Why Ramadan in Egypt means overeating and John Travolta on TV

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan is a time for restraint and religious devotion, marked by fasting and charity. But in Egypt, Muslims consume three times their regular amount of food, work less, and watch more TV.

During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Muslims are supposed to refrain from eating, drinking, and sexual activity (among other things) while the sun is out. Along with a renewed emphasis on charitable giving, Ramadan is meant to remind Muslims about the pain of hunger and refocus their reliance on Allah.

But here in Egypt, home to more than 80 million Muslims, Ramadan is ironically often marked by overconsumption – of both food and TV.

For weeks, I’ve seen advertising for a new Egyptian mini-series called “I Want to Get Married,” starring Hend Sabry, probably the most famous actress in the Arab world. Billboards, TV spots, and online promotions have heralded the comedy series, now airing during Ramadan. The program parodies the very real, frustrating process young Egyptians endure in finding a spouse their highly nuclear families approve.

The marquee series is just one on a long playbill of special programs that entertain Muslim families and help them pass Ramadan hours. Indigenous TV producers, news networks, and channels that beam Western movies all up the ante during Ramadan, the sweeps month, in a way, of the Muslim world. As I write this, MBC 2, a pan-Arab satellite channel that shows mostly American movies, is offering “Ladder 49,” a firefighting film with John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix, a film the channel probably wouldn’t offer at 11:00 a.m. on a Thursday outside of Ramadan.

Less fasting, more TV

Egypt has been criticized for its reliance on television, truncated work hours, and overconsumption of food during Ramadan. Egypt literally changes the time that the sun sets to make fasting easier; the country changed clocks back one hour on August 10, Ramadan eve, and will roll the clocks forward again after Ramadan ends.

Relatives of mine, Muslims living in Turkey and who visited me during Ramadan this year, were shocked by many of the ways Egyptians mark the holy month. Charitable giving does increase in Egypt during Ramadan, but so do marketing, consumption, and exploitation. Many Egyptian merchants raise prices to take advantage of the greater number of family gatherings.

An NPR story on the Egyptian time change for Ramadan discussed the country’s “Ramadan Effect,” a month-long slump in the economy, as Egyptian Muslims spend more time eating, watching television, and less time working, and use of imported goods soars. Many Egyptian Muslims, and, admittedly, many Muslims elsewhere, gain weight during Ramadan. NPR quoted sociologist Said Sadek, who lamented that Ramadan is like “thirty days of Christmas eve, full of banquets and food. Egypt consumes three times its normal food consumption during the month of Ramadan…[Egyptians] are semi-drugged by media, by food, banquets....”

Some Egyptians are embarrassed by the TV-induced hypnosis and gorging that subdues their compatriots during the holy month. My wife and I recently hosted a Muslim iftar, a meal marking the end of a day of fasting, and, when discussing the inertia and TV consumption that often accompanies Ramadan in Egypt, a young Muslim guest said, “Ramadan is supposed to be about working harder, not less.”

I have to admit that as a non-Muslim living in Egypt, I enjoy the spoils of Ramadan. I get better TV programming for a month without bearing the daylight sacrifices.

Nothing compared to American Christmas

And, to be fair, I must say that commercialism during Ramadan – in Egypt or elsewhere – is nothing compared to American Christmas. I’m often surprised by how Ramadan, a month-long affair, drives much less TV advertising and useless trinket-buying in Muslim countries than Christmas does in the United States. There’s none of this “Christmas in July” nonsense, no collective counting down the shopping days until loved ones demand gifts. Sure, McDonald’s in Muslim countries whips up cheap and toxic Ramadan meals, but the whole ordeal feels less compromised than Nordstrom in November.

American Christmas, though, doesn’t bill itself as a time of self-denial – far from it. Ramadan, on the other hand, is when Muslims are asked to pass the time with prayer, not TV premieres. Muslims are called to read one-thirtieth of the Koran each day during Ramadan, not slouch on the sofa watching “Ladder 49.”

The good news, my Muslim cousin reminded me, is that the poorest Egyptians enjoy more entertainment and eat better during Ramadan, too. A rising tide expands all bellies, I suppose. I don’t doubt that many of Egypt’s poor look forward to Ramadan as a month of media distraction and a time when the country’s better-off pay more attention to their afflictions.

On a recent evening, there was a Ramadan-inspired show at a fountain-lined string of lovely outdoor cafés in my neighborhood here in Cairo. The venues had TV screens off to the side flickering muted music videos and movies. There was little personal reflection and virtually no self-denial. But if you have a slightly broader expectation of what Ramadan should be, it’s probably OK.

Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at The American University in Cairo. He writes the “Borders & Bylines” column for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter.

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