When I started this blog a little over two years ago one of my main goals was to explore the local food and dietary practices of Egypt. At the time I wrote an article about Ramadan and the Practice of Fasting. This was of course before I’d even come to Egypt, so I still hadn’t yet had the opportunity to experience Ramadan first hand (last year we were travelling during Ramadan). This year Ramadan began on June 18, so I’ve been living it for a little more than a week now.
First, for the uninitiated, Ramadan is time of great religious importance to Muslims. It is characterized by the practice of fasting from food, drink and other “sinful” behaviours between dawn and sunset. Muslims use this time of year to reflect and reconnect with God as well as their friends and family.
Since we’re travelling again tomorrow, I thought now would be good chance to share an outsider’s observations of Ramadan thus far:
- Streets less busy – During the day there seem to be fewer cars on the road. This could partly be due to the fact that the start of Ramadan this year also coincided with the end of the school year, but either way it’s definitely noticeable. This is especially true if you happen to be out during “iftar”. Iftar is the meal each day where people break their fast. A few days ago my wife and I were heading out for gelato, which ended up being closed (more on that below) and the streets were virtually deserted. It was eerie.
- Business hours – The hours of most businesses change during Ramadan. It’s not much of a problem, just something you need to be aware of. Generally speaking businesses will open a little later, often not until the afternoon, and aside from restaurants, most close for roughly an hour during iftar (7-8pm). This is why we weren’t able to get our gelato. Larger supermarket chains seem to be open their regular hours, or at least have never been closed when we’ve went shopping.
- Fasting is hard, especially during this time of year – The date of Ramadan changes slightly every year because it follows the Islamic calendar. This year it happens to take place during the longest days of the year. Since fasting corresponds to the rise and fall of the sun, that makes for an especially long fast. When you combine that with the summer heat I can imagine the whole thing would be quite challenging (although I guess that’s kind of the point).
- Iftar is a time for indulging – After such a long time without food and drink, you can understand why iftar meals can be quite large. The closest thing we have to iftar is Thanksgiving in North America, except it’s every day. From a nutrition perspective I can certainly understand why many people report actually gaining weight during Ramadan.
- Iftar is also a time to spend with family and friends – Again like North American Thanksgiving, often family and friends gather to break their fast together – even if everyone is not actually fasting. A couple of nights ago, my employer hosted iftar for all the staff. It’s a good excuse to gather with people you care about and share a meal.
- Many Muslims seem noticeably more devout – In the past 10 days I’ve seen more locals carrying around and reading from the Quran than I can remember seeing in the past year. This is particularly true for people whose jobs involve a lot of sitting/waiting (security, bawaabs, etc..).
Overall, I will say that Ramadan isn’t as apparent as I thought it would be. Sure, the roads are a little less busy than they typically are, shops maintain slightly different hours and you see decorations outside of many businesses, but for the most part things seem to go on pretty much the same as they did before, at least for the non-Muslim foreigner in living in Maadi.
One takeaway that I definitely wanted to share was that it’s impossible not to admire those who choose to fast during Ramadan. While I may not share their beliefs, anyone who chooses to go without food, and more importantly water, for 16+ hours/day in this summer heat, certainly has my respect. Ramadam Kareem to all my Muslim friends!