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Our Token Khawaga Did Ramadan…And He Liked It

Conor Sheils takes on Ramadan, and wins! Follow his many trials - and ultimate tribulations - through this holy month.

In Cairo, it's often all too easy to get caught up in the seemingly endless hustle and bustle, to the point that life begins to merge into into a Kentucky-fried haze of parties, people and delivery food.

But what if, for just one month of each year, it stopped? 

This year, in the run-up to Ramadan, conversations became dreadfully predictable in expat circles. It seemed as though everybody was hell-bent on fleeing Cairo, rushing to the airport carrying their loved ones and the clothes on their backs in a desperate attempt to flee the holy month.

On the other hand, many Egyptians (especially the older generations) described Ramadan as a 'special,' 'magical' sort of Islamic Christmas, as imagined by the creators of a Toys r' Us advert.

With all of that in mind - I decided (despite not being religious) to give it a whirl. Yes, this year I, Conor Sheils, was taking part in one of Islam's holiest traditions... and frankly, I loved it.

I wasn't sure what to expect from my first Middle Eastern Ramadan - having previously only experienced the holiday from a distance in the West.

And if I'm honest - as the days drew nearer, I felt a certain sense of foreboding, an icy dread began to fill my mind - "What would I do?", "Would I become some sort of social recluse?", "Would I be struck down by Jerusalem syndrome and begin proclaiming myself the return of the Messiah while speaking in tongues?" Thankfully these fears turned out to be mostly unfounded, my dear children.

For me, Ramadan meant not only giving up breakfast and lunch, but I also decided to curb the temptation to binge or eat unhealthily after dark.

So for one month at least, I gave up day-time eating breakfast and lunch, junk food, chocolate, drinking soda drinks and alcohol (mostly), instead switching to a diet of meat, vegetables and rice for iftar, along with fruit, yogurt, ful, eggs and other Egyptian treats for sohour.

To say that the experience was easy would be nothing short of a lie. The first few days of detoxing left me barely functioning physically and mentally, as I stumbled around Cairo silently cursing every bastard who dared to wish me a 'Ramadan Kareem'.

At this point I was seriously beginning to question not only my own sanity, but that of the masochistic gluttons who had branded this hellish period a 'happy' time.

But suddenly - after a week or so.. it changed.

My body adapted, my mood improved and I slowly but surely began to appreciate the true magic of the season.

The evenings were spent breaking fast with close friends and complete strangers, the nights spent watching 'Ramez The Sea Shark' and wondering why everybody else found it so funny, getting to know people in my local cafes, shops, my bawab - characters whom, without the solace of Ramadan, I would rarely have time to speak with.

But that's the beauty of it - Ramadan forces you to be a better person, because it takes away the distractions that all too often drown out the important things in life.

Of course I didn't spend the entire month auditioning for a part in an upcoming biopic about the life and times of Mother Theresa. But during the month I witnessed a kind of non-materialistic generosity, which many in the West would love to see around Christmas time.

From the two separate occasions my friend and I (both foreigners) were invited to a street-side ma2edat rahman just for walking by, to the evening I left work at iftar time and a man on the street poured me a cup of tamr and refused to accept payment, right through to the countless times people actually stopped in the street to give a friendly wave or say hello.

There were also the health benefits  - it may be a placebo - but after 4 weeks, I'm well-rested, full of energy and I feel great. Not to mention the fact that all of the time to ponder has left some pretty creative plans slotted in for the 12 months ahead.

Yes, there were downsides to the holy month - the initial body detox somersaults, the post-iftar laziness, the occasional weird 5 am insomnia, and of course the ridiculous shark show. But overall it was an experience I will never forget.

As the month draws to a close and the world invariably starts turning again - I will always have a soft spot for the four weeks that gave me a lifetime of new food, new friends, new experiences and most of all - a new outlook on Cairo life.

Farewell Ramadan - 'til next year, ma3 al salama.