Cairo — Each evening, shortly before 7, the birds of Cairo manage to overcome the cacophony of the city's usually snarling traffic. In the immense and eerie stillness of a huge city almost completely at rest, their tiny voices serenade millions of exhausted and hungry Muslims who are at least eating and drinking again after nearly 16 sweltering hours of doing without.
Sometimes, though, walking down the hushed deserted streets, you can hear the "clink, clink" of fork striking plate. And, with a bit of imagination, you can also hear -- or at least you think you can hear -- the satisfied sounds of munching and swallowing that accompany the feast that breaks the day-long fast.
Along Kasr el Eini street red and white public buses stand mute and empty, apparrently abandoned. But their masters aren't far way, hunched contentedly over bowls of "fool" beans (or broad beans) and vegetables in makeshift sidewalks restaurants.
It's Ramadan in Cairo, as it is for 800 million Muslims throughout the world. It's the month in which the faithful touch neither food nor drink nor tobacco from sunup to sundown. One of the five pillars of Islam, Ramadan is a period of heightened religious sensitivity, of devotion, and of charity. It is intended to be an exercise in self-discipline and spiritual self-renewal.
But when Egyptians talk about Ramadan they often mention the bond of sympathy it forges between rich and poor. It is a time for the fortunate to "feel what wretches feel," to know firsthand how painful an empty stomach can be.
This year, most will concede, Ramadan has been especially taxing. In some Cairo neighborhoods residents are awakened around 1:30 a.m. by the "mushairati," men passing by in the street beating wooden drums and summoning all those who intend to fast to the "sahoor," the mean of cheese or yogurt or fool that will have to hold them from about 3:30 a.m., when the sun comes up, to sunset just before 7.
By noon, the temperature is often up over 95 degrees F. and by 6, Cairenes can be seen leaning languidly out their apartment windows, gazing westward toward the Nile where the sun is setting in a brilliant orange haze.
"It's not the food we miss," says Moustapha Selim, a Cairo banker. "It's the water."
Mr. Selim and other veteran fasters, however, are not so foolish as to gulp great quantities of water the instant the fast is broken. Instead, the breakfast meal, called "iftar," begins sedately with prunes, dates, figs, and apricots deliciously afloat in a reasonable amount cold water, to prepare the stomach for what is to follow.
What follows may include soup, fried meat, ground meat, chicken, rice, three or four boiled vegetables, salad, and flat bread. Afterward there is fruit, a sticky sweet Ramadan dessert called "konafa," and, of course, hot sugary tea.
If there is excess, it is in variety only, as gluttony is condemned. More often than not a foreign non-Muslim, nonfasting guest will be the last to leave the table, the "victim" of effusive Egyptian hospitality.
Despite the rigors of the fast and the disruptions it imposes on personal and social schedules, Ramadan is a happy season and griping is rare. Many Egyptians say this is because they take genuine pleasure in fulfilling one of Islam's most strenuous commands. For young children, exempt from fasting, Ramadan is a magic month when they are allowed to run around outside in the cool hours after iftar. Side streets are often ablaze in colored lights and illuminated toy mosques are suspended on wires strung from one rooftop to another.
While Ramadan is very much alive and well in Cairo, there are those today who lament that more and more Egyptians are choosing to ignore the fast. Says young Cairo secretary Mona Radwan: "Ramadan is just not the same anymore. Young people, especially in the middle class, say it's old- fashioned and not necessary."
The days when you never found anyone smoking in public in Ramadan are over. This is not just the case with smoking. Unlike more orthodox Islamic countries, Egypt permits restaurants, juice bars, and coffee houses to remain open during the day in Ramadan, though some whitewash their windows to ensure privacy.
Egypt's less-than-stringent application of Islamic law to public behavior in Ramadan is said to reflect the government's sensitivity to the presence of large numbers of foreign tourists and to a Christian population estimated to number from 3-to-7 million.
Still, this is the month when an Egyptian will usually greet a friend with the observation that "Ramadan is generous" (Ramadan kariim) and will hear in reply that "God is more so" (Allahu akram).