The start of Ramadan is a time of joy for Muslims, launching a month of night feasts and parties. But in Cairo this week, Ali Mohamed isn’t stringing up his multicolored lanterns in the street, instead he is taking them down.
He’s in no mood to celebrate as Egypt veers into bloodshed and anxiety following the military overthrow of elected President Mohammad Mursi last week.
“Oh, Lord! What has happened to us? Please help us,” said Mohammad, a 52-year-old mechanic, raising his hands skywards as he stepped down his ladder, trailing a rope of small, colored glass lamps, known as fanous.
As he has for the past 10 years, Mohammad put the lights up for his neighborhood of Abdeen a couple of days ago to be ready for the start of Ramadan on Wednesday evening. But dozens of killings since then, in clashes between Mursi’s Islamist supporters, rival factions and the army, has soured the mood.
“I never imagined I would live to see a day when Egyptian Muslims are killing each other,” Mohammad said. “I watched television the other day. I saw the protesters in Tahrir Square praying and I then I saw the ones at Rabaa Adawiya mosque praying, too. A few hours later, I see the two sides killing each other. Why? They’re all Muslims who pray to the same God.”
His despair is widespread in Cairo and other cities, where rival protest camps and security measures are disrupting travel.
Seasonal stalls selling Ramadan lanterns are scarcer than usual. So too are those offering honey and nut pastries for the evening feasts that end each long day of fasting. Many of Cairo’s coffee shops are closed, or distinctly less festive.
Egyptians are proud of a reputation for good cheer and party spirit and an ability to show their fellow Arabs a good time.
Housewife Aza Mahmoud, 45, recalled a popular saying that, if you have never celebrated Ramadan in Egypt, you have never celebrated Ramadan. “After this year,” she said, “I don’t think we can say that anymore.”
Ramadan is a traditional time for sending good wishes but the mood is downbeat this year. Liberal activist and house wife Mona Ahmed, 60, could not find a festive word for the warring factions. “I wish they all die and burn in hell,” she said.
For Ibrahim Khan, a 26-year-old employee in a company that prints schoolbooks and a supporter of Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood, his Ramadan wish targeted political rivals: “May God punish all those who conspired against Mursi and his legitimate rule.”
For many, Ramadan may offer a religious retreat from Egypt’s troubles.
Yasmine Mohammad, 22, a student, offered a prayer: “To you God we turn when there is nothing else to be one and no one else to turn to.”
Ali Mohammad, coiling up his delicate lanterns with care, said the month may yet bring something good. “Ramadan is the only thing left for Egyptians,” he said. “Let’s hope it brings calm and change - nothing else seems to be working.”