A survey of Egypt, Part II: Ramadan Kareem
Ramadan Kareem is a greeting, meaning basically "Ramadan is good". It is not unlike Christians greeting each other with Merry Christmas, except this expression is used by Muslims during their holy period of Ramadan, which is one of Islam's greatest celebrations. I am no expert on Ramadan, not being a Muslim, but I can explain a bit about it in relationship to how it affects tourists.
Though not Muslim, Ramadan is an inspiring tradition that reflects well on Islam. While Christians give presents to their friends and family during Christmas, Muslims give food and money to the poor, as well as to travelers and others who cannot otherwise stop to eat during Ramadan. In fact, at several points on my journey in Egypt, I was a recipient of food handed out on the streets. Food is supplied by many different groups, including wealthy individuals, restaurants and other foundations, that often set up tables along the street for this purpose. No one goes hungry, and even though most Muslims fast during Ramadan, spirits remain high in expectation of Fitar, the breakfast that takes place around 6:00 PM, but usually begins a tad earlier.
During the day, from just after 4:00 am when the first prayer is called, Muslims who fast do not take anything by mouth until Fitar. This means no water, no food or cigarettes. Sex is also not allowed, and women who adhere to the tradition wear no makeup and dress more conservatively, though often in their finest garments, with head scarves.
Nevertheless, people frequently gain weight during Ramadan, because there is a lot of food and sweets served during Fitar, and a lot of indulgence afterwards. Restaurants are often expanded to meet the additional capacity onto the street. People stay up longer than usual, visiting with family and friends and enjoying the celebrations surrounding Ramadan, and mornings usually get off to a late start.
How all of this affects tourism depends on what one is interested in and the type of tour one is taking. Obviously, for those interested in a cultural exchange when visiting Egypt, Ramadan is an excellent time to visit and experience Egypt. This is a great time to learn about Egypt's customs and traditions. During the Ramadan period, and particularly during and after Fitar, spirits are high, people are dressed in their best clothing, and there is much activity on the streets, except on the first day when many people eat in and visit with their families.
For tourists simply in Egypt to see the sights, how their tours will be affected by Ramadan depends considerably on the type of tour they are taking. Well planned upscale tours confined to four and five star hotels in well established tourist areas such as Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and Aswan will hardly see any difference between Ramadan and the rest of the year. These hotels will function mostly, if not entirely, as normal and the tours will be arranged so as to seamlessly take into account any changes in monument operating hours. Only if the tourist ventures outside of the tour, perhaps for an independent shopping visit, might they be affected by Ramadan. Also, there is virtually no difference between Ramadan and the rest of the year at major beach resorts such as Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada, where the party never ends, nor does the entertainment.
Budget and independent tours can be more affected by Ramadan. For example, some three star hotels that might ordinarily serve liquor and beer in their bars might not do so during Ramadan, and even food services in restaurants can be curtailed, though in normal tourist destinations, there will be other places to eat or to buy a drink. I might note that the three star Hotel Longchamps, my home away from home in Cairo, functioned the same as usual during Ramadan. Their bar was open and food was served, but they were about the only three star hotel I stayed in on my trip that did so. However, many establishments have somewhat different hours. I noted that even Hardee's, one of my favorite fast food joints in Cairo, didn't open until 12:00 noon, while normally their hours begin at 11:00 am. However, one certainly has an easy time getting service during the day, as most people are fasting and restaurants therefore have few customers. Even Muslims who are not fasting will usually keep a low profile, avoiding eating in public.
While the Khan el-Khalili seems to operate fairly normally during Ramadan, other stores and shops may maintain vastly different hours. Many will be closed during the hours of Fitar, which might last from about 5:30 pm until as late as :30 pm, but will open afterwards and stay open late. Many stores will open later than usual, and little if anything outside of major tourists hotels will operate prior to 10:00 am.
Iftar is celebrated on the street at an expanded, popular restaurant in Alexandria
Traffic can also be an issue during Ramadan, and particularly just before the start of Fitar, as people rush to their first meal of the day.
Personally, I soon discovered that it was a good idea to plan my day around Fitar, in order to accommodate my crew while doing the survey. In other words, we found a stopping point for Fitar so that everyone could eat, and have that much needed cigarette before continuing on with our work often late into the night.
In the end though, Ramadan was not much of a problem. One simply has to plan around it a bit, and culturally, it is a great time to visit Egypt.