Food will often give you the clues you need to know regarding what is happening in this country. Very smelly fish announces the arrival of spring, the sweet smell of mangoes heralds in summer and there is no winter until roasted batata appear on street corners. This week I was alerted to the fact that Lent had started when I picked up a random delivery menu which suddenly offered “fasting” choices.
In Egypt Lent is a period of 55 days where the Coptic population abstains from eating animal products in preparation for the celebration of Easter. I like it when 10% of all Egyptians go vegan for the better part of two months, because suddenly I do not feel so different. I have been eating plant-based food for the better part of five years now and while I can usually find something to eat on any menu by removing the animal protein, there are only so many veggie pizzas without cheese you can eat.
The Copts have not had an easy time of it in the past year; sectarian violence and discrimination were rampant, but those who make their money selling sustenance, from the local hole in the wall to the upmarket overpriced cafes, do not seem to partake in that practice. Menus that normally abound with shawerma and kofta suddenly offer all kinds of vegan options and dairy free lattes are drunk by the gallon. Deprivation has its limits and even international fast food chains feature veggie burgers.
Fasting is an intricate part of society, no matter what the religion you adhere to, and as with many things in life, the hardship is taken in stride and at the same time, minimised as much as possible. During Ramadan Muslims abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours but as soon as the sun goes down they make up for it in spades. Special meals are enjoyed in the company of friends and family and the many special venues offer entertainment and snacks until just before sunrise. The special vegan options in restaurants around town offer those partaking in Lent the opportunity to enjoy themselves as they are observing the practices of their religion.
I like that combination of piety and pragmatism; it is human and easier to relate to and tempers fervour with common sense.
It is funny that when it comes to these religious practices, this little streak of pragmatism pops up in the country, because in many other ways, passion often trumps common sense. Amazing scientific achievements, as the cure for diseases that affect millions, are announced without blinking an eye or corroborating evidence. Who cares that the best minds in the world have been trying to solve that puzzle for decades without success and there is no proof offered that this solution actually works; the healing of millions can commence and hearts all over the country swell with pride.
Or when traffic has tried your patience to the point of breaking and it finally starts to flow again. There is nothing sensible about the taxi driver suddenly thinking nothing of getting out of the car to argue over a two-inch gap with the driver of the vehicle next to you. Who cares if it delays everyone for another 10 minutes, an injustice has taken place and voices need to be raised and arms need to wave in the air. After which, satisfaction has been achieved and we all continue on our merry ways.
Another area where discernment takes a back seat is when support of football clubs and politicians alike is given. It is done wholeheartedly and unreservedly and objectivity immediately takes a back seat. Not to say that these traits cannot be found where I am from, but the complete conviction with which this is done by nearly everyone betrays a passion of character that most of us cloggies miss.
As an outsider, it is impressive, humbling and at times infuriating to be confronted with that kind of over the top fervour. There have been only a few times that I managed to feel that strongly about something, yet for most of my life, I have been considered to be overly emotional. Living here has liberated me from most of that down to earth conditioning, but it only took seeing one shouting driver arguing with another for me to realise I still have a long way to go. And always open to join the practices of my adoptive country, I figured I have a good opportunity here to make some changes.
I give you fair warning because it might make for some different and even uncomfortable columns in the upcoming weeks. I have decided to give up common sense for Lent.