Ramadan is upon us and many foreign first-timers are baffled by the changes they are seeing around them. Stores are filled with nuts and dried fruits, bags of groceries and lanterns that blink on and off and play oriental ditties through tinny speakers. Office hours change and new Arabic words float through the air. It can be a confusing time, so allow us to help you navigate the wonderful month of Ramadan.
First of all, people fast. This is the most important thing to remember. After a meal at very early in the morning, before the sun peeps over the horizon, the people that surround you are fasting. No food, no water, no coffee, no tea, no cigarettes. They fast. Nicotine and caffeine deprivation can wreak havoc on moods, lack of food can make people sleepy so tread carefully. Bring a healthy dose of patience, understanding and respect to work with you the coming month.
Nobody expects you to join the fasting but be discreet when you drink, eat or smoke. Find a place away from those who fast to have lunch, don’t eat, drink or smoke on the street. The rules in Cairo are not as strict as in some other countries, drinking in public during daylight hours will not get you arrested, but it is considered rude and disrespectful.
Office hours are adjusted for Ramadan, usually this means a later start and stopping early. They are designed to let people sleep after their early morning meal before going to work and to be home when it is time for breakfast. There are a few practical things to consider because of these adjusted times, all businesses, including banks and governmental institutions are less accessible. Some stores and restaurants are closed for a few hours during breakfast hours. Most clubs are closed during the month, or transformed into Ramadan tents, where meals and entertainment will go on to the wee hours of the morning. Alcohol is not served, unless in hotel bars, and to foreigners only so bring your passport along or be prepared to drink soft drinks. Venues risk hefty fines when they do not adhere to this rule so don’t make a fuss when you forget your ID.
As businesses close early the rush hour starts earlier and it is fierce, if you thought Cairo traffic is bad you are in for a whole new experience. Driving in Cairo during Iftar is wonderful though, the streets are completely empty but finding a taxi might be an impossibility around this time. After breakfast is done, tea is drunk and shisha’s are smoked Cairo and comes alive and stays that way until the last meal of the day, Sohour.
The focus of the day is Iftar, or breakfast. The exact time for breaking the fast is around seven pm and is often introduced by the big bang of a canon. It is tradition to break your fast with family and friends and an Iftar involves many courses and there are lots of traditional dishes that can only be found during this month. Sohour can be anything from a light snack to a full meal and as soon as the mosques start calling the faithful for the first prayer of the day the time for fasting has started.
Ramadan is a time for friends and family, and meals are an occasion to get together. If you are lucky to receive an invitation to join an Iftar or Sohour you should accept, it is a great experience. Make sure you are on time though, the often flexible arrival times that normally apply are a definite no-no during Ramadan. People have been fasting all day and it would be very unkind to repay their hospitality with carelessness.
Ramadan in Cairo can be a wonderful experience with many cultural specialities to savour that come around only one month a year.