Wednesday, July 17, 2013

An Expats Guide to Ramadan

Although this is an older post, it's relevance doesn't fade, and I've had quite a few emails about this. So here you go.

It's that time of year again, when Egypt and the rest of the Muslim world come to a virtual standstill for the holy month of Ramadan. The majority of Egypt will be fasting, and this blog aims to provide expats and visitors with some quick and easy tips to help you understand the significance of this period.

For a brief history of Ramadan, check out my previous blog here.

A traditional Fanous Lantern
If you're new in Egypt, Ramadan can feel a bit hectic. To begin with, the first few days are met with jubilation and celebrations throughout the country. In this time you can expect a lot of post-sunset firecrackers, loud music, traffic on the streets, and if you're in Hurghada hours of power outages (hehe).

With the temperatures this year soaring to 41 degrees in the shade fasting becomes more difficult for many people. Most Muslims admit that not eating during the day is not the problem, it's not being able to drink (or for some - to smoke a cigarette). Accordingly, the hour before the adhan (prayer-call) announces the end to the fasting day, you can expect heavy traffic on the streets and extremely irate drivers. One thing that always struck me during Ramadan were the people that would stand in the heavy traffic and hand out dates, bottles of water and boxes of juice to the drivers passing by. An important aspect for fasting Muslims is that they must break the fast the moment the adhan announces it, so for drivers that got caught in traffic this is a God-send.

Of course the advantage here for expats is the hour of sunset and just after, the streets throughout Egypt are virtually empty. Everyone is inside having their iftar (breakfast), praying, and spending some time relaxing before the night's festivities begin. Essentially, once they have filled their bellies most Egyptians will spend the rest of the night until 3 AM eating, drinking, and socializing with their friends at cafes.

One of the big disadvantages that many find during Ramadan in Cairo (as here in Hurghada we do not have this problem) is that the night clubs and bars / locations that serve alcohol will close. If you manage to find a few places that are still serving alcohol and you have an Egyptian with you in the group, you will face the very awkward conversation with managerial staff refusing to allow your Egyptian friend to enter - regardless of whether or not they are fasting.

Another disadvantage is the level of productivity dwindles to virtually zero during Ramadan. For those that actually go to work fasting, their work-level is no where near what it usually is. Construction work comes to a virtual halt - even if they are mid-construction (wait what am I talking about, this happens even when it's not Ramadan) and if you have a project that you need completed, expect it to take twice as long.

It is customary to provide tips during this period; whether you choose to give it in the beginning of the month or at the end just prior to the Eid feast is up to you. Many people opt out of tipping money as there are many other things you can also gift. A Ramadan bag presented to your bowab (doorman) will be graciously accepted. These bags are sold in most supermarkets, or you can make your own and include things like rice, pasta, cooking oil, sugar, spaghetti sauce, lentils, etc. For the end of Ramadan period you can gift clothes (as Muslims will wear new clothes during the Eid) or you can also gift meat for the huge feast that comes in the Eid.

If you're ever invited over for an iftar dinner (which I highly recommend), go very hungry! Remember people are fasting during the day and will fill themselves come iftar. Often the meal begins with milk and dates to line the stomach, followed by a wide variety of Egyptian dishes.

The Khan el-Khalili in Cairoduring Ramadan
For expats in Egypt, Ramadan can provide a fantastic opportunity to really immerse yourself in the Egyptian culture and to soak up the lifestyle here. I've previously blogged about some of the things you can do around Cairo at this time of year, and similar events are also held throughout Hurghada.

Finally, find here a blog about tips for driving during Ramadan. Stay alert and conscientious on the road and you can avoid accidents, the responsibility lies with you.

And as they say in Egypt, Ramadan Kareem!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Taste of Egypt: Katayef

Ramadan is here, and with it comes copious amounts of food! I've decided against posting any overly political articles for the next month, and instead will focus on the more positive aspects of Egyptian living, particularly the food.  Today, I tried my hand at Katayef (a brave decision seeing as how the last time my pancakes were all falling apart once they hit the fryer - fortunately today they were a success!) So here you have a typical Middle Eastern / Egyptian dish for Ramadan, Katayef, in both its sweet and savoury versions. The recipe below is designed to make either one full batch of sweet, or one full batch of savoury. If you're planning on making both, double up on the pancake ingredients.

So here's what you'll need: 

For the Pancake: 
1 cup flour (baking flour works best)
1 cup of room-temperature water + 2 tbsps luke-warm water
1 tbsp dry yeast
1 tbsp sunflower oil
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp lemon juice
A dash of salt

For the sweet filling**:
1 cup chopped nuts (almonds, unsalted peanuts or walnuts)
1/4 cup caster sugar
1/4 cup chopped coconut
1/4 cup of raisins / sultanas
1/2 tsp of cinnamon

** You'll likely have left overs from the sweet filling (I know I did) but it's better to have too much than not enough. Plus, it makes a great topping for Egyptian drinks like Sahlab.

