I ran into two neighbours coming home from the vegetable market carrying around 30 kilos of tomatoes apiece. “Having a tomato party?” I asked the young sisters, who live with their mother and four other siblings. They laughed and said they planned to freeze them before the prices went up, as they typically do during Ramadan, which is approaching. The Islamic month of fasting is paradoxically the only time that Egyptians really pay attention to food. In a desert country where cooking-fuel is traditionally scarce and most people’s means are modest, few are concerned with cuisine or a varied menu. A typical meal consists of bean sandwiches or a starch-fest called koshary (macaroni, rice and lentils).
But in Ramadan, having abstained from water and food since sunrise, the sunset meal is a family event and people spend the whole day planning and preparing their mostly vegetable and rice based dishes. The fast is meant to replace material preoccupations with spiritual ones and encourage personal fortitude while serving as a reminder of the deprivations suffered by so many in the world. Likewise, the evening meal constitutes a celebration of divine beneficence, a time to count one’s blessings and recall that things could always be worse. People don’t exactly look forward to Ramadan, especially when it falls in summer, but it’s a time when most everyone agrees to shoulder their burdens and acknowledge the fact that they’re all in the same boat.
If only the boat wasn’t sinking. This Ramadan people are not thinking about what to eat so much as whether they will be able to eat at all. In recent years, aside from the debilitating heat and pollution, fasting Egyptians have had to endure frequent electricity black-outs, chronic shortages of gas (fuel and cooking) and the soaring price of vegetables and bread, the mainstays of the Egyptian diet. This year, the political situation, the lack of jobs and the cash-strapped state’s imminent withdrawal of subsidies on basic commodities, has many people wondering if Cairo will survive the summer in relative peace. Some are predicting unrest owing to the rising prices, living conditions and the public’s growing anger with its government’s inaction.
Those expecting ‘hunger riots’ have already begun hoarding food. “At least if things get nasty I won’t have to leave the house for weeks”, confided an expatriate journalist who covers economic issues, “I’ve got enough meat in the freezer to last a month”. “What if the power goes down”, I asked him, “in this heat it will spoil in just a few hours”. “I’ve got canned stuff, too”, he said.
Not everyone has the luxury of such precautions. Austerity is a way of life in Egypt; acquiring the necessities is considered a major triumph. But while people are too absorbed in the demands of the day to think about the future, their elect- ed officials also seem to be blithely ignoring it. No plans have been announced to reverse the downward trend, including the closing of factories, businesses and the bulk of the tour- ism sector. Nor are there signs on Cairo’s hot, uneasy streets, of public consensus as to how to respond to the state of affairs, other than a general agreement that it’s all in God’s hands, and you should buy as many tomatoes as you can before the start of Ramadan.
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