Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Letters from Egypt: A Foreigner’s Guide to Ramadan

Taken while at a Ramadan tent for police in Heliopolis
We would like to inform you that if you have any business with the Middle East during the next month, please be advised nothing will be accomplished. Ramadan has officially begun. However, after Eid, business should return to normal (which isn't much different).

If this is your first Ramadan, you are in for a treat – ah hem, several frustrations. I remember my first Ramadan, and it was anything but thrilling. I had only moved here about two months prior and I didn’t know anyone. NO ONE can prepare you for what to expect during the Muslim Holy month. I spent most of my afternoons reading at a café, and I soon became aware that I had better get there before iftar (meal breaking fast) and give my order. Otherwise, I could be waiting for awhile before remotely seeing a server. Wait, I take that back. You will see your server. He’s usually praying and then sitting at a nearby table eating. If you ask for something, he will probably look at you as though you’re crazy for remotely asking because he hasn’t eaten all day.

You will spend the first week in your office listening to the constant complaints from your colleagues as to how hungry, thirsty and/or how tired they may be (don’t worry, this will continue throughout the month, you just build a tolerance to it). And you’re thinking, “Hold on a minute buddy, often times I’m so busy at work that I don’t have a chance to eat or forget about eating and I’m not always complaining.” Just make sure you don’t voice those thoughts, but be clear – we’re all thinking the same thing.

And there’s something even more about Egypt during Ramadan. The country changes its clocks back an hour – just for Ramadan – so those adhering to the month do not have to go for too lengthy of a time fasting. Yet Muslims around the world do not get that luxury. So that brings up another thought: if the idea to fast is to understand what it is like for the underprivileged, why are special allowances made?

If you do know other people here or if this isn’t your first Ramadan, you’ve been to an iftar. So that also raises yet another question: if the idea to fast is to understand what it is like for the underprivileged, then can you please tell me what poor person wakes up in the morning and says, “I will not eat while the sun is up, but when the sun goes down, I will eat my weight and then some, take a nap, eat more, smoke shisha, and then eat more before I sleep until tomorrow’s sun down.” Just some food for thought.

This is what happens when your friends take you for iftar and refuse to drop you off until after sa7our (4 am-ish)
However, as a foreigner, you might find this time a little trying. So mixed in with some fun activities that I personally like about Ramadan, here is my list of Ramadan Do’s.

•    Carry your passport any time you wish to have alcohol because if you look slightly Arab (ermm brown hair and brown eyes, ha), you will not be served unless you can show proof of another nationality. The places that serve alcohol can be held liable for serving you if you are a local, and could be arrested. This is to protect you and the owner.
•    Get all of your groceries or other shopping done from 13:00-17:00, and then again from 21:00 until closing (although it will be a madhouse at any time). Some places that cater to expats might be open earlier, but note that operating hours change for businesses during this month.
Carrefour during Ramadan 2009
•    If you’re like me and always acquire bruises while venturing to Carrefour to grocery shop, let me tell you – shopping during iftar is one of the best experiences you will ever have (alternatively, you will need a car to at least get from Carrefour because price gauging there is already bad, it gets worse during this time and any attempt to thrwart it will have religious rhetoric immediately thrown your way)
•    The streets are empty, so while it is normally difficult (okay, damn near impossible) to walk/jog in Cairo streets – this is the perfect time to get your fill. So take that stroll around your neighborhood without worrying about getting run down by a microbus, cab, or just a typical Cairo driver.
•    While many bars will be closed, please look below to a list of cool places that in case you want to continue your debaucherous ways, you can still do so (which you need to be thankful for because other countries you would not have such a luxury)
•    It is customary to give those less unfortunate around you a monetary gift (like you would at Christmas), ie your bowab, drivers, etc. What you give them is up to you and a one-time gift will suffice. I don’t usually give money, but I give presents like each year I buy Sha’maa, my sweet office girl, a very nice higab (as I absolutely love this little girl and want her to be the prettiest when she goes to her village near Fayoum for the Eid celebrations) and other new clothing items (or really anything that I can see that she needs).

Another point of interest is that it is more difficult to haggle during this time. Price gauging will increase exponentially. So be prepared.

