If Egyptians are known for one thing in the Middle East, it's for living life with spirit. A strong, creative energy has created a movie and music industry that dominate the Arab world. Egyptian movie, singing, and belly dancing stars and their distinctive dialect of Arabic are the most widely known in the region.
So it's no surprise that Egyptians celebrate the Islamic holy month of Ramadan with equal exuberance.
Muslim countries around the world bring their own style to Ramadan, which this year began in mid-September and will conclude later this week. Egypt is famous for having one of the liveliest traditions. Egyptians say it's a product of their joie de vivre in the face of hardship and deepening religiosity. Islamic ideals have steadily beat out the once rival ideology of secular, socialist, pan-Arabism introduced by Gamal Abdel Nasser's 1952 revolution.
It's on display in the traditions surrounding sahour, the early morning meal before beginning the daily fast during Ramadan. While iftar, the meal that ends the fast at the close of the day, is a more serious matter of satiating thirst and hunger pangs, sahour is about fun and celebration.
Some Egyptians host sahour parties where friends and relatives pack into homes often decorated in brightly colored fabrics to give them the look of a traditional tent. There, they eat, drink, and celebrate from midnight until 4 a.m. Others pay top dollar to attend swanky "tents," as these fabric-walled spaces are known, at posh restaurants or hotels.
Ahmed el-Ganzoury, partner and creative director of Intro Communication, a company that organizes some of the fancier sahour tents, says as many as 600 patrons nightly might pay as much as $18 to $35 – exorbitant amounts for Egyptians – on coffee, food, and smoking sheesha, or a water pipe. Some tents boast famous singers for entertainment, but fewer than in the past, says Mr. Ganzoury, as the upper crust now is drawn to parties to see and be seen.
But most average Egyptians head to places like the sprawling mosque and market complex of old Islamic Cairo. There they eat the sahour staple dishes: mashed bean, known as fool , and milk that is called zabadi. Even there, prices are high during the holiday. A cup of tea can cost more than $1, about six times the normal price.
Sahour revelry was in full swing this weekend around the historic Sayyidna al-Hussein Mosque, where the head of the prophet Muhammad's grandson is supposedly kept. (It is believed to have been cut off in a famous Islamic battle in Iraq.)
In his tourist trinkets and luggage shop along a street clogged with sahour celebrants in the sprawling market around the mosque, Asham Bakri says Egypt's strong Islamic identity is what makes Ramadan such an event here.
"This is the most beautiful month of the whole year," says Mr. Bakri. "It's always lively after iftar because you have eaten and drunk so you are not hungry and you can be with your family."
In a coffee shop tucked away in the winding, crowded, alleys behind the mosque, a band blared and a man sang through gravelly speakers. It was 1 a.m., but a crowd of men and women clapped in time with the music. They drank from small glasses of tea or coffee.
Then a middle-aged man, part of the musical act, rose with a grin. He jiggled and shook his midsection, dancing in the tradition made famous by Egypt belly dancers. In the holy month, entertainment is strictly G-rated. The usually racy costumes and gyrations of a female belly dancer wouldn't be appropriate.
The crowds grew as the night wore on. Cairenes packed the streets and square in front of the al-Hussein Mosque. Families spread out blankets on the ground or clustered around tables of the sidewalk restaurants to eat.
"My children usually go to sleep at 10, but on such days they stay up late," says one woman standing in front of the mosque with her husband and three children.
Her husband, who gave his name as Amr, says Ramadan is a time for prayer and reading the Koran. In this religiously significant section of Cairo, residents are deeply observant – but also revel in such festivities as sahour.
"But the most important thing is to have fool! If you eat fool you will walk like this," says Ali Sayyid, laughing, a few steps away from the family, opening his eyes wide to show the energy he gets from the heavy, bean-based dish.