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I know what you did last summer
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 09 - 2009

Ahmed Kotb chronicles how Ramadan cut short the North Coast holiday this year
With the heat sizzling on in Cairo, those North Coast holidaymakers who were not brought back by work or children's school are just staying on. Over there the weather is great, with a cool breeze invariably bringing back happy memories, and the beaches are irresistible. Yet at a time of year when they are normally brimming with life, North Coast resorts -- restaurants and cafés included -- are surprisingly empty. And there is but one explanation for the phenomenon: Ramadan, which in the present lunar cycle coincides with summer for the first time in years. North Coast venues are open all through the day -- many tout their wares with slogan "With you till the end of Ramadan" -- but there is no one there.
During Ramadan, the overwhelming majority of Muslims fasts during the day and gather in the family house for Iftar and the pre-dawn meal of Sohour; if they go out in the evening, it is to some Islamic tent-style café where Ramadan- specific delicacies and drinks are served along with shisha. And since Ramadan has been a winter event for as long as anyone remembers, naturally, no one has had to weigh these yearly rituals against the pleasures of the beach. So with the advent of the holy month, holidaymakers in the North Coast resort of Marina, for example, were caught off guard. Initially, many opted for staying on and experiencing Ramadan in a different way. Popular venues in Marina like the Fish Market or Grand Café introduced new decorations in which the fanous (the Ramadan lantern) occupies pride of place, and for a week or so, the Ramadan-beach combination seemed to work. By the end of the second week, however, that was all over.
According to Adel Marzouk, 43, the manager of the Antique Coffee Shop in Marina, there has been a 90 per cent decrease in the number of customers coming in, "even though we now have shisha and Oriental live music every night". Not more than three out of 30 shops are taken, on average. In Marina even the mosques, which in Egypt are much fuller than usual as a rule during Ramadan, are all but empty, with the long, Ramadan-specific evening prayers known as tarawih drawing in few worshippers. Even those who could stay, it seems, chose not to in the end -- feeling the need to be in the familiar city atmosphere at this time of year.
Sherine Shaarawi, 44, must be the exception to the rule. "Ramadan here is wonderful," she says. "The weather is better for fasting and everywhere is calm since people have gone home." On however small a scale, a Marina-style Ramadan lifestyle seems to be taking form -- with new or adjusted rituals all its own.
For Menna Amer, 22, the day begins in the early evening, after breakfast at sunset -- which she has in one of her favourite restaurants if not at home. She meets her friends at the Tche Tche Café, where she sometimes has her Sohour -- then comes "the best part of the day": "Every night after I have my Sohour, I go for a jet ski ride which usually lasts till dawn. It feels as if the whole sea belongs to me, since most nights I am the only out there." Likewise Hatem Ashmaawi, 21, who is grateful for the lack of people on the beach: "I wake up late in the afternoon and start setting up my fishing gear for the night. The crowds on the beach used to prevent me from enjoying fishing, but since the beginning of Ramadan I have had all the peace I need." Perhaps, as Amr El-Meligui, 23, suggests, it is a question of time: "I decided to stay so as to prepare myself for next year, since Ramadan will be a summer event from now on whether we like it or not." There is certainly no lack of services to make the hypothesis of Ramadan by the beach a realistic prospect, in time. It all depends on the willingness of people to give it a try.


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