She sat in front of me, focusing on her plate silently for more than half an hour, and then suddenly left the table as the sun went down.
“Why did the woman leave so quickly?” I asked Aya, the young girl sitting next to me.
“Since the beginning of Ramadan, this woman has been joining us for a bit of time until the distribution of the iftar meal with the call of the maghreb prayers,” the 12-year-old answered.
The woman had never eaten with them, Aya said, and only would take her full plate and leave for her waiting family.
This was the first conversation I had with my neighbor at the table, Aya, when I had iftar last week at the Ramadan “Ma’edat al-Rahman” — Mercy Tables — on a street in Old Cairo.
About 10,000 Egyptian volunteers spend about LE2 billion on iftar banquets for the poor annually, feeding 2 million people. If this amount of money were invested in tiny projects, it would let those 2 million people have iftar in their homes next Ramadan, in addition to developing medical services for them.
Historially, “Ma’edat al-Rahman” goes back to the Fatimid era, when Caliph Al-Moez Eddin al-Llah al-Fatimy provided the first iftar banquet for 1,100 impoverished individuals.
Others say Prince Ahmed ibn Tulun, founder of the Tulunid state, once invited Egypt’s nobles to iftar. When they arrived at his palace, they were surprised when they saw poor citizens sitting at their same tables. Ibn Tulun then persuaded the nobles to follow his example after he had iftar with the poor.
Upon a friend’s advice, I dressed like most of the women there. I wore a scarf and dressed myself in a loose, black galabeya, hoping it would bring me closer to my iftar banquet neighbors.
I arrived one hour before iftar and moved from one shop to another, stopping to fill up bottles of tamr hindi, erk soos and sobia from the Ramadan drink seller, and then to a konafa and atayef shop.
I could see long lines of impatient children in front of the konafa shop, waiting for their delicious Ramadan dessert.
As I arrived at my final destination, I saw young men and children preparing the tables and putting out water bottles, dates and dishes of rice and vegetables with meat. At iftar time, we all clustered around a long table — young women with their children and old men, many with exhausted faces.
I heard some people talking about politics, having some worries over their unknown tomorrow and what it might bring them.
After listening to them, I was back to Aya, who continued her story about the woman who left us at the beginning.
“It’s her first Ramadan here,” she whispered in my ear.
Aya said the woman’s husband was working in a textile factory that had continuing losses after the 25 January revolution that led to the dismissal of half of the workers.
Since then, Aya said, the woman has been working as a street seller to earn her family’s living until her husband finds a job or returns back to his work.
Those at the table talked about rising prices, continuous water and electricity cuts that last for days — not hours-long cuts, as many wealthier Cairo residents have.
“Two years ago, it was totally different,” I heard a man saying. A famous member of Parliament used to provide such iftar meals, he said.
“We had full tables of different kinds of meat, vegetables and fruits, and we even had desserts,” he said. “It was a five-star iftar.”
It all depends on who’s behind the banquets. Members of Parliament under the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak used to pay for them to get more votes in the parliamentary elections. Businessmen, belly dancers and famous actors also help poor people and prepare these banquets every Ramadan to thank God for giving them money.
After we finished eating, I shook hands with Aya, whose father came to take her from the other side of the table, where the men sat, and he greeted me before leaving.
While leaving the table, I saw an old man who ate with us. He was poorly dressed and wore glasses that were almost broken. I wondered where I saw him before — I then felt quite sure he was a famous actor who had roles in many old movies.
I approached him, and he smiled at me but at the same time tried to hide his eyes.
“Do you know me?” he asked.
I told him he was a great actor and that I loved all his movies. He smiled again, but with a sorry smile, and said, “Nobody else other than you knows me. I came here to live in a small room after I stopped acting, following severe heart disease, and nobody noticed my disappearance.”
His last words to me left me in tears.
“Stars are only stars as long as they still shine, but when they stop shining they are dead, and nobody would care to look at them,” he said.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent’s weekly print edition.