Special Ramadan Prayers And a Party at the Pyramids

GIZA, Egypt

Almost every neighborhood in this city was bathed in festive lights, flashing red, blue and yellow from stores and houses in celebration of the New Year. Strings of color hung from minarets. Radios were turned up loud. Red and blue floral canvases covered the narrow neighborhood thoroughfares that maintain a sense of intimacy among 12 million people.

But as the Christian, Gregorian calendar headed toward its third millennium, people here were not poised to honor that. They wondered if on New Year's Eve, the 23rd day of the fasting month of Ramadan, in the year 1460 after the Prophet Mohammed left Mecca, would be the Koranic "night of power," the day once a year when prayers are spoken with a special clarity.

They wondered if there will be enough food for those who gather at each night's charity meal.

They hoped that the hard-scratch life most Egyptians lead will ease a little in the future, no matter what calendar is used to mark time.

"We are here to celebrate Ramadan," said Khalid Mohammed, who was filling cups for the nightly fast-breaking meal that he and others serve at sunset for the poor in one downtown neighborhood. "New Year's Eve has its own people to celebrate."

In Egypt, one of the world's oldest civilizations, several million carried on the business of daily life and worship, while a few thousand celebrated in higher style.

On the plains of Giza outside Cairo, near the Pyramids erected in worship of the God-men who ruled Egypt long ago, wealthy Egyptians and adventurous expatriates came for their own commemoration.

The Pyramids, built as eternal homes for Cheops and Chephren and other ancient rulers, stand as markers of the soul's immortality. On New Year's Eve, they were home to a carnival, a light show, and a pseudo-operatic, techno-pop concert all marketed as a dusk-to-dawn extravaganza of original music. It was also a glorified album preview and greatest-hits concert by French composer Jean-Michael Jarre.

The gap between Egypt's two faces--rich and poor--was as evident here as the army of security guards, barking Rottweilers and military helicopters that secured the Pyramids area from any Egyptian without the $15 needed for the cheapest tickets.

At the base of the tombs, stage lights painted the Pyramids green, red and blue, while flanking 66-foot speakers projected an incessant, industrial beat. Fireworks exploded across the sky.

Foreigners watched from a mass-seating area, a few nestled into a surrounding sand dunes. Backpackers wearing cowboy hats and tourist groups sat with their guides. Crowds of Egyptians were on hand, too, most of them younger, hollering and clapping in time.

On an overlooking ridge, Egypt's tuxedo-attired movers, President Hosni Mubarak among them, had their own, $400-a-head perch, some underwritten by what little corporate largess exists here. The country's two competing mobile phone companies each sponsored a tent. So did a swanky local hotel.

Tawfikia Street, in downtown Cairo, seemed a world away. The charity tables were out by 4 p.m., each place supplied with a tin of yogurt and a slice of pita bread. A lecture on Islamic charity pored from one radio, the songs of the legendary Om Khaltoum from another.

"We are not worried about the new year," said Hosni Mahmoud, dressed in a flowing white robe, and chuckling over his graying beard. "We are worried about feeding people."

-- Howard Schneider

Choosing the Right Music For the Second Coming

JERUSALEM

The "messiah" showed up at midnight sharp: long white tunic, fur-fringed hat, white Reeboks. He rode a very unhappy donkey who had to be dragged onto the dance floor. He was a bearded fellow, mid-forties, said his name was Lazer Halevy.

"They couldn't find anyone else!" he bellowed over the music.

This was Jerusalem's "Messiah Party," probably the city's swingingest New Year's bash. In a city where talk about the second coming of the Messiah hits close to home, and ranges from the earnest to the frivolous, this party was off the scale for irreverence. For some, it was the answer to months, if not years, of over-hyped anticipation of the millennial moment.

"The party's on the off chance that he comes, or she comes, or it--whatever," said Lisa Anteby, the thirtyish hostess, suppressing a giggle. She's a French anthropologist, clad tonight in a shimmering silver robe draped over her shoulders and glitter on her face.

"Everybody else was really scared to have any parties," she said.

The party looked like any other rocking New Year's party--with a few twists. For starters there was the setting: the rooftop of a luxury apartment building in West Jerusalem, with a staggering, panoramic view of the Old City and Mount of Olives, where the Second Coming was prophesied to occur.

Then there were the guests, quite a few dressed as false messiahs--some gay, some straight, some Europeans, some Americans, lots of Israelis. They paid $25 a ticket. Quite a few wore robes and tunics, and a few had funny hats.

The poor donkey, rented for $125, was from Bethlehem, a few miles up the road. At the checkpoint that divides Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem from Israeli-ruled Jerusalem, the donkey was made to change trucks. When he arrived at the party, he was lured up three flights of stairs easily enough. But when his big moment came, the donkey just quit--lay right down on the floor amid the balloons and the tea candles and the speakers.

Oren Kaplan, another organizer of the party, was going to ride the donkey at midnight, but at the last minute he got cold feet. He'd never been on a donkey in his life. Still, Kaplan, a thirtyish businessman, was dressed handsomely for the part, in a robe he called a "pseudo-high priest number" and a bowler hat plastered with silver glitter.

The DJ. was Lior Rosenfeld, a thirtyish Israeli. He played big hits, mainly, a little disco and some house music. And if the Messiah had really come?

"Mmmmm, I don't have anything for that," he said, scanning his CDs. "Anyway, if that happens, the music would probably be taken care of."

-- Lee Hockstader

CAPTION: Fireworks illuminate the pyramids on the plains of Giza outside Cairo. The ancient tombs hosted a carnival, a light show, and a pseudo-operatic, techno-pop concert marketed as a dusk-to-dawn extravaganza of original music featuring French composer Jean-Michael Jarre