For the savoury filling: 
1/3 kg softened white cheese
1/4 kg softened butter

Syrup topping: 
1 part water to 1 part fine sugar (eg. 1/2 cup water + 1/2 cup fine sugar) 
1 tsp cinnamon 
1/2 tbsp lemon juice

Whether you're making sweet or savoury katayef, the pancakes are all made the same way. For the remainder of the recipe I will refer to the "filling," so simply substitute should you wish to make sweet or savoury. 

  1. Combine your 2 tbsp of luke-warm water and dry yeast in a large bowl. Set aside for 5 minutes, until the yeast has soaked up the moisture. 
  2. Once your yeast is ready, add your flour, remaining cup of water and salt. Mix well. Your batter should resemble pancake batter, but just a tad bit bubblier (that's the yeast). 
  3. Cover your bowl and let rise for an hour or so, until your batter has doubled in size. 
  4. Once ready, add your baking soda and lemon juice to your batter. Mix well. Set aside. 
  5. Heat up a non-stick pan, and add your tbsp of sunflower oil. 
  6. Gently drop your batter into the heated non-stick pan. You're aiming to make pancakes that are roughly 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter, which equals about 1.5 tablespoons of batter. The easiest way to do this is with a measuring spoon. 
  7. Let your batter cook until you see bubbles appear on the top side. DON'T FLIP your pancakes. 
  8. Remove your pancake, and set aside -- NOTE: I advise against stacking the pancakes on top of each other as the remaining moisture will cause them to stick. You want them to be sticky, just not to each other! An easy way to avoid this is to place a sheet of wax / baking paper between each stack, or spread them out individually. Don't lay them out on paper towels, as again they will stick to this. 
  9. Continue until you have prepared all your pancakes. Let cool and proceed to making the filling.
Depending on which filling you are making, mix all your ingredients together. The savoury filling should be a creamy consistency, i.e. you want to make sure you have fully mixed your butter and cheese together. 
  1. In a frying pan / pot, heat up 2/3 cup of cooking oil. (you can throw a little piece of cooked pancake in to tell you when the oil is hot enough - once the pancake has risen and is 'bubbling' at the surface, your oil is warm enough to use.)
  2. While you are waiting for your oil to heat up, fill your katayef. Do this by taking one teaspoon of your respective filling, and placing it in the middle of your pancake. 
  3. Gently fold over your pancake, and using your finger tips seal the edges. Your pancakes should arleady be moist enough that you don't need to add anything to ensure they stick. Make sure you've sealed it all the way around, otherwise your filling will spill out upon frying. 
  4. Gently place each stuffed Katayef into the hot oil, cooking evenly on both sides (about 1.5 minutes for each side). 
  5. Remove from the oil and place on a plate covered with a paper towel to soak up any excess oil.
If you've made sweet Katayef, while your completed Katayef are cooling, you can start the syrup - or as they call it in Egypt, the asal (honey). Using a small saucepan, combine the sugar, water, cinnamon and lemon juice. Bring to a gentle rolling boil, and let boil for around a minute. Remove from the eat. For a thicker syrup, add an additional 1/4 cup of sugar. Drizzle over the Katayef. 

Bil Hana Wa Shiva!

Sweet Katayef

Monday, July 8, 2013

Rumour Mill Abound

In what appears to have become the norm in any game of politics, not just Egyptian politics (although it is especially prevalent here!), the rumour mill is in full force - again.

Today, the Muslim Brotherhood have been circulating images of children allegedly shot during protests in Cairo. It's a trap that a lot of people will readily fall into, the belief that if you read it on facebook it must of course be true. The MB propaganda machine is working over-time (don't even get me started on some of the reports that have been trickling through the social media sites). To me as an outsider it appears that the only way they can try to regain their legitimacy (har har) is to remind people how awful and terrible the "rebels" and "army" are, and that they massacre innocent children (interesting however, no comment came from their side on the youth that were pushing teenagers off of roofs).

I won't post the pictures here, as quite frankly nobody needs to see such graphic images, but I will say that the photos posted today are in fact of children that were killed in Syria. So before you read anything and jump to conclusions, please remember the rumour mill and do your own research first. Spreading hate and propaganda will only aid the dis-information cause, and that won't help anyone. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Repost: General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi: top brass ready to defend the people

From the Guardian, Ian Black provides a little insight into the man leading the "military coup" in Egypt, Abdel el-Sisi.

General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, architect of the military intervention inEgypt's worsening political crisis, was little known outside the army when he was appointed Mohamed Morsi's defence minister last August — part of the Islamist leader's deft consolidation of power.
Sisi, a career soldier, was head of military intelligence and the youngest member of the 19-strong Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. But despite coming from the heart of the security establishment he had a reputation for being sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood — the reason, many Egyptians assumed, Morsi chose him for the job. Sisi is said to be a religious man, and his wife, unusually, wears the full niqab (face veil.)
Mohamed Beltagy, a senior Brotherhood figure, has described receiving a "brotherly" warning from the intelligence chief about an impending attack by regime thugs on demonstrators in Tahrir Square in what became known as the "battle of the camel" — one of the brutally defining moments of the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, in February 2011.
But Sisi also attracted criticism for appearing to defend the behaviour of the armed forces in detaining and beating women protestors who were subjected to strip searches and "virginity tests" and threatened with prostitution charges.
Sisi, born in 1954, was a relative youngster in a military dominated by elderly officers with extensive privileges and a traditional view of their place in Egyptian political life. Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who he replaced, was in his late 70s. Sisi, promoted two ranks, reportedly shook like a leaf when Morsi told him to "behave like a man" and take the job, while Tantawi waited in the next room.
Eyebrows were raised when Sisi decided to allow Islamists to enter the Egyptian military's officer training academy — when it had always insisted before that cadets were unimpeachably apolitical. Opposition suppprters point out that as army intelligence chief, Sisi was privy to classified information about the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical Islamist groups, as well as links with Hamas.
Just days before Sisi was appointed, jihadis in Sinai attacked Egyptian border guards, killing 16 and humiliating the armed forces — underlining the dangerous gaps in security in the messy post-Mubarak transition.
Sisi, an infantry officer, was trained at the UK Joint Command and Staff College and did a masters degree at the US army's War College in Pennsylvania.
He is said to have "experienced firsthand the aggravation of officers who watched huge amounts of money squandered on projects that lined the pockets of the high command but left the soldiers unable to fight effectively."
He is also described as enjoying close relations with the US military as well as Saudi Arabia, where he served as a military attache. Inside the army, some critics reportedly believe he has been too soft on the Brotherhood.
Last December, the new Egyptian consititution [sic] gave the military greater autonomy than it had ever enjoyed before but relations with the Brotherhood worsened as public disenchantment with Morsi grew and the army polished its own PR. Sisi warned of intervention a week before the 30 Juneprotests. Now he is at the centre of a high stakes struggle for the future of Egypt.

Morsi's Short Term Memory

A brilliantly insightful post from The Economist as everyone is waiting with bated breath to see whether Mr Morsi will respond to the Egyptian Army's 48 hour deadline.

WHAT would you do if millions of citizens poured into streets demanding that you go? On television during his election campaign last year, Muhammad Morsi answered without hesitation. First, he said, people would not demonstrate against him because as president he would faithfully represent their will.  “But if they do,” he added firmly, “I would be the first to resign.”
But Egypt’s first freely-elected president has not resigned, yet, despite nationwide protests on June 30th that were far bigger than those that brought down his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, two and a half years ago. Not only did the vast crowds bring every major city in Egypt to a standstill, amid an impromptu general strike. In scores of villages and provincial towns, protesters invaded government offices and shut them down by force, as police looked on approvingly. They also invaded, torched and looted the Cairo headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive fraternity that nurtured Mr Morsi and carried him to power. Five of his own ministers resigned, too, the latest in a long string of defections in the 12 months since Mr Morsi took office. 
As if still more prompting were needed, on July 1st, Egypt’s army issued an ultimatum. If the country’s bickering civilian politicians do not find ways to meet people’s demands within 48 hours, it said, the army will issue its own political road map for them to follow. Given the extreme polarisation of Egypt’s politics, and the accelerating evaporation of the Brotherhood’s constituency, there does not seem to be much incentive for Mr Morsi’s opponents to compromise.
For hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who came out for a second day of cheerful protests, there was no doubt what the army’s diktat meant: Mr Morsi is finished. Lending further credence to this supposition, a squadron of army helicopters, each trailing a giant Egyptian flag, circled Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a triumphant show of force that was met with roars of approval. The military also paid an unannounced visit to the Nile-side headquarters of Egypt’s state broadcasting system. The officials Mr Morsi had appointed to run Egyptian TV and radio quietly exited. 
Despite the army's insistence that its ultimatum does not amount to a coup, some have already declared its intervention a “soft coup”, not unlike its move, in 2011, to usher Mr Mubarak out of power. The military lingered too long then, during the tumultuous transition before Mr Morsi’s term, earning opprobrium for human rights abuses and general ham-fistedness. But a precipitous slide in Egypt’s economy under civilian rule, accompanied by lawlessness and corruption, has aided in shortening memories. With Mr Morsi’s administration having signally failed to tackle the country’s myriad and deep problems, opposition to it has snowballed over recent weeks into an avalanche.
Opinion polls from before the recent protests gave Mr Morsi an approval rating of around 30%. This has certainly now shrivelled as even fellow Islamists have abandoned a clearly sinking ship. Still, the Muslim Brotherhood has hundreds of thousands of active members, and millions of sympathisers. Containing their unhappiness will be a pressing challenge.
Egypt’s military has not revealed what its “road map” might look like. Most analysts expect that, having absorbed lessons from its last intervention, the army may this time both act more forcefully and set a quicker pace. The expectation is that its goal will be a return to civilian rule, under a revised and more inclusive constitution than the one that Mr Morsi hastily forced through last year. But despite the sudden eruption of public enthusiasm for the army, worries do linger. Could it be that now, armed with massive public backing and having dispensed with the Brotherhood, the only civilian party strong enough to challenge them, Egypt’s soldiers may be tempted to stay in power?
(Picture credit: AFP)

Monday, July 1, 2013

Hurghada Protests 30th June

To follow up on yesterday's photos, find below some videos from the protests in Hurghada.

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