People waited as a man grilled meat on Friday, the first day of Ramadan in Cairo. There, the fasting day began at 3:27 a.m. and lasted 15 and a half hours.
This year’s Ramadan holy month may prove to be the toughest in decades — and not just because it falls when the heat is at its highest and the days are particularly long.
Traditionally, Ramadan, which began Friday in most of the Arab world, is a time for introspection, for charity toward the poor, for an increased focus on religion. It is a time when Muslims strive to avoid not only drinking, smoking, eating and having sex during daylight hours, but also gossiping and swearing — and even fighting with one another. The holy month is a time for solemn reflection during the day, and festive meals with family and friends at night.
“Ramadan is a wonderful month, praise God,” said Hatem Shawky, 42, a cabdriver working in Tahrir Square. He did have one complaint, though: “It is hot.”
This is the second Ramadan to fall during the Arab Spring, and in Syria especially, violence showed no sign of taking the holy month off, as government forces clawed back ground from rebels in the capital, Damascus, and thousands of Iraqi exiles decided their own country was safer, fleeing there over the past two days. Elsewhere in the region, Ramadan will be marked by the uncertainties of countries caught in the throes of change. Egypt has a new president with an Islamist background, Mohamed Morsi, who was inaugurated on June 30 but has begun Ramadan with his own authority uncertain, and his cabinet still not chosen.
Libya successfully elected a non-Islamist Parliament less than two weeks ago, but has yet to get its bickering militias under central authority. Tunisia just dismissed its central bank’s governor, a sacrifice to the harsh reality that the unemployed youth who helped propel the Arab Spring’s first uprising still remain just as likely to be unemployed.
Roundups of dissidents continued in Bahrain. Even in Dubai, where relatively timid activists have asked for more rights to free speech, United Arab Emirates authorities have responded with the arrests of 14 people since Monday on murky charges of antigovernment activity. Ramadan begins on Saturday in Iran, Iraq and many Shiite Muslim areas, unlike Friday for much of the Sunni world. (The two sects have different manners of calculating the first sighting of the new crescent moon that begins the month of fasting.)
The government of President Bashar al-Assad, dominated by Alawite sect, which is closely related to that of the Shiites, has declared Saturday the start of Ramadan, but many of those battling Mr. Assad in the streets come from the Sunni majority. Whatever day they begin fasting, the fighting seems likely to continue. Just after midnight Friday in Damascus, a man known as a Musaharati, charged with waking up his neighborhood to alert people to eat before sunrise, was killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The daylight fast, in effect from the first light of dawn until after sunset, is particularly long this year. In Cairo on Friday, for instance, people who got up for a predawn breakfast needed to finish eating by 3:27 a.m., and then could not eat or drink again until after 6:56 p.m., 15 and a half hours later.
Each year, Ramadan, based on lunar months, shifts 10 or 11 days, so for the next three years the fasting day will be even longer than this year — but not nearly so hot, with daytime highs now peaking over 120 degrees in many parts of the Arab world. The last time Ramadan began at the height of summer heat was 33 years ago, in 1979. The word “Ramadan” derives from the Arabic for “extreme heat,” fitting for this year, though the observance is just as likely to occur in winter.
In the United Arab Emirates, manual laborers have been given religious exemption to take water when temperatures exceed 122 degrees, but only just enough to keep them at work.
Ramadan heat is even more of an issue in Baghdad, where daytime temperatures exceed 120 — but electricity required to run air-conditioners is at best available 12 to 14 hours a day.
Fasting will be particularly tough on some of the 3,000 Muslim athletes attending this year’s London Olympics; for the first time since the Moscow Olympics in 1980, the two and a half weeks of the Games fall during Ramadan. With London far to the north of traditionally Islamic areas, its daytime fast is a marathon — 18 and a half hours (from 2:39 a.m. to 9:06 p.m. on Friday).
Some athletes have announced they will observe the fast. Others will opt to break the fast and pay what some authorities say is the prescribed religious penance: feeding 60 poor people. While fighting is abjured during Ramadan, Islam recognizes that it happens all too often, and taking part in war is one of the exemptions allowed to fasting Muslims, along with exemptions for the ill, breast-feeding and menstruating women, and travelers.
In Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border, as many as 20,000 Syrian refugees had arrived after fleeing Syria, according to a refugee worker, Mukhtar Mohamed Hamzeh. “We hope this month of Ramadan will be the month of the victory of the revolution,” he said.
In Cairo, the streets were preternaturally quiet. “Everyone is in their houses now,” said Mahmoud Hammam, 35, a street vendor. “But they are in their houses sitting atop a volcano of rage. One thing goes wrong, and they will all come down to the square.”
In many countries, workday activity — both commercial and especially government — noticeably slows this month. This apparently prompted Egypt’s new president, in a speech on the beginning of Ramadan, to call on people to “set an example for the world in production, stability, security and support for the poor.”
Mr. Morsi also announced that he was using his presidential pardon powers to free 572 civilians held as prisoners by the military as a result of participating in protests, although activists have complained that thousands more are still languishing in military custody.
“Releasing them with a pardon means we still accept the legitimacy of their sentences,” said Mona Seif, of the No to Military Trials for Civilians campaign group. “He definitely could do a lot more, but he is trying to find a way of dealing with this whole issue without coming into confrontation with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.”
The new president joined Egypt’s grand mufti and attended Friday Prayer in his hometown, Zagazig, in the Nile Delta area. The sermon was delivered, though, by Abdel Fadeel El Kousy, the minister of Islamic affairs, a holdover from the previous government. “We drown in seas of politics,” he said. “We need to go back to morals and principles.” He did, however, acknowledge that Egypt was at a “crossroads” and needed to “define the path it takes.”
No doubt Ramadan will be a time of such reflections in many countries in the region. There is often a gap, however, between pious intention and practical outcome. Many people actually gain weight during the monthlong fast, gorging at night, or even sleeping through the day — hardly the intention of the observance. And many people continue the fights they had started before the rise of the crescent moon.