Ramadan in Egypt, Pt. 1

It’s been a while since I’ve posted widely; apologies for that. Other than a visit from spouse in which we traveled all over Egypt for two weeks, my life in Cairo has been somewhat routine, with me on a schedule of home –> research –> home –> Arabic class –> home.

In other words, living the dream.

However, I am spending my first Ramadan in Egypt and wanted to spend some time describing what it’s like.

The Basics

What is Ramadan? I’m so glad you asked!

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar (sometimes referred to as the hijri calendar, as it has the prophet Muhammad’s flight–hijra–from Mecca to Medina in 620 as its beginning point, and often abbreviated AH or simply H).

Hijri dates are not fixed in place; the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, ten days shorter than the Gregorian calendar (and without leap years), so over the course of a 36 year cycle Ramadan (and the rest of the Islamic holidays) occur ten days earlier every year and wind up back where they started.

This year (2023), Ramadan began in Egypt at sunset on March 22 and will end at sunset on April 20. Dates can shift depending on geographic location because the month begins and ends with the sighting of the new moon.

Ramadan is the holiest month in the Islamic calendar; according to Qur’an 2:185, the prophet Muhammad received the first verse of the Qur’an during Ramadan (known as Laylat al-Qadr, or the night of power, although there is disagreement between the various madhhabs and sects as to exactly which night of the month that is).

Most people are aware that Ramadan is observed by fasting during the daytime: no eating, no drinking (no, not even water), no smoking, no sexual activity. No bad thoughts is also supposed to be on this list, but I’m not sure how that works in combination with the other four (I get cranky without food and am mystified by people who “just forget to eat.”).

“But what if …”

So, since I’m envisioning this post as something of an educational resource, let me acknowledge some familiarity with the ability of students in middle school (and undergraduates) to come up with infinite hypothetical questions and scenarios with which to bombard teachers.

“What if you’re on a spaceship and the sun sets every 90 minutes…” for example (answer: Mission Control usually follows a set time–with NASA it’s Houston time–so you’d just follow that. There have been religious opinions (fatwas) issued to address living in areas where the sun doesn’t really set in the summer — if I recall the most recent one was that Muslims who live in, say, Norway can fast according to the schedule in Mecca, which is much closer to the equator.)

But, in my experience, the answer to the basic question at the heart of most of questions is this:

If fasting is going to harm you, you’re not supposed to do it. Fasting is supposed to be an act of faith, not an act of self-harm.

So, for example, people who don’t have to fast include:

  • children who are too young to fast
  • women who are pregnant or menstruating
  • the elderly
  • anyone with a medical condition that is incompatible with or would be made worse by fasting (diabetics, people who have medication that must be taken on a regular schedule with food, etc.)
  • someone who is literally starving to death
  • travelers are also on this list, although some people exploit this loophole; for a long time it was not uncommon for unscrupulous wealthy folk from other parts of the Middle East to rent out a hotel suite in Cairo for the month so they could claim they were “traveling.” This doesn’t seem to be a thing anymore, although maybe most of them are going to Dubai or Beirut these days.

In Egypt, for example, most restaurants that are open during the day during Ramadan put up curtains or screens or something to allow people to eat with privacy (and to avoid rubbing it in the face of those who are fasting), but it’s not like you’re wandering around a desert with no hope of finding anything to eat. Supermarkets are open normal hours, and cafes may not be as full as usual but they still have customers. There are plenty of tourists, foreign residents, and, in addition to the above, 15% of Egypt’s population of 100+ million is Christian — mind you, the Copts have their own fasting regime for Lent

It’s really no one’s business if you’re not fasting:

Enough with the food already!

However, all of this emphasis on fasting, especially in, say, American school textbooks, tends to give a pretty dour impression of what Ramadan is all about.

For example, this ad for the South African peri-peri chicken franchise Nando’s shows a young man eagerly waiting for sunset (it looks like it was filmed in Dubai).

The Nando’s advert was notable because, given the realization among companies in majority non-Muslim nations that Muslim families tend to have buying power, there’s been some well intentioned (as in, the stuff the road to Hell is paved with) efforts to try to be more inclusive in advertising, especially in the past few years.

The Nando’s ad is one of the better ones–I have definitely seen people sitting at tables waiting out the last few minutes before breaking the fast, although usually it’s done with soup and a date.

However, some of the American entries this year were a bit cringe, such as this ad (with commentary from the friend who posted it on Instagram):

Oh my. Where to start with this one?

  • That’s not the hand gesture Muslims make while praying … and normal prayer isn’t done at the table like that either.
  • It appears to be the middle of the day.
  • If it’s just mom, dad, and kid, she probably wouldn’t have her hijab on.
  • And what in the world is on top of their plates?

A for effort, D for delivery.

For the record, the reason for all the hype is that said companies have caught on to the fact that there are other parts of Ramadan. There is lots (and lots, and lots) of food. And, even more notably, Eid al Fitr, which comes at the end of the month, is one of the main gift-giving holidays on the Islamic calendar.

Today’s home page of Amazon Egypt, for example, looks like this:

When Ramadan began … and I do mean, at the exact minute Ramadan began … I got at least 15 texts and notifications from various shopping apps wishing me a blessed month and sending a promotional code. Including one of the beer and wine delivery services (which I realized much, much later was actually a subtle note saying they’d see us when the month was over).

So … what does Ramadan look like?

This post is getting a bit long, so I’ll stop with the basics. In the next installment, I’ll share what it’s been like in Cairo this month!

Read now!