Ramadan in a City of A Thousand Minarets

A WAKE-UP call like no other, the voice thunders out of the loudspeaker just feet from my bedroom window. Exotic halftones hang on the night air as a man's voice pulls and stretches familiar Arabic syllables into long wailing sounds. But in the melee of words, I can still make out the ``Allahu Akbar'' (``God is Great'') - a sort of signature for Islam.

I have been in Cairo only a few months, but already the muezzin's dawn call to prayer seems a natural part of the day's rhythm. Captive to the loudspeaker's broadcast, I lie in bed and listen, slowly attuning my ear to the idiosyncrasies and intonation.

I imagine the muezzin walking up the spiral steps of his pencil-slim minaret, his long robes caught up in one hand. He stands quietly for a moment or two then takes a deep breath and beckons the faithful. Nowhere in this ``City of a Thousand Minarets,'' as Cairo is sometimes called, can you miss the distinctive sound.

Where mosques sit cheek by jowl, the voices of the muezzins wash out from the tops of their towers in undulating waves. Assisted by a little sound technology, they lap over one another in a weave of voices that blanket the city.

But the dawn call is always the most palpable, undiluted by the rumble of traffic, trains, and honking mules.

Each day, my host, Fawzi, and I head out to work at 6:30 in his unflagging white Fiat - joining the jam of vehicles that bump and blare their way into the city center. Cairene drivers prize their daring and press fellow commuters to the edge to gain that extra yard or two in an early-morning game of chicken. Lone policemen try to contain the herds of cars as they descend on junctions.

Amid this noise and jumble, however, Egyptian bonhomie remains unflappable.

As we approach our destination, Midan al-Tahrir, the search for parking begins. Spaces are like water in a desert. Regular commuters learn to tip a local man to reserve a spot.

Millions of pedestrians add their own color and vibrancy to the logjam and fumes. Sidewalks overflow with men and women. Some wear traditional Arab dress, graceful in their ample robes and neatly pinned head scarves. Others are in Western clothes and negotiate cracked pavement and broken barriers with practiced dexterity.

Bemused foreigners attract ragged children. And the wealthy zip by in polished Mercedes.

Tiled juice stands, oases in the heat and dust, slake the thirst with their fresh- squeezed oranges and thick mango puree. Cafes filled with men offer hot drinks, bottled soda, and a break from the hubbub. No one seems in a rush.

It's a cycle of life that acknowledges the city's other sobriquet, ``Um iddunya'' (``Mother of the World'').

But for one month a year, Cairo's crazy charm takes on new dimensions.

Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting (which starts Feb. 1 this year), slows the pace perceptibly. The dawn prayer suddenly has new import. It begins the fast that lasts until the call to prayer at dusk. No food or drink should pass a Muslim's lips during the hot daylight hours in between.

The result is a subduing of Cairo's natural exuberance. Cairenes ease the work day and cut an hour off both ends. Restaurants close; juice bars close up shop; business hours shrink.

Daylight becomes a waiting period, a gearing up for the explosion of festivities and food and hospitality that break out as the sun sinks. As dusk approaches, colossal traffic jams, even worse than usual, clog the city. Everyone is rushing to get home at once - hungry and tired.

Ten minutes before dusk, only a handful of cars ply the roads. The streets seem oddly deserted for a city of 15 million. Then from the Muqattam Hills, high above the city, a single cannon is fired and hundreds of muezzin calls ring out across the ancient metropolis, signaling relief for the fasting inhabitants. In the quiet, their voices layer one upon another and echo around Cairo's sprawl.

On the way home, a taxi I am taking slows down. The driver turns to ask if I am in a rush. I wave my hand to say no. He quickly pulls the car to the side of the road and jumps out, a cloth bundle in hand. Flapping the material free, he lays it on the ground and invites me with a smile to join him in iftar - the breaking of the fast.

Egyptians are hospitable at the best of times, but this gesture to a stranger who has not had to abstain all day is utterly humbling - and the food is delicious.

Ramadan is a time of much socializing and generosity. But more than that, going without food or drink for 12 hours each day helps increase compassion for those struggling for the bare necessities -

a yearly lesson in self-restraint and discipline, the Koran says. Muslims see it as a time of reflection and self-purification, a renewal of their spiritual sense.

A policeman still on duty down the street also tucks into fresh-wrapped packages prepared by family. And for the first time, I realize I can hear the birds.

But the evening has only just begun.

Big hotels hold break-fast parties. The al-Hussein area around Al-Azhar mosque and the Khan al-Khalili bazaar plunges into a carnival of folk dancing, singing, and eating until the early hours.

Restaurants open and serve special desserts with apricots, dates, and nuts. Then in the small hours comes a last meal before the dawn. Families gather for suhoor - a snack to push them through the long day to come.

This same nightly exuberance and daily ebb thread through the weeks. And I watch and attend and eat, included for all my foreignness and Christian beliefs.

Then I lie in bed and listen to the loudspeaker by my window - the one I have no choice but to hear - and wonder if it is not a fitting symbol of Cairo's embrace.

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