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You may think that visiting a Muslim country during Ramadan is a mistake but our experience traveling in Egypt was superb despite the holiday. In fact, in some ways it may have been even better.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Check the calendar if you want to know during which month it falls on any given year. Ramadan is a special time of prayer, fasting and charity. Muslims are challenged to focus more on humility, reading the Quran, giving alms and abstaining from food and drink during the daylight hours. Fasting is taken very seriously. During our visit there was an article in the local paper the debating whether or not Muslims could be arrested for not fasting!
The fasting changes a few things for the traveler.
First, many restaurants are either closed during the day, or run with a limited menu. We were always able to eat, but in some cases our guide arranged for us to have lunch at a restaurant that was actually closed, but willing to accommodate us.
Secondly, alcohol is not sold during the day and in some cases not at all. If you want a drink you may have to take it at a hotel bar or restaurant. It is not even sold to non-Muslims or foreigners who do not observe Ramadan. You’re outta luck.
Thirdly, a lot of people we met who were fasting seemed to run at a slower speed. You can imagine why. Some people may sleep during the day, since many Muslims do not sleep well at night because of waking for prayer and or to take a small meal, called sehr, in the wee hours before dawn. Many businesses will even cut their employees’ hours or close altogether to make it easier to fast, which is obligatory with few exceptions.
At about 5pm, in preparation for breaking the fast, there is a buzz in the air. Everyone become focused on finishing what they are doing and getting home. Therefore, be aware that the traffic is nightmarish around this time because suddenly everyone is going home, where most Muslims break their fast. Secondly, everything will close. All the restaurants and shops, save very few, will not be open between 5pm and about 7:30pm, so don’t plan to do much during those hours.
[HOT TIP: Keep in mind that he times will change based on what time the sun rises and sets wherever you are. In Turkey the breakfast is taken much later due to the fact that the sun didn’t go down until about 8:45pm when we were there in late June.]
The meal is taken after sundown is called iftar, and is known simply as “breakfast.” At first this confused me. Everyone is going to breakfast, at night. I assumed they’d be eating typical first meal of the day foods. Not the case. A wide range of food can be eaten and meals vary each day. Many people will begin their meal with a date infused juice and a soup to prepare the body for eating. Typically a large meal follows.
One of the things we enjoyed most in Egypt was an evening dinner cruise on the Nile. We were probably the only Americans on board. Most of the guests were Muslim families who had come together for a special night out. The meal was lavish. Various grilled meats, sausages, stuffed peppers and grape leaves, pasta dishes, salads, eggplant, fruits and sweets and tea. There was also entertainment, but no belly dancing because of the holiday. Instead, a trio of musicians and singers and a man who danced the Tanoura, an Egyptian version of a whirling Sufi dance. It was so impressive!
Mainly what we took away from the cruise, aside from a full belly, was the joy we saw among the families who were celebrating together. Dancing and singing, young and old, all seemed genuinely, simply gleeful. It was a wonderful way to observe the Egyptian culture and experience the hospitality that is so present in this part of the world.
I have to add that in after Egypt we visited Italy and then Turkey, another Muslim county with a secular government. The rules seemed to be somewhat more relaxed in Turkey, as not quite as many of the people particularly in Istanbul are Muslim or follow the fast strictly. Having said that, our guide invited us to partake in iftar with him both at a friend’s restaurant on Princess Island, a highlight of our time there, and at his own home. These cultural exchanges are the reason I love to travel so much.
So, the best advice I can give is, get yourself invited to breakfast during Ramadan!