Hey, everybody. Today is the first day of Ramadan in 2021, so first let me start by saying Ramadan kareem or Ramadan mubarak, which means happy Ramadan in Arabic. If you say Ramadan kareem or Rmadan mubarak to someone who is Muslim today or for the next month while Ramadan is going on, they’ll surely be very delighted at the thoughtfulness and maybe surprised that you know how to say happy Ramadan in Arabic.
I wanted to do an episode today on the first day of Ramadan to explain a little more about what Ramadan is, and perhaps more importantly for planning travel to Egypt, how it affects a visit to Egypt if you happen to find yourself there during part of Ramadan. There are some big changes that you need to be aware of and which you’ll have to adjust to, but they’re not all negative. Some are actually quite special and unique, and you’ll only get to see them once a year during Ramadan in the Arab world.
Ok so first off, what is Ramadan? To put it simply, it’s sort of like Christmas time for Muslims, except on steroids, and I mean that in a good way. It’s their biggest and most meaningful religious celebration of the year, but it’s not just a day or a week; it lasts an entire month. Timing-wise, Ramadan is more similar to Easter in that the date changes a little each year. However, it doesn’t just change around the same time every year; it stars and ends 11 days earlier every year.
So for example, back in 2003 when I first moved to Egypt, Ramadan fell during late-October and early-November. So my first experience with the holiday was in late-fall when it was cooler during the day. But each year Ramadan moves up by 11 days, so when I was living in Egypt again in 2012, Ramadan fell during July and August that year. Now, nearly another decade later, Ramadan is happening in April.
It takes about 33 years for Ramadan to return back to the same dates. So in 2036, Ramadan will be back to falling in late-October and most of November again, which is when it was when I first experienced it living in Egypt.
So what happens during Ramadan and what’s it like to be in Egypt or anywhere in the Arab or Muslim world during the month of Ramadan?
The most important thing to know is that almost all Muslims around the world try to fast during the day during Ramadan. In other words, they don’t eat during the daytime. Hardcore observers don’t drink anything either, including water. So remember how I said earlier that when I was in Egypt in 2012, Ramadan fell during the hottest months of July and August. Work and life have to continue during Ramadan, so imagine how difficult it is to work all day out in the heat of Egypt or Jordan or Indonesia without drinking any water all day. It’s quite tough.
So why do Muslims do this? Why would they put themselves through this? The reason they do it is actually quite admirable. They believe that it builds character and strengthens your self-discipline, and that this helps you be a better Muslim and brings you closer to God. Fasting during Ramadan is all about resisting urges and temptations. It’s not only about food and water though. During Ramadan you have to abstain from smoking during the daily fast, even from having sex or any other type of pleasurable desire or craving. And by doing this daily for a month, this strengthens your ability to resist temptations in life for the rest of the year as well.
Now, as I mentioned, not all Muslims practice the hard core Ramadan fasting that I described earlier, including not drinking water all day. But many do, maybe even most, I’m not sure. But there are also many who allow themselves to drink water and that’s it. But not everybody can keep up the fast all day every day for the whole month. If you look behind buildings and in some alleyways about mid-day during any day of Ramadan, you’ll often see someone sneaking a smoke or a drink of something out of sight. It’s not easy to quit anything cold turkey, but the vast majority do honestly succeed in resisting all human temptations and urges all day long.
So, so far I’ve been referencing the daytime and all day long because – and I think I mentioned this earlier but I’m not sure – fasting during Ramadan is only done during the day. Once the sun sets, it’s game on! And this is the next big thing to know about Ramadan – it’s a huge party after sundown. Now obviously that doesn’t mean a party as in alcohol and raves, but a party as in a huge celebration and feast with family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers.
At the precise moment of sunset, Muslims celebrate what’s known as Iftar, which is the breaking of the fast. Iftar on the first day of Ramadan is the biggest one and usually the most anticipated one because the first day of fasting is usually the hardest. Many families will get together and have huge feasts and celebrations after breaking the fast at the moment of sunset, which they usually do by drinking water and eating traditional Arab dates or sweets. Another way that Ramadan is like Christmas is that there are tons of sweets and deserts that are made just for Ramadan, and they’re all really really good.
So they do this every day for the whole period of Ramadan. They wake up super early to have breakfast before sunrise so they can get in some sustenance before the daytime fasting period begins. Then they fast all day by resisting food, sometimes drinks, smoking, anything that is usually considered a desirable thing. Then at sunset or Iftar, they break the fast together with other people and begin celebrating for the rest of the night.
Now this is one of the really neat things about Ramadan that you won’t see any other time of year. During Ramadan, you often see huge outdoor community feasts where people will prepare dinner for hundreds and hundreds of people in a neighborhood and everyone will eat dinner together outside in the street at huge long tables packed full of delicious food and deserts.
