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Ramadan and Its Many Faces

Mariel Cooksey | The Africa Channel   in 
June 19, 2015

Ramadan, which takes place in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is considered to be its holiest month, and is observed by Muslims worldwide. During this celebration, which is initiated by the sighting of a new moon, Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset for 30 days to commemorate the Prophet Muhammad receiving his first Qur’anic revelation. The daily fast ends at sundown, when families gather for their nightly meal, called “iftar” in Arabic.

Ramadan is a time for focusing on the divine, purifying the soul, and reflecting upon oneself. And though millions of Muslims partake in the celebration, when it comes to media coverage, the focus is often on Muslims in the Middle East. In truth, however, this part of the world accounts for only a medium-sized portion of the Islamic faith. The most prolific population of Muslims actually reside in Africa: the continent’s religious population reaching an astounding 1.1 billion in 2013. Though the dates and times (and sometimes struggles!) of Ramadan are internationally shared, Africa has a point of view that many may not have heard about or seen.

So instead of focusing on the Middle East, let’s take a look at how Ramadan appears from an African point of view. Using four different African cities – Cape Town, Cairo, Kairouan, and Djibouti – we can look at the traditions, events, sites and culture that contribute to each city’s unique experience of the holy month:

1. Cape Town
The vibrant city of Cape Town, known as South Africa’s Mother City, is a leisurely destination accented by a wide variety of halal restaurants, accommodations, and activities for Muslim families; a place of great cultural diversity with a robust Islamic heritage, making it a perfect place to celebrate Ramadan. Within South Africa, Cape Town boasts the largest Muslim population in the country, with a particularly strong presence in Bo-Kaap, an area internationally known for its beautiful, near-neon-colored homes and old cobblestone streets. During Ramadan, Bo-Kaap comes alive with visitors to the area’s mosques, neighbors exchanging cakes before iftar, citizens donating goods to those in need, and tables laid out with traditional Cape Malay cuisine as the community gathers to break the fast.

This year, Cape Town is also playing host to a Ramadan Expo in its Good Hope Center. According to the Expo’s organizer Salaama Davids, “the Expo’s aim is to inform, educate and uplift the entire Western Cape community.” The Expo is known for presenting an impressive display of food, seasonings, clothing and art, representative of Islamic culture from around the world. (See more here and here).

2. Cairo
Cairo, Egypt’s dense but lively capitol, is home to one of Africa’s largest Muslim populations. During Ramadan – since the majority of the population is Muslim – the city goes routinely quiet during the day: many of the stores, restaurants, and bars closing to the public. To make up for this daylight period of rest and prayer, however, Cairo comes alive after sunset: the city’s cultural centers, parks and galleries hosting a myriad of musical performances, Sufi dancing, art exhibitions, live storytelling and crafts fairs, to celebrate their holy month.

Besides these festivities, Cairo celebrates a Ramadan tradition uniquely its own: The Fanous (or Fawanees) Ramadan, known in English as the Ramadan Lanterns. This custom, which later gained popularity in other countries, involves the hanging of radiantly colored lanterns along the city streets to add a touch of magic to the night. In the week preceding Ramadan, you might catch a glimpse as the shops in Old Cairo stock their shelves with these beautiful lights, watching on as children parade the streets, swinging their lanterns as they sing to passersby.

3. Kairouan
Located in the heart of Tunisia, Kairouan was, and still is, one of the holiest sites in Islam, along with Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. The city – created over a 1,000 years ago by the Aghlabid dynasty – boasts a breathtaking display of architecturally astounding reservoirs, city walls and mosques. A couple of the city’s most well-known attractions include The Great Mosque, now a protected UNESCO site, as well as The Mosque of the Three Doors, home to the oldest sculpted and decorated façade in Islamic art history.

Along with the call of the muezzin indicating that the day’s fasting is done, Kairouan has its own slightly more distinctive method to alert its citizens: the ringing boom of a centuries-old cannon. During Ramadan, people in Kairouan will often gather in the evening near the Old Wall surrounding the city to watch this phenomenon; and according to some, the smoke from the blast is so great, people 18 miles away can see it. Entertaining and incredibly useful, this event allows every Muslim in the city to break their fast at the same time. During the day, believers will also visit the Great Mosque to recite special prayers. According to Mohsen Tamimi, the Imam of this mosque, Ramadan is a very important time for Kairouan: “In addition to the taraweeh and qiyam prayers (special Ramadan prayers), for an entire month we hold morning religion lessons to give people a better understanding of their faith and of true Islam.” (See more here and here).

4. Djibouti
Djibouti, capital city of the Republic of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, is a dynamic port town, known for its buzzing Central Market, expensive attractions and scenic beaches. Of the city’s population – which is nearly one million people – 94 percent are practicing Muslims, making Ramadan in Djibouti a total and unique experience.
According to Lidwien Kapteijns – a professor at Wellesley College whose article “Ramadan in Djibouti” explains much of the comings-and-goings of the city’s celebration – like Cairo, Djibouti as a whole shuts down during the day; the government buildings, offices, and big businesses closing up shop to rest. This does not mean, however, that Djiboutians are too tired to explore, as you will often see the city’s believers at night, returning from their mosques, conversing side-by-side with the French and American soldiers who now fill Djibouti’s mostly empty nightclubs and discos.

When Ramadan finally does comes to an end, the people of the city, along with the rest of the world, celebrate the Feast of Fast Breaking (or Eid al-Fitr). Around this time, Djibouti bursts into activity: men and women rushing to the market to buy last-minute ingredients; parents buying new clothes for their children; people cleaning their houses or spaces; and some even paying their very last-minute religious tax, known as “zakat.” When the chaos is done, and the prayers are finished, families in the city gather in one another’s houses to exchange gifts, sweets and food, and often attend live performances and concerts to celebrate.

Photo Courtesy of Jeanne Menj/Flickr

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