So it is over half way through Ramadan; the full moon having waxed, now wanes leaving less than two weeks until Eid. This year Ramadan has fallen in the middle of summer so some days have been extremely hot, 40oC plus, and the longer daylight hours mean longer fasts. Summer in the Scandinavian countries must be extreme tests of endurance, however I think they adopt times of more southern climes, maybe German. I have been invited to share iftar – literally breakfast – on a number of days for which I am grateful even though I am not Muslim and not fully fasting. Food I can easily forego but restricting fluids would just make me ill especially if I have to work riding the horses in this desiccating heat. As it is, I often add electrolytes to my water as a precaution measure; sweat dries off immediately so I don’t even realise how much fluid and salts I am is losing and the minimum result is a smacking headache.
I have seen many a tourist complain of food poisoning when I suspect they are actually suffering the effects of dehydration which include vomiting and diarrhoea due to severe electrolyte imbalance. Drinking only water exacerbates the problem because the body voids water to try to keep the salt balance. They rapidly end up on drips administered in hotel rooms by the experienced local doctors. During daylight, those fasting try to stay as quiet as possible, sleeping in the shade until late afternoon. I often see Bedouin men lying in the palm covered beach arishas built close to the waters’ edge to catch any breeze. Luckily Dahab, as a renowned wind surfing spot usually has wind and the men lie on stripy blankets with their heads completely covered by their shaals to keep any annoying insects at bay. Women generally remain at home as they have the doubly difficult task of fasting and preparing food for everybody, however the men do contribute, helping prepare meat, shopping etc.
Children, who are not expected to “do Ramadan”, play unattended on the streets or the beach. They have about four months summer holiday a year during which time they become progressively more feral and problem causing. Late in the afternoon, people start to stir and wander home to prepare for iftar. Even in Dahab there is a pre iftar rush which in Cairo is apparently manic – everybody rushing to get home, ready and out to wherever they have been invited for iftar. In this respect it is a social month of reciprocal meals at friends’ and family houses. In Dahab things are on a much quieter scale but there is still noticeable tension. This irritation could also have something to do with the fact that they are strung out from no liquid, food or smoking during the day as nothing should pass their lips. By late afternoon they are like grumpy lions. Even the driving becomes more erratic, which is saying something considering how badly many drive on a normal day.
The mosques call quietly as people go to their respective places. Mohamed invited me to eat with him at the local communal breakfast. The women’s circle of privacy is sacrosanct and as I do not know any of the women in this area, I ate with the men. The meal took place on an open sandy space in front a house under construction. I didn’t see any signs of current work so maybe it will take a year or so to complete. The owners live in adjoining properties linked by small gates and there is one double door opening on to the sandy lane where the goats congregate during the day. One evening a few of the cheeky kids actually hopped through the door and started to nosey about. They were efficiently shooed back to the lane, skittering and leaping about.
Rectangular rugs are laid out to sit on in a five metre square centred by a small charcoal fire. These are not matching or in any particular pattern although Bedouins often use colourful striped rugs hand woven out of goat and camel hair. Each person leaves their shoes outside the square and sits cross legged facing inwards. Food is served on large metal platters, usually a main course on a bed of rice or circled by bread. These vary depending on which woman made them –vegetables, chicken, meat, fish – there is no requirement. You essentially share what is in front of you with those next to you although in my case, Mohamed always tries to find something he knows I prefer, but I don’t want to feel privileged. However Bedouin do pride themselves on hospitality so certainly take no offence by it. He also placed me close to the elder men because, again as a privilege for guests. Boys and younger men poured cold drinks into plastic containers and distributed these around everybody – you end up with water, tamrahindi, juice and cordial on the sand in front of you depending on what has been contributed. The group changes every night with the local family interspersed with visitors. One night the men who drive trucks of animal food from the Nile Delta were breaking fast in the group and Mohamed managed to negotiate that I purchase their remaining bales of hay at a cheaper rate. Another night an old man with an opaque eye who wanders the streets begging for a coin here, a coin there joined the group – probably one of the richest men in town!
As the sun sets, dates are distributed and it is customary to have a few in your hand to break the fast as the prayer starts in the mosques; dates followed by a drink then food. It is idyllic to sit in the open air at dusk with palm leaves swishing, people grateful for their first drink and food in more than twelve hours as sohour, the last meal before dawn, had been at about 3a.m. When the meal starts everybody gathers around the platter of their choice, moving off the rugs if necessary. There is little talk and I know from experience Bedouins eat fast – even faster after a fast! However there is absolutely no pushing or aggravation. It is extremely bad manners to eat from any area of the platter other than that directly in front of you. No picking the choice bits. For guests, the hosts surreptitiously watch what you like and place extra pieces on your section of the platter so it never seems like you finish. None of the food is strong flavoured and some cooks are obviously better than others but I enjoy the simple food. I tentatively try anything new because swallowing is obligatory but I certainly never go away hungry. Bedouin eat most things with the fingers of their right hand but I usually use a spoon to avoid looking completely inept at feeding myself otherwise Mohamed is tempted to put a bib on me. Last night there was a shallow dish of what looked like reddish coloured porridge. It was served with rayeb, the yoghurt drink that helps keep intestines happy. The dish, I later discovered is made with wheat kernels, was quite bland but not unpleasant. I preferred the Bedouin style vegetables directly in front of me with farisheer bread tucked around the bowl. The meat in the dish had a slightly kidney flavour which I didn’t feel like so I just ate the potatoes (Egypt has great tasting potatoes), peas, carrots, onions, etc cooked in a tomato based sauce. Next to me Mohamed ate some freshly grilled fish on a bed of rice.
As soon as anyone is finished they stand away from the platters and go to wash their hands and mouth out. I am always one of the last eating and Mohamed admonishes me if I finish too soon out of politeness. He says no one will notice if I am the last but I don’t believe him; they quietly notice everything, not that they would judge – they know how fast they eat! After iftar some of the men pray facing Mecca on the clean sand next to the rugs, while others relax smoking and drinking shai . Bedouin tea is made from a mixture of black tea and herbs, usually mint flavoured hbac or sage like marmareya. Last night some of the little girls who been eating next door with their mothers wandered through to see their dads. At about 3 or 4 years they are cute and cuddly. Mohamed gave me some coin to give to them, a custom to promote generosity and luck. I am not sure about that desired outcome though as sometimes I see it translate to expectancy and rudeness in the older children on the streets when dealing with tourists.
The fire flares a little, the tea is offered around, the stars are shining and the palms still swishing as most of the young men and boys slope off to do whatever young men and boys do. Cushions miraculously appeared for the remaining men to recline with their elbows resting on them. Topics of discussion ranged from politics to making a living in this difficult recession. I only got the gist of conversations but I was pleasantly surprised to hear Mohamed talking about supporting Egypt and local manufacturers; that afternoon we had had a discussion about buying local and not supporting the likes of Swiss Nestle! That company is in the process of buying access to water rights all over the world denying free access to locals. There is even a perfectly drinkable Sinacola but not many of the shops stock it. It was another happy evening outside under the Sinai night sky.