CAIRO, Egypt — It’s hardly been a miserable summer by Egyptian standards. The heat, usually scorching, has been bearable. The humidity, which has a tendency to appear several times each summer, has largely stayed away.
But things are about to heat up.
Ramadan, as of Saturday, Aug. 22, is officially underway, with all of its ancient traditions, modern twists, and — this year — the addition of midsummer heat.
It’s been more than a quarter century since Ramadan last fell during the summer months. Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, which, because it’s lunar, advances a couple weeks each year against the Gregorian calendar.
The month of fasting started with one of Islam’s quirkiest traditions. Several members of Egypt’s clerical establishment gathered just south of Cairo in the hope of spotting the first sliver of moon that would herald the new month.
Technology has made it possible to determine when there is a new moon. Religious leaders around the world, though, continue to look for the moon in the night sky before announcing a start to the month.
Though Saturday was the anticipated start date for Ramadan, the clerics gathered Thursday night to make sure the moon didn’t appear a day early. That meant that no one knew for certain, until Friday, that Ramadan was to begin the following day.
Each year, certain camps suggest that the start of Ramadan be standardized and based on calculations of the moon’s position. The idea has gained little traction in Egypt. (Turkey opted to enter Ramadan on Friday based on the math.)
In the meantime, Ramadan days are bound to get hotter and longer for the next seven or eight years, with potentially explosive consequences.
Observers will have to get up earlier for their predawn meal, and they’ll have to wait longer to break fast after sunset.
The upper classes worry about the effect a summer Ramadan will have on the vacation months. Ramadan demands modesty and piety — meaning no bikinis, no martinis.
"Ramadan is getting hotter. The summer holiday got shorter this year," said Reham ElDesoki, a senior economist at a brokerage firm in Egypt called Beltone Financial.
Egypt’s blue-collar labor force will likely suffer the most. They’ll be obliged to work in excruciating temperatures that frequently top 110 degrees Farenheit. And, for the next couple of years, the days will be getting progressively longer, meaning that they won’t be able to eat, drink, or smoke until 7 or 8 p.m. each night.
There is one other Ramadan twist that many in Egypt have begun to bemoan. Ramadan is meant to be a month in which, by living ascetically, Muslims give up the material in favor of the spiritual. In Egypt, though, food consumption goes through the roof each Ramadan.
“Instead of people reducing their excessive consumption of food and trying to empower themselves, especially after the break fast they fall back on food,” lamented Mohammad Habib, deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s main Islamist group. In fact, increased food consumption in this intended month of humility has become such a problem, that Egypt’s Central Bank, which controls interest rates, begins months in advance to shape its policies around the strong inflationary pressures brought on by food consumption during Ramadan.
Much of the excess is driven by the fact that many Egyptians see Ramadan as a time to party. Workdays, at least in the upper levels of society, can last as little as four or five hours. Then, to break the fast, friends, families and businesses throw elaborate banquets each evening.
And the richest Egyptians enjoy splurging on exotic foods they might not otherwise eat.
"Ramadan is a time when people supposedly consume less food for religious reasons. Some people, though, focus on consuming special types of foods,” said ElDesoki.
And most Egyptians still get their three meals a day; it’s just that they’re eaten immediately after sunset, in the middle of the night, and just before dawn.
Ramadan “is supposed to be the month of religion, but unfortunately the people have turned it into a month of figs and qamar el din,” said Habib, referring to a peach drink that is a Ramadan staple.
Charity, on the other hand, is another reason food consumption goes up so dramatically each Ramadan. It’s common for groups of affluent neighbors to throw street banquets for the local poor. Long tables, capable of seating 50 or more people, spring up each year, and the poor gather to feast on the food provided for them.
"This income bracket [the poor] is consuming things during this time that they usually can't afford,” ElDesoki said.
Some say Ramadan brings out the gluttony of Egyptian culture. Others say it represents the best of Islam.
Perhaps the group most grateful for Ramadan this year, though, is the student population. The government announced that it would postpone the start of school for several weeks to allow students to celebrate Ramadan each day at home.