James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Drinking in Cairo During the Holy Month of Ramadan

Drinking in Cairo During the Holy Month of Ramadan

Stella in Egypt

On a rooftop bar in downtown Cairo, Rahma stares back at me, the colossal Egyptian High Court in the background. During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, the Egyptian state bans the sale of alcohol to Egyptian nationals regardless of their religious beliefs, disregarding the 10 percent of the Egyptian population that is Christian. However, Cairo is a cosmopolitan city accustomed to the mesmerized attention of hordes of tourists, who until recently flooded its ancient streets. For this reason, the Egyptian state is careful not to disrupt the tourism industry and allows the sale of alcohol to foreigners in the city´s trendy rooftop bars. Such is the case at this Carlton in downtown Cairo.

Rahma, 27, doesn’t mind my perfectly cold bottle of Stella, the iconic Egyptian beer and loyal companion to many an expat. Rahma started drinking at 23 at house parties, and, like many young, liberal Egyptians, enjoys drinking with friends. However, Ramadan is both a religious holiday and has strong cultural undertones, so even many non-practicing Muslims adhere to its commandments, such as abstaining from food and drink, sexual activity, and smoking between the hours of sunrise to sunset. “I don´t drink because I’m fasting,” says Rahma.

Drinking is prohibited by the Quran, but Cairo is like an indulgent mother who gives in to her child’s demands. Bars and neon Stella signs dot the landscape of downtown, and groups of friends drink beers paired with the occasional plate of cucumber and domiati, white, salty cheese. However, the stigma around alcohol keeps Rahma from sharing drinks with her family. “My relatives think alcohol should be banned all year,” she says, adding that she doesn’t reveal her drinking to her father for fear of “breaking his heart.” Drinking is more acceptable among men, says Rahma, but for women, drinking defies prevalent ideals of womanhood and can damage a woman’s reputation.

The taboo holds a weaker grasp on Egyptian Christians, who are the main proprietors of liquor shops and bars. However, Rahma says, “A lot of my Christian friends don´t drink. It’s a cultural thing in Egypt.”

Drinking during Ramadan, for those who choose to, is not impossible. Many stock up for the month and liquor shops across the city deliver alcohol surreptitiously to customers. “I was surprised to see so many Egyptians drinking even without foreign friends,” recalls Rahma. Whether alcohol is more prevalent than the mostly Muslim country acknowledges is contested. Yet one thing holds true: the exciting quest to find a beer during Ramadan makes the prize that much sweeter.

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