meaning of the holy month itself -- mothers cooking lavish meals for their families and Iftar gatherings turning into opportunities to show off and to outdo others with evermore extravagant menus. Once Iftar is over, there is a wide choice of entertainment, including relaxing in newly erected Ramadan tents or staying at home to watch the television soap operas that dominate Ramadan schedules. And then there is the shopping for the Eid.
Instead of cutting back on the desire to consume, people sometimes end up consuming more over the month's 30 days, distracting themselves from the pleasures of midnight contemplation and the social intercourse of Ramadan.
Changes in Ramadan culture have affected the spiritual significance of the blessed month despite the increasing number of worshippers going to mosques and the increased interest in charitable activities that have marked recent years. Abstaining from all physical intake during daylight hours, which means food, drink and sexual relations, all with the intention of getting closer to the divine, should mean a greater appreciation of the sufferings of the poor and hungry, a chance to devote less time to the physical and more to the spiritual, and a recognition that we can all live happily with less than what we have.
In the wake of the revolutions that have taken place across the Arab world in 2011, this year's Ramadan has been marked by a revival of religious spirit. It has also been affected by a change in Egyptian mentality that has gone hand in hand with the humane cause of Ramadan.
Iftar with friends
Friends often have Iftar together during Ramadan, but this year Naglaa Ahmed, a senior business consultant, and her friends have made Iftar special by donating blood and money to good causes.
She suggested donating blood after Iftar and giving money to help people in Somalia. While some colleagues didn't fancy the first idea, everyone was enthusiastic about the latter, says Ahmed.
Before Iftar, Ahmed and 30 of her colleagues, all of whom work for one of Microsoft's local partners, stopped work and started to play some of the computer games they had brought with them. Then, after Iftar, the scene changed, and special hospital chairs and equipment were set up. Questionnaire were distributed, adding to the seriousness of what they were about to do and a sense of trust to hesitant donors.
Money raised at the Iftar went to a charity working in Somalia to relieve famine victims. "It's unfair to eat and live without feeling the suffering of others," Ahmed says, describing this feeling as part of the essence of Ramadan. "I also cannot deny that the revolution has inspired me to take positive initiatives in my life, and I have started to act in a more communal way in order to encourage others to act in the same way as well. I pray for others who are in need, like the poor in Egypt, the Somalis and the Syrians, who are dying daily because of the regime there, as well as the Palestinians under Israeli attack.""Ramadan this year has also been very special because of Mubarak's trial, the taking down of the Israeli flag from the embassy in Cairo, and the success of the Libyan Revolution. I am praying for change, and I believe it can happen if we all act sincerely together and for others as we do for ourselves," she says.
Last 10 days in Somalia
Muslims pray more in the last ten days of Ramadan in order to benefit from the blessings of the Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Power). However, one group of five young friends has decided to do more this year, going to Somalia themselves in order to help famine victims.
Hossam El-Maadawi found the suffering of the Somali people unbearable to contemplate, and so he decided that rather than simply give money, which he has done for many years whenever a catastrophe strikes, he would try to share directly in efforts to end that suffering with a group of friends.
The friends did not take the easiest route by volunteering in established camps in Madagascar, Kenya or Ethiopia either. It was the Revolution and this year's Ramadan that lay behind their determination.
El-Maadawi and his friends found information about Somalia and the Somali people's needs, and they read about other people's experiences there, contacting organisations and deciding to collect money to try to reach unreachable areas.
In the end, El-Maadawi and his friends left for Somalia last week, and they intend to return to Egypt at the end of Ramadan. It rained heavily on the day they reached Somalia, and they were optimistic that their risky journey would end up well despite the dangers of theft or attack.
Street demonstration
This year there has been less nightly contemplation for pious Muslims with few previous political affiliations and more political activism. Aya, a 27-year-old housewife, stood with her husband and son in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo at the beginning of Ramadan in order to protest at the violence in that country, and she also stood in front of the Israeli embassy at the end of Ramadan.
Aya also took her family and stood in front of the Israeli embassy in order to protest against Israeli attacks on Sinai and Gaza. The family had breakfast in front of the embassy, just dates and water, and they prayed in the street, shouting for the ambassador to leave the country. Aya was also there when Ahmed El-Shahhat, the young man who scaled the walls of the building to take down the Israeli flag, made his heroic climb.
Aya wants a fairer world for her son, and her heart breaks as a result of the news reaching Egypt from abroad. "Iraq and Afghanistan are far from being at peace. Palestine is going through one of the worst crises in its tragic history, and the Palestinians are still being denied the basic dignity that is the right of all human beings. Libya, Yemen, Syria and other Arab countries are going through the pain of changing their regimes."
Now that Ramadan is coming to an end, we should reflect and ask ourselves whether we, as Muslims, are really on the correct path. An honest answer will show how far we are from the teachings of Islam, properly understood.
The Quran says: "Verily, never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves."
So, we should put an end to the habit of blaming others for our shortcomings. What is needed is a readiness to think and act differently. Welcome to the revolution and good-bye to Ramadan until next year.

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