CAIRO – For the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Egyptian fruit sellers have named their best dates of the year after President Barack Obama in a sweet tribute to the American leader for his outreach to the Muslim world.
Dates are a traditional food for Ramadan — which begins Saturday in most of the Islamic world — since the Prophet Muhammad is said to have used them to break the month's sunrise-to-sunset fast each evening.
In Egypt, shops have created a new tradition of naming their best and worst dates to catch attention and boost sales — giving a little reflection of the political mood.
Obama's vault to the top of the Egyptian date-scale comes after he delivered a landmark address in Cairo in June, saying he wants to improve American ties with Muslims around the world. Those ties were deeply strained under his predecessor, George W. Bush, who was widely resented in the Arab world — and whose name was given to the worst quality dates in Egypt in past Ramadans.
"We love Obama and so we named our best dates for him," said Atif Hashim at his busy shop in downtown Cairo.
Huge barrels in his shop were piled with "Obama" dates, selling for just under $2.50 a pound. For an additional dollar, there is an even better date, labeled on a sign as "Super Obama."
"We put a sweet date in Mr. Obama's mouth and a message in his ear," Hashim said. "Please help to bring peace to the world. We have a lot of hope in you."
Hashim named his poorer dates after Israeli Foreign Minister Avidgor Lieberman, a hard-liner who is particularly disliked in Egypt for once saying its president, Hosni Mubarak, can "go to hell."
Other low-quality dates were named after Lieberman's predecessor, Tzipi Livni, and after Bush. They all go for about 17 cents a pound.
In 2006, many sellers in Egypt named their best dates after the leader of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, whose popularity soared among Arabs because his militants battled Israel in a devastating war that summer.
During the lunar month of Ramadan, observant Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and sex from sunrise to sunset. It is believed that God began revealing the Koran to Muhammad during Ramadan, and the faithful are supposed to spend the month in religious reflection, prayer and remembrance of the poor.
It's also a time of celebrations, late nights out with friends and family and elaborate meals for "iftar," the sunset dinner that breaks the fast.
This year, Ramadan starts in August for the first time in 33 years — meaning a long, hot day for those fasting. In a bid to bring up the time for iftar, Egypt went off daylight savings time on Friday.
The fast begins Saturday for most of the Mideast and Asia, although Libya, Turkey, and some Lebanese Shiites began fasting Friday. The month begins when each Muslim country's Islamic authorities sight the crescent moon that marks the beginning of the lunar month — sometimes using only the naked eye, leading to some discrepancies in the timing.
In the West Bank town of Ramallah, Palestinians decorated their houses with lights in the shape of crescents and stars and shops began preparing special pastries and traditional Ramadan drinks like kharoub, made of carobs. The Israeli military said it would keep checkpoints open longer hours to allow more people to cross.
In Hamas-controlled Gaza City, officials hung signs reading "Welcome Ramadan" and provided mosques with large carpets to accommodate the increased number of worshippers.
Shops sold little electric lamps, a traditional children's toy during Ramadan — made in China and brought through smuggling tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border to circumvent the blockade imposed on Gaza by Israel and Egypt after Hamas seized power two years ago.
In Turkey, the mosques were jam-packed and municipalities set up soup kitchens to serve iftar to the poor. Holiday-makers began deserting beach resorts to return home. Newspapers carried recommendations from dietitians and Mehmet Emin Ozafsar, the deputy head of Turkey's department for religious affairs, urged people observing the fast not to use it as an excuse for "aggressive behavior" or abstinence from work.
"Fasting is patience and tolerance," Ozafsar said.