x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Taking the temperature of my first summer Ramadan

There is something different about the Ramadan preparations in Cairo this year.

There is something different about the Ramadan preparations in Cairo this year. Things may seem "normal". The supermarkets still have their Ramadan "corners" with colourful Egyptian tent fabric and bushels of dates, walnuts, hazelnuts, dried figs and apricots for sale. The smells of spice and nuts and sweets are overwhelming in the markets, and shoppers can be seen buying lard, rice, meat and other dinner staples in bulk. The usual crop of Ramadan shows are being advertised on Arabic TV satellite channels, on billboards and in newspapers. And people are already booking family and friends for iftars and planning where they will pray tarawih, the nightly prayers performed only in Ramadan. And, of course, the lanterns. The lanterns are everywhere. Shops are bursting at the seams with them in a myriad colours and sizes. They are decorating homes and will soon hang from balconies and storefronts.

But this year is not typical. Coupled with the excitement of the season, there is a growing sense of tension. Not exactly dread, but definitely a touch of anxiety. This is the first in a series of summer Ramadans and it will be a fast to test all of our willpower. July was a difficult month to bear in Cairo. It brought an oppressive heat that grabbed you in a stranglehold, bearing down until the sweat began to flood your face and body like a sponge squeezed over your head. And so the question on everyone's minds is, how are we going to do it? The heat coupled with the long summer days of fasting are going to make this a Ramadan to remember.

And what about the Ramadan traditions? Are we going to come up with new ones for the summer fast? For my generation, Ramadan and winter have come hand in hand. I grew up breaking my fast with hot lentil soup and sweet, warm milky drinks that are meant to warm bellies after a long, cold day without food or fluids. Now, with the desert heat outside, I imagine myself breaking fast with a long glass of freezing water or iced tea, chugging down gallons of juice and forgoing the soup.

For me and my friends, Ramadan always landed during term time. We went to school to sit our exams while fasting, and spent the lunch break swotting in the library while our non-fasting friends ate their lunch then ran off their energy in the playground. Now summer holidays are still upon us and some Egyptian families will be spending Ramadan on the beach. For those not at work, whiling away the long, summer day of fasting might be a challenge.

But while hot temperatures might change the feel of this year's holiest month, the old spirit will still be dominant. The city that never sleeps will maintain its reputation, bursting into life after the sun goes down. Places such as Khan el Khalili and the Hussein mosque will be bustling as people flock there to pray and spend the night with friends and loved ones in the cafes. Sweet shops will be impossible to penetrate as hordes fight at the counter ordering kilos of sticky sweets to bring to iftar. And bridges all over the city will become the roofs to dozens of mercy tables - lavish spreads put out each night for the poor who do not find the means or a place to break their fast.

Most importantly, the spiritual and charitable spirit of the month won't be affected. Charities will continue to be swamped with Ramadan bags, sacks of essential foods and ingredients that are sent out to people dwelling in slums across the city. And, of course, our mosques will be packed with worshippers seeking the guidance and connection this month provides. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo