As Ramadan approaches each year, my mother often recalls what celebrations were like during her childhood, in 1960s and 70s Alexandria, Egypt. She tells me about the strong sense of community in sharing iftar dishes with neighbors, waking up for suhoor, the pre-dawn meal, to the drum beats of the mesahharaty (the night drummer), and hearing certain Ramadan songs regularly on the radio and in public spaces. Over four decades later, many of these traditions are disappearing from the country.
A few weeks ago, a group of Egyptian reporters and producers came together to launch a new podcast called, Ehky Ya Masr, or “Tell me your story, Egypt.” The eight-episode inaugural series centers around Ramadan traditions that still exist in Egypt, and those that are beginning to fade. As Nadeen Shaker, one of the podcast contributors and a Muftah writer, explained to me, “In Egypt…there is a lot of talk show styled programming, but very few podcasts that particularly focus on culture.” The new podcast fills this void by recording the oral history and collective memory of older Egyptians about how Ramadan was observed decades ago.
In one episode, reporter Kanzy Mahmoud interviews her own family on the integral role of communal activities with neighbors during Ramadan. “My mother… she would go knock at the neighbor’s door and say ‘Happy Ramadan.’ In the same afternoon they would knock at her door and say ‘Happy Ramadan.’” Her aunt also recalls regularly having late-night guests in her home for suhoor, and listening to radio programs together.
In another episode, Sarah Hassan looks at how usage of the Hijri, or Islamic calendar, is decreasing to the point that many Egyptians struggle to name the other eleven Hijri months, aside from the month of Ramadan. Shaza Walid interviews one of the few remaining mesahharatys in Cairo, and how she continues her family’s tradition of walking around their local neighborhood beating a drum in the late hours of the night and singing songs to wake people up for the pre-dawn Ramadan meal.
In place of these traditions, Ramadan in Egypt is today defined by a culture of consumption that is centered around corporate, mass media. Dozens of commercials backed by large corporations, as well as, problematic advertisements that exploit the struggles of poor Egyptians play continually on Egyptian TV. These days, “you’re lost between the 30 or 40 or 50 [TV] series that come during Ramadan,” Mahmoud’s aunt says on the podcast. For many Egyptians who remember the holy month differently, “you cannot feel [Ramadan] like before.”