Some of my favorite Ramadan treats:

Om Ali:

An Egyptian dessert that is cooked pieces of puff pastry combined with nuts, raisins, and coconut covered in hot, sweetened milk. It is said that Om Ali was the first wife of Sultan Ezz El Din Aybek, and when the sultan died, his second wife had a dispute with Om Ali. The argument resulted in the second wife’s death and to celebrate, Om Ali made this dessert and distributed it throughout the country.

Hummus Esham:
If you like bloody mary’s or spicy V8 juice, you’re going to love love LOVE this drink (if it’s made correctly). It is like a warm, spicy, perhaps salsa-like drink made with tomato juice with whole chick peas and spices.

Now onto the Don’ts which are VERY IMPORTANT

•    Be mindful that those around you are fasting which means during daylight, NO FOOD, NO DRINK (including water), and NO CIGARETTES. Do not – no matter how frustrated you will get – throw it in others’ faces so to speak.
•    Do NOT smoke on the streets
•    Females – dress EXTRA conservative as there is no sex during this time either, so if you thought harassment was bad before, let me assure you it can be even worse. I disagree with others who say this culture is sexually deprived because I have NEVER seen a culture that thrives more on sexual activity. To put it bluntly, the French ain’t got nothing on Egypt! So for them to refrain from sexual activity for a month is probably harder than the food/water bit. To me, dressing more conservatively is probably the BIGGEST piece of advice I can offer you.
•    Try NOT to get a cab right before iftar. More accidents happen right before iftar as many are rushing to get home and with a lack of food and sleep makes this venture a very dangerous path. Just when you thought the drivers here could not get worse, oh but they can. 5elibelik (take care)

Places to Go for the Expats

Alcohol is still allowed for those of us carrying a foreign passport (remember to place it in your bag before leaving your apartment), but there aren’t as many options during this time. Here are a few that can help you out:

•    Hotel bars sans the Grand Hyatt (the Hyatt is owned by a Sheikh and is one of the only hotels in which you will not be able to have an alcoholic beverage, and no, although Hard Rock is located on the premises, that means those pretty colorful beverages will only be a tease during this month)
•    The Odeon – Downtown near Tahrir Sq, off of Talaat Harb Street
•    Nomads – rooftop bar located in Dokki at the Kings Hotel near the cinema
•    BCA – Heliopolis, Mohandaseen and now Maadi
•    Ace Club – Medan Victoria, Maadi
•    The Greek Club – unfortunately due to its secrecy, I don’t know the exact location except that it’s downtown. Rumor had it that you must be Greek or be with a Greek to enter – not true.

FYI – Drinkies will be closed. If you would like to have alcohol at home, purchase from the Ace Club and rumor also has it that you may obtain some goodies from The Deli (Rd 216 in Maadi). I’m unsure if the BCA sells alcohol, but I would assume so. Granted, all of these are going to come at a hefty price, more than usual.

Yes, you’re going to be increasingly frustrated with many things here during this next month, particularly if you are working here and/or require work to be done for you. However, there are also some cool things to do and if you get a chance to go to an iftar, I highly recommend it. So set back and get geared because it’s Ramadan. Besides, it’s all about the Egyptian experience and it’s up to you to make it enjoyable.

With friends enjoying sa7our (last meal before fast begins)


  1. Massaouds will still sell alcohol, but they up their prices during Ramadan.

  2. Thanks for reminding me of Om Ali. I LOVE LOVE LOVE it. I have to make it now. ;-)

  3. hi :) very interesting blog... i am sad that this is your experience during Ramadan, but there are many people who do remember the reasons for Ramadan and it can be a beautiful experience. Fasting isnt only to understand what it is like for the underpriveleged but to feel closer to God, and how much we rely on Him. In fact for those who complain, God may not accept their fasting! Alhamdullilah I have never heard such complaints from the Muslims I am around, but it is great to hear other people's perspectives.

    Also about the food - Egyptians eat so much anyway, I dont get it! I can hardly eat at all for like 2 weeks after Ramadan starts lol

    I get frustrated here as a MUSLIM and being married to an Egyptian, but seeing things from your point of view really makes me feel better at my experiences - which is saying quite a bit, since I would love to take the first plane out of here!