"It's for God," exclaimed the organizer of a charity iftar—the fast-breaking meal observed during Ramadan—as he refused to let us photograph the event. We were in the working class neighborhood of Sayida Zeinab, Cairo, where a long table stretched down block after block—one, two, six, seven—with hundreds of chairs and encompassing all of the narrow side streets. An hour before the breakfast, people were already guarding their seats zealously. "I'm sorry," said a young man on behalf of the main organizer, who feared media coverage would mar his pious act of kindness.
During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. Egyptians across the country offer free iftar meals to the underprivileged, and everyone else who wishes to join, in the form of discordant clusters of dinner tables arranged in the streets. Mawaid el Rahman, or charity iftars, are organized by groups of neighbors, private businesses, mosques, charity organizations, or individuals who feed others in the name of God. Islam encourages acts of kindness and generosity during the holy month, during which observant Muslims strive to be the best they can be. For some charity organizations, donations more than triple during Ramadan, and supermarkets invade the sidewalks with charity bags filled with staples and dry foods.
For every long day of Ramadan in Cairo, there is a sleepless night with friends and family. Most businesses shorten working hours during the holy month, encouraging Egyptians to binge on Ramadan soap operas and rest until iftar. After breakfast, the nightlife of street cafés and manic young bikers spirals down until the last meal before sunrise.
Back in in Sayida Zeinab, everyone is welcome for iftar, as long as there is a seat available. Men nod discreetly to each other as they find a chair, while women chat placidly, keeping a loose eye on the children. Some of the attendants—mostly working class men—sit together with friends, and others come equipped with their own utensils, juices, Qur'ans, newspapers, and pickled peppers. Despite the abundance of charity iftars, these precious feasts of bread, rice, beans, meat, dates, fruits, molokhia (jute leaf soup), and in some cases, ros bil laban (rice pudding) are not enough.
Ramadan, much like Christmas, is a time when people indulge in sweets and sumptuous meals with their families. But for the 48.9 percent of the Egyptian population living below the poverty line, this is hardly the case. Charity iftars provide a hot meal to those who, if given a choice, would rather be able to afford a meal than resort to the mawaid. In Egypt, 60 percent of the population is under 30 years of age, many of whom battle against high unemployment and crushing underemployment.
While charity iftars are a display of the intricate and delicate bonds within a community, their altruistic undertone is more striking during times of low economic growth. In Sayida, some diners were defensive about being seen in such a place, especially through the lens of a camera. Other women covered their faces with their black hijabs.
Each charity iftar functions differently, depending on its size and location. Some are small and dotted by women and children, while others are large, utilitarian and mostly attended by laborers. The one in Sayida is among the latter, feeding a couple hundred people, and running with the efficiency of a well-lubricated piece of machinery. The food is handed out in a chain; first the bread, then the juice box, followed by the fruit, and the meal box.
As the sun's slow descent paints the sky an opaque blue, tension starts to build. Seats become scarce, people scavenge hastily for a place to sit, and those on the table hover over their food.
An irascible schoolteacher sitting next to me in Sayida alternated between cracking jokes and complaining about the service. Once the clock struck 7 PM, people began devouring their meals, ignoring those who had arrived late and were demanding food. Most people ate in under ten minutes, eager to chain-smoke until sunrise, and proceeded to leave.
The street soon grew quiet, and those who still remained were more amicable with each other. Organizers and volunteers of the mawaid el Rahman tread dangerous waters serving food to the disenfranchised. When desperation doesn't turn into angry mobs, people are friendly and kind to each other, offering portions of their own food, such as precious chunks of meat. When it was time to go, I did not leave the table unscathed; I entered the still desolate main street carrying an extra apple.
A few blocks away in Mounira, a neighborhood bordering Sayida Zeinab, the atmosphere at the mawaid was completely different. Ashraf, a respected barber in the neighborhood, holds a charity iftar every year with donations from a private business. Referred to as "captain" by one of the diners, Ashraf organized a handful of volunteers to serve rice, beans, and chicken. His 10-year-old son Mostafa guarded the entrance and challenged his father whenever the latter turned people away. In this smaller iftar, the air was more relaxed and people treated each other with newfound familiarity.
There are thousands of charity iftars held all month across Cairo alone, and each of them is different. Despite the complications that arise when hungry strangers of different backgrounds and social standings share a meal together, in Ramadan they are united by their fate. It is not every day that generosity triumphs in the chaotic megacity, nor that a man invites his brothers and sisters to the table and carries a large pot of scraps to offer a second serving to the hungry. It is not every day that a child serves an elderly man before he has eaten and wishes him belhana wel sheafa (bon appétit).
That's the spirit of Ramadan.