CAIRO, Egypt – As Ramadan kicked off around the Muslim world, Egypt’s faithful got a small break from the rigors of fasting and religious devotion.
The Council of Ministers, a secular body of government ministers, turned back the clock an hour, allowing people to catch an hour more of well-needed sleep and to break their day-long fast a little earlier.
Men break their fast with food given as charity, on the first day of Ramadan in Cairo, Wednesday.
During the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, Muslims refrain from drinking, eating, smoking and sex from dawn to dusk.
For roughly one billion Muslims worldwide, the religious obligation is not only a time of physical deprivation but a cherished month of reflection, prayer, family togetherness and commiseration with those who are in need. In Egypt, many people use spare moments to reread the Quran, the Muslim holy book, in the metro, waiting in doctor's offices or on their lunch breaks.
But the physical demands of a summer time fast are daunting. In the sweltering Cairo summer, where temperatures often top 100 degrees Fahrenheit, an hour respite from the sun is welcome.
“It is a good thing,” said Shehata Abdel Ghani, as he leaned on his cane. As the guardian of a mosque, Abdel Ghani spends the entire day outside.
“It makes my day shorter,” he smiled.
With about 13 hours of daylight during Cairo’s summer, sunset – when the faithful can enjoy their first food and drink of the day – can seem like a long way off.
Although Mohamed Mohsen Ali fixes computers in air conditioned comfort for a living, he still enjoyed breaking the fast an hour earlier than normal.
“It is better; the sunset is now at 6:30 p.m. instead of 7:30 p.m. The day would be really long otherwise,” said Ali, who assumed the time change ought to be sanctioned by religious authorities.
“They need to seek the approval of Al Azhar [the most influential Sunni institute in the world] before taking a decision like that,” he said.
“Nobody could have taken responsibility for that on their own,” he added.
‘A bad thing’
But others worried that the temporal sleight of hand might not have been religiously sanctioned.
“I don’t know what they are playing at,” said Dina Riad, a fitness instructor. “To make it easy for people? To save electricity? I think it is a bad thing … I don’t know if Islamic people approved it or not. I don’t know who came up with this idea, but I don’t like it. The Prophet Mohammed did not say we have to change the hours. I think we are the only country in the world to do this!”
In fact, they weren’t the only country in the world to do so, authorities in the West Bank and Gaza also moved the clock back an hour.
But the time change didn’t help Gamal Abdul Nassar much. He couldn’t find a ride home because city buses had stopped an hour earlier.
“It has turned everything upside down. We use that hour to do our shopping, and now the buses stop early. Why did they change it? To save an hour?” asked Nassar.
“We get up with the sun, not the clock. Haven’t they heard of a biological clock? It is an entirely failed project without any redeeming value,” he said.
Nevertheless, Nassar’s biological clock is going to have an uphill battle. When Ramadan ends, Egyptians must turn the clock forward again, for two short weeks, before turning it back again in time for autumn.