In Cairo, little kids celebrate the beginning of Ramadan by lighting firecrackers and throwing them into the often crowded streets. Like most expat lessons, I learned this one first hand.

It’s a relatively innocuous tradition,  but it’s a little disconcerting to have something unexpectedly explode only a few feet away from you.

My roommates and I – the aganib we are – instinctively jumped and let out a flurry of curse words that, despite the language barrier, gave the street’s shabaab reason to laugh.

And why not, especially considering that we blow up bigger and flashier things to celebrate America’s birthday.

That night we were in Khan Al-Khalili – Cairo’s famous  street market in the heart of Islamic Cairo where the European downtown meets medieval Old Cairo. And the narrow streets were alive, even more so than usual. We struggled to get past the crowds shopping for all of Ramadan’s necessities – dates for breaking the fast and apricots for making one of Egypt’s most famous traditional deserts, qamar ad-din.

It’s one of the paradoxes of Ramadan – a month of of fasting and self-sacrifice – that more effort is put into
eating and entertainment. And even though the imams my rail against them, all of the best and new TV programs come out during Ramadan, in a fashion that is far more intense than May Sweeps.

But there’s more to Ramadan nights than a spirit of relaxation. The faithful do actually offer extra prayers and it’s not uncommon to find people – from lowly laborers to black-suit-clad businessman – readings from the Qur’an as they sit waiting for the next subway train.

And in another Ramadan irony, the poor often eat better than they do the rest of the year, because free tables of food are put out on the sidewalk during the night for passers by.

Just like Kolkata, Cairo has a particular rhythm. It’s a crowded city, a dense jungle that seems chaotic and Darwinian on the surface, but at its core its a friendly city. It’s a place where people can legitimately claim to feel safe walking anywhere at night, a place where violent crime and robbery are rare.

All people here – both Egyptians and foreigners – will tell you that if someone robs you, all you need to do is yell harami, thief. Anyone in the street will stop the thief and wrestle him to the ground.

This sort of public justice is indicative of a level of good-humored attitude of coexistence that persists here despite the heat and the poverty, especially in Ramadan when you would expect hungry and thirsty Egyptians to be most on edge.

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