Nasrallah Dates Sold to Break Ramadan Fast

The Associated Press
Tuesday, September 26, 2006; 5:17 AM

CAIRO, Egypt -- The nicknames of dates sold to break the Ramadan fast are a key gauge of the political mood on Cairo's streets.

This year's top pick? The "Nasrallah," named for the Hezbollah leader. At the bottom _ those named for President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

As the Islamic holy month begins, date stalls in the Egyptian capital are packed with "Nasrallahs" and "Nasrallah rockets," priced at about $2 a pound. By contrast, a "Bush" or an "Olmert" sells for just 11 cents a pound.

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah is a hugely popular figure around the Arab world because of the fight his guerrillas put up against Israel during the summer's war in Lebanon.

"Nasrallah is the talk of the town and hot date this year," says Hakem Hanafi, a merchant at the Rod el-Farag market on the Nile's east bank.

Previous years' plumpest, most succulent dates were the Osama bin Laden and the Saddam Hussein. Today the "Saddam" has disappeared entirely from the market, while the "bin Laden" goes for a middling 43 cents a pound.

The tradition of eating dates during Ramadan goes back to the 7th century, when Islam's Prophet Muhammad used them to break his fast.

During Ramadan, the ninth month of Islam's lunar calendar, observant Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex from sunrise to sunset. The month, when it is believed that God began revealing the Quran to Muhammad, is supposed to be a time of religious reflection, prayer and remembrance of the poor.

In Cairo, it's also a time for celebrating, late nights out with friends and family and elaborate meals for "iftar," the sunset dinner that breaks the fast after the initial date has been eaten.

Streets are strung with colored lights, streamers and lanterns. Sidewalks are lined with "tables of the merciful," where the poor can have a free iftar, donated by merchants or the well-off.

While streets in this city of 18 million are empty at sunset, when all are home eating, they are packed all night, with traffic jams at midnight and street cafes crowded until dawn and the "suhour," the last meal before the fast resumes.

Ramadan begins with the new moon, but each country's Islamic authorities must "sight" it, so it begins on different days in different countries. The month started Sunday in Egypt, Syria and Jordan, but on Saturday in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In the ancient al-Hussein neighborhood of Cairo, Salwa Abdulhamid, an interior decorator and mother of four, was rushing around doing her shopping before sunset.

Abdulhamid stocked up on nuts for snacking through the night, as well as desserts dripping with honey and "qamareldeen," an apricot paste used to make a traditional Ramadan drink.

"Dates, special spices and incenses are essential in the Ramadan shopping list," she said, checking out the merchandise at a spice shop featuring plump Nasrallahs.

© 2006 The Associated Press