Ramadan in Egypt
(Revisited and Revised)
A Lifetime Experience
By Sameh Arab
Currently, Ramadan is being celebrated in Egypt. It began on October 15th, 2004 and will end on November 14th with the feast of Eid al-Fitr. We at Tour Egypt are often asked about travel during this period. People are concerned about this being a bad time to visit Egypt, but in reality, it is an excellent, festive period which simply adds to the fun. Tourist attractions and facilities continue to operate, but there are great celebrations and a wonderful time for all.
However, it should be noted that officially, monuments and other tourist sites are open until 3:00 PM, while in reality, some of the less frequented sites may close earlier (2:00 PM). While there are many restaurant (though not all) open to tourists, many may not serve alcoholic beverages during Ramadan. However, almost all larger hotels, as well as smaller hotels that cater to touristswill be completely operational, including their bars, and they will serve alcoholic drinks as usual.
Spending the holy month of Ramdan in Egypt is different than elsewhere. Other than the rituals practiced during that month, certain social habits of Egyptian Muslims are much different than anywhere else.
Ramadan is a month that follows the lunar calendar, the basis of the Islamic (or Hijri) calendar. With an eleven-day offset from the Gregorian (western) calendar, the exact timing of Ramadan during the year is variable, sometimes falling in summer and sometimes in winter. The first day of Ramadan too is variable, since "Shaaban", the preceding month, sometimes has 29 days and sometimes 30 days. Astronomical calculations are utilized to detect the birth of the new moon, yet the cornerstone remains to be its visualization after sunset. Ramadan lasts for 29 or 30 days, as do most lunar months.
The holiness of this month comes from the fact that it marks the day when the Holy Spirit, Gabriel, started the transmission of Gods message to the prophet Mohammad, fourteen centuries ago. The exact date has never been identified, but it is believed to be on one of the last ten days of this month, which Muslims call "Lailat el-Qadr". According to Islam, the month is dedicated to prayers, as it is believed that it is an occasion to wash ones sins away and enjoy Gods unlimited mercy.
The principal ritual during Ramadan is fasting. This entails abandoning eating, drinking, smoking or sinning, even if minor, throughout the whole day, from dawn to sunset. Though the usual daily practice is in most ways normal, Muslims prefer to spend more time praying or reading the Qoraan, particularly at night.
The daily meals become limited to two, the first of which is the "iftar" when fasting is broken just after sunset. The iftar can be a real bonus to tourists, as many of the hotels offer highly competitive specials for ifar.
The timing of the second meal, "sohour", is variable according to personal preference, but usually delayed as much as possible until just before dawn. In between "iftar" and "sohour", people are allowed to eat as they wish.
What makes this month different in Egypt? A long time ago, Egyptians adopted certain social habits during this month that are not directly related to religion. Officially, the working hours are diminished to allow more time for prayers. People usually sleep very late and spend considerable time in the mosques. The traditional practice starts immediately after sunset, which is announced to people through all mosques by the ritual "azan", or the call for prayers. Once, beginning in the 16th Century, it was the habit of the Egyptian government to fire a canon which could be heard throughout Cairo to announce end of the daily fast. This loud shot was fired from the Citadel over the "el-Moqattam" mountains. Modern technology has replaced this habit so that now announcements are made on radio and TV.
"Iftar" is considered the main meal of the day during Ramadan and is often very rich. Any type of food might be served, but traditionally the desert almost always includes "konafa" or "qatayef". The former is a cake-like food made of wheat with considerable sugar, honey, raisins and different types of nuts. The later is almost the same, but takes the shape of a small circular cake, which is folded to include nuts and raisins.
Since Ramadan is considered to be the most joyful month of the whole year, children also have their share of fun. The "fanoos" or lantern is a must for every kid. These are traditionally made of tin and colored glass, with a candle inside. More modern examples are battery operated, but really lack the spirit (though each year there seems to be a trend to see who can produce the most snazzy fanoos). All mosques and streets during the whole month are full of colored lights in a festival fashion, and in the past, children played in the streets with their lanterns, singing "wahawy ya wahawy". This tradition is still practiced, though rarely now in the streets, except in middle class or poor neighborhoods, and in the countryside.
With the introduction of TV in the 1960s, traditions changed. TV transmissions lasts 24 hours a day, and the programs include too many new serials and movies. More than half of the serials produced by the Egyptian TV are broadcast during Ramadan for the first time. another traditional program is the "fawazeer", which is a daily riddle usually broadcast during a comedy or musical show. The family is usually gathered around the TV for long hours, if they do not go for prayers. Nuts are consumed as a snack, together with a traditional drink "qamar el-deen1" which is made of apricot. Most people prefer to spend at least the first day in an extended family reunion, gathering in the home of the grand parents.
After the first few days, people start to go out after "iftar". Hence, many gatherings between families, friends or colleagues take place for the main meal, and for socializing afterwards. since many people prefer to spend their time in the old fashioned atmosphere of cafes, many hotels now actively market their facilities for this festive occasion. Today, it has become a tradition for all 5-star hotels to erect a large tent, furnished in the old Arabian decoration, where people enjoy their time listening to old traditional songs and music. It all recalls memories of the old classical days. "Sheesha" or water-pipes are smoked almost continuously.
Sports are also popular during Ramadan. Most clubs arrange minor tournaments, especially for football (soccer). Many people of all ages participate in games, including the elders who compete with their peers. It is not unusual to find many professional football players among these teams of amateurs. The issue is not to win, but to share. In poor districts where no clubs are available, the youth and children can utilize a side street or alley as a football field. During Ramadan, people become very tolerant of such activities, though they are not encouraged during other times of the year.
The show continues until late at night, and sometimes right up until the dawn prayers, after which people finally sleep. Of course, not everyone follows this routine. Many somewhat older people find it difficult to keep pace with these celebrations, and of course some must continue to work (for example, those in the tourism business). In the old days, the tradition was for man called a "mesaharaty" to walk down the streets before dawn with a drum. He would wake up the people by singing and calling their names. The mesaharaty was not paid a fixed salary but received donations, and though this profession is now extinct, amateurs continue to practice the tradition.
The worst experience a student might experience is if Ramadan coincides with exams. If possible, the exam timing is shifted by the school or university. But if this is impossible, then the fun may be lost. The majority of people fast during Ramadan, though according to Islam, the sick, travelers, elders and children are not required to follow this requirement. Since the days are longer in summer and the weather is hot, fasting sometimes become difficult. Children usually start demanding that their parents allow them to fast at an early age, though they are usually not allowed to do so before the age of ten, and then only for a short duration. The sick also try to fast, though of course this may be very difficult for them. In fact, no one would ever wish to miss a single day of fasting during this month, although it is possible to compensate later. It is not just the religious obligation, but also the atmosphere.
It is not considered good manners to outwardly make a display of not fasting. Though not illegal, those who do not fast would usually hide to eat, drink or smoke. Egyptian Christians also share also participate in most of these practices with their fellow Muslims. Some would also fast as a sign of national unity, but even those who do not would never eat or drink in public, as a sign of respect to Islamic traditions. Alcoholic drinks are prohibited throughout the month, and all bars are closed (with the exception of many tourist facilities)
On the last day of Ramadan, observatories again check for the new moon. The month ends after the 29th or 30th day, when the "eid" or feast begins.
1. This drink is usually made from from dried apricot sheets, or past, which is placed in boiling water. Qamar el-deem sheets, as they are called, can be found in many specialty Middle East markets. It is also used to make an apricot pudding.
Last Updated: June 9th, 2011