This is related to another aspect of Ramadan, which is sharing and charity. People share their food, their sweets, and their money with others very freely during Ramadan. It’s a very social and charitable time when people really open their hearts to neighbors and strangers alike and give to each other. I’ve literally been driving down the highway coming back into Cairo from Alexandria one time during Ramadan, and a friend I was riding with rolled down the window and handed half of her bag of sweets to the guys in the van next to us in slow-moving traffic.
I think I have a photo of that moment somewhere too. I’m going to try to find that because it was one of the most iconic memories of Ramadan one year in Egypt for me because we were literally rolling down the highway, and our two drivers coordinated to go the same speed when they saw Eman leaning out the window to give the people in the next car some of her sweets after Iftar.
In addition to the food and feasting part of Ramadan at night, it’s also similar to Christmas time in the West in that they put up lots of lights everywhere both inside and outside during the month. The biggest symbol of Ramadan is this cute little lantern, so you see those everywhere too. And there are of course Ramadan songs and carols that you’ll hear a lot, even if you don’t know what it is they’re singing.
Ok, so what does all this mean for you if you’re traveling to the Middle East during Ramadan, or if you happen to find yourself in Egypt during this time of year?
Well, for starters know that you are NOT expected to fast. So don’t worry about that. It’s not considered rude or disrespectful to not participate in the daily fast, although you definitely don’t want to walk around eating a cheeseburger in the street or drinking a huge cold bottle of water in front of other people. That’s a little insensitive. But you should definitely feel welcome to eat and drink as much as you want during the day, even though no one else will be doing it. Just try to do it in private or in a restaurant and not in front of people in the street.
Now here’s yet another big thing to know about being in Egypt during Ramadan – many restaurants and even shops will close at least during the day, and some for the entire month. Since this is a time when business is slower, of course, since they’re not selling food all day long, many restaurants don’t open during the day. Some will open at night only because that’s when people will be buying ready-made food to eat when they can eat it. However, some establishments take advantage of the natural dip in sales anyway to close for the whole month, either for renovations or vacation.
So just be aware that some places will close up shop during the month of Ramadan, while may more will close for most of the day and only open for a few hours in the evening. Now with that said, there will still be plenty of places for you to find food during Ramadan. Don’t worry about starving. Especially in the tourist and cosmopolitan areas like Cairo and Luxor, most places that cater to Western tourists will stay open and serve food all day because they know that tourists are still looking to eat even if locals aren’t.
A lot of times hotels may shut down one or two restaurants if they have multiple ones and just serve food during the day out of one main restaurant to consolidate, but food will still be readily available for you to buy and eat in Egypt, even during the day throughout Ramadan.
Ok, another big thing to know about Ramadan in Egypt – I told you there’s a lot to know about this period – is that schedules change. I’ve already mentioned that some places decide to close all day and only open at night during the month, but this is mostly shops and local restaurants. When it comes to tourist sites, many of them will close an hour earlier. This doesn’t affect things too much, but just be aware of it.
Generally, people start their days earlier during Ramadan because a) they have to wake up earlier to eat before the sun rises and b) because their energy usually fades by late-afternoon after not eating all day. So it’s usually a good idea to just plan things a little earlier during Ramadan instead of dragging out your schedule into late-afternoon when everyone around you will be tired and starving. And even if you have guides and drivers with you around sunset time, you should expect that they’re going to want to stop for a few minutes at least and participate in the breaking of the fast at Iftar time, even if it’s just to have a bottle of water and some dates or sweets.
Another thing that changes during Ramadan is school and work schedules. This doesn’t usually affect tourists, but I remember when I was in university in Egypt back in 2003 and 2004, our morning classes began an hour earlier or the whole month. So that means my 8am Arabic class started at 7am for that month, which meant I had to be up at 6am to get ready and travel to the campus. That was a pain in the butt because I’m not normally a morning person, but you just have to adjust and deal with it when you’re living there.
That same year, since it was my first time in Egypt during Ramadan, my roommates and I also tried to participate in the fasting, and holy moly that was way harder than we thought it would be. Three of us made a bet to see who could last the longest and we all lasted the first day and had a great first Iftar feast together that evening to break the starvation together, but the second day when we all came home from school we each nervously confessed one by one that we had broken during the second day and eaten a snack.
It’s really hard to fast all day when you’re going about your normal routine, so major kudos to all Muslims around the world who fast during Ramadan, especially the hard core fasting with out even drinking water.
Ok, that’s a wrap on this episode all about Ramadan and what it’s like to travel within Egypt during this annual holiday period. Bottom line – don’t be deterred. Things change a little and we have to plan around that, but it’s a really amazing and special time with lots to see and experience that you don’t get to see and experience any other time of the year. People are super happy and friendly, even more so than normal, and especially at night when the feasting and celebrations begin and they get to finally eat and party together.
So one more time – Ramadan kareem and Ramadan mubarak everyone, and I’ll see you in the next episode. Ma salaama.