Despite weeks of preparation for the Holy Month, the first day of Ramadan always catches us unawares. It does not matter how many lanterns are displayed in how many shops; it does not matter how many tonnes of nuts and dried fruit are sold on every street corner; it does not matter that every 15 minutes or so one will catch the dancing fanous on TV singing "ahlan Ramadan...Ramadan gana" (welcome to Ramadan, Ramadan is upon us). The first day always seems to create all the panic of a surprise event.
The beauty of the first day is that it guarantees a family reunion, an achievement very few occasions in 365 days are able to manage. No wedding, no funeral, no social occasion will make the thought of not being with the family as heretical as the first day of Ramadan. There are, of course, occasional squabbles between spouses over which pair of parents would have the honour of seeing the grandchildren misbehave around the dining table on the first iftar, and which will be cleaning the mess the day after.
The beauty of the first day is also that when all of Cairo is packed inside the oriental confectioneries, choosing thehalawiyat (sweets) they will bring over to said family's iftar only two minutes before the madfa' goes off, the vendors behind the display cabinets, overworked and hungry, will distribute a handful of sweets to all present should the call for maghreb resonate.
One realises in such moments how kind people are, if given the chance. People really look forward to Ramadan to treat each other well (they are more successful after iftar, though, than before). One also realises how spiritually frustrated people can get during the year, as the daily gruel of survival leaves little room for anything else. Once Ramadan is around the corner, many resolve to dedicate the month to piety, spiritual fulfillment and soul cleansing with the eagerness of the deprived. Too many distractions, too many problems, too many obstacles in the way of peaceful moments spent in divine contemplation.
Which reminds me of one time in Ramadan when I saw my aunt Pakinam, eyes shut, focusing on her post-iftar prayer regardless of the racket my sister and I were making in the room. We were jumping on the bed, falling off, laughing loud, hurling hard plastic objects at each other (one, a green headless Diplodocus landed on her prayer rug), yet aunt Peki did not flinch. Her lips moved with the muffled Qur'anic recitation, she kneeled, she rose, prostrating herself in concentrated humility while airborne toys brought her menace. Then, the phone rang. Normally my sister and I would race to see who among the people not calling for us was on the line to wish them Ramadan Karim and tell them how we had fasted, because eating just an apple and a bag of chips doesn't count. But we were having too much of a ball jumping on the bed to bother this time, and so the phone kept ringing... and aunt Peki began to lose both her patience and focus, until, raising the palm of her hands to her temples, she uttered what my sister and I could swear was a prolonged and solemn "aaallooooooo".
For aunt Peki, the distraction was simply her unruly nieces, but for a whole people the distraction is the bandwagon concentration on consumerism, on festive release. Thousands will flock nightly to the mosques; thousands will stay right home and watch TV; thousands still will try a new "tent" every night, to smoke shisha till the wee hours of the day.
But the first day is always different. The first day is one of a collective ill temper caused by all the unsmoked cigarettes, the longed-for morning coffee, the oft-failed attempt not to verbally abuse those who get on our nerves, the panic of having to compete with a few million people who want to be home at the exact same moment. But it is also the day on which the bad mood fades just as collectively. Everybody knows that everybody else will be fine after the first spoonful of soup; and even finer still on the balcony, smoking that longed-for cigarette, sharing that moment of communal relief with all those other people on all those balconies overlooking all those empty streets. It is a moment of understanding, of complicity. The pity, however, is that, with the same unspoken understanding, everybody knows that the last bite of konafa will herald the time for the entire family to park itself in front of the TV set and watch show after show of supposedly humorous programmes. My pleas for seizing the opportunity of the gathered family to engage in some meaningful conversation have been politely but firmly dismissed. We will watch TV, and we will discuss the programmes. "An analytical comparison with last year's fare is not meaningful enough for you?" seems to be the answer.
I must admit, though, that there is one moment of the TV family gathering in Ramadan that I would not miss for the world: Candid Camera. It is not the show itself; it is watching my parents watching the show. Dad adores the programme; Mom finds it annoyingly silly and has difficulty tolerating Dad's amusement. So the yearly scenario is that Dad will begin to chuckle, then laugh, then turn bright red with tears in his eyes, cracking up while Mom is watching him with one raised eyebrow, in disdained disbelief, eventually throwing the inevitable "I really don't understand what is so funny. This show is so dumb," but with such utter disgust that Dad will laugh all the louder from the look on her face, me joining him, folding in two from the abdominal pain of having to laugh and digest at the same time, while the corner of Mom's upper lip expresses no less than sheer contempt as she mumbles "You two are hopeless," and walks out in the direction of the halawiyat platter. Dad and I eventually manage to calm down and go after her, myself commending her delicious konafa as I devour yet another slice, while Dad tickles her saying "Sousou ya Sousou." No matter that there is no trace of an "s" in her name.