x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The Ramadan party that is dazzling fun and ultimately holy

Ramadan has arrived in Cairo and there's no stopping the festivities.

The tents, the lights, the food, the lazy days and sleepless nights, the gorging at night, the empty streets around sunset, and prayers blasting from the mosques' PA systems late into the dark night: get into it, or get out of the way. Ramadan has arrived in Cairo and there's no stopping the festivities. This is my third Ramadan away from home in Canada and in the heart of where it should be celebrated - Egypt. If anyone in the Muslim and Arab world knows how to do the month, it's the Egyptians, and particularly Cairenes.

My first Ramadan here was actually rather intimidating. I loved the lit up homes and mosques - very similar to Christmas lights back home - and I loved the restaurants open late into the night. But Ramadan in Cairo is definitely not for the weak. Be prepared to stay up late into the night, to be pressured into having one more tart lemon juice, one more snack, one more sweet baklava. Your jaywalking skills must be honed to perfection around sunset, with drivers having even less regard for pedestrians as they blast by to get home in time for iftar.

The crowds are merciless in the shopping areas and traditional quarters like Sayyida Zaynab and el-Hussein, where important Islamic shrines and mosques are found. They teem with people from all walks of life as they come to pray, eat at local restaurants or shop for spices and ingredients to make the rich meals Egyptians break their fast with. I found it all overwhelming at first, not knowing how to reconcile my sad, small town Canadian Ramadan habits with the mish mash that is Cairo's Ramadan. It took a bit of time - and now I couldn't celebrate it anywhere else. It has something for everyone, and once you figure out where you fit in, it's easy to soak it all up.

Lanterns are an essential part of an Egyptian Ramadan. They are hung from many apartment balconies, strung over the thresholds of shops and extra-large ones grace the doorsteps of restaurant. In every colour, they carry words like "Ramadan Kareem" and "Happy New Year" in Arabic with sometimes intricate designs on glass and metal. Now, with the Chinese market booming in the Middle East, Chinese-made lanterns - many designed in the Asian fashion - compete for attention with the Egyptian-made ones in shops.

Iftar for many Egyptians means family time, and people will invite and be invited to many lavish iftar evenings. Lavish meals of stuffed vegetables, oven macaroni with Béchamel, and drinks made from dried apricots make for very lazy and heavy people, many of whom will slump back into the couch and watch Ramadan soap operas for hours on end. The soaps, much to the chagrin of many Egyptians who wish for the return of a simpler, more spiritual Ramadan, are now a staple of the month. This year, 55 different soap operas have been produced and aired on the dozens of satellite and public channels in the Middle East. Historical, classical, comedic, dramatic - you name it, the Egyptians have created it.

While the month is a great time for socialising, it is ultimately a religious time for many Egyptians. Mosques are packed with the prayerful, alcohol is banned from many establishments, charity work is increased, and as the month draws to a close more people will take days off to spend their nights in the mosques to take advantage of the holiest nights of the month. It's also a month of charity, during which celebrities, businesses and political parties raise funds to create what are known as mercy tables - large areas under bridges or street corners where tables are set with free food and drink for the less fortunate to break their fast. Every year someone writes to the resident Islamic scholar who has a column in a national newspaper to ask if it is all right to dine at a mercy table funded by a belly dancer. It is.

Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo