Ramadan lamp in downtown Cairo
From a traveler’s perspective, one reads, there are good Ramadan countries and bad Ramadan countries. And we were led to expect that Egypt would be one of the greatest, with the streets erupting into all night parties every day as people break their fast. We also thought that, given the volume of tourism in Egypt, we would not actually be forced or feel pressured to fast ourselves. As we’ve discovered, traveling in Egypt in Ramadan has its pluses and minuses.
Ramadan in Egypt is observed far more strictly than we had thought. We certainly are having no trouble getting food in Luxor, which is a city that exists largely for tourism, but we did have a great deal of trouble finding open restaurants in downtown Cairo, once resorting to the Nile Hilton for lunch. Even McDonald’s and KFC were sometimes closed during the day (including the KFC across the street from the Giza Pyramids). (Compare this to a recent Turkey Ramadan story we heard, where a local McDonald’s was shuttered for privacy and full of Turkish customers, one of whom told the tourist upon friendly questioning that God couldn’t see inside the store.) A lack of restaurants is not only frustrating from a hunger perspective, but of course eating is one of the great joys of travel–eating at hotel or tourist restaurants is generally not as fun, not as tasty and far more expensive. Even where more local restaurants are open, the lack of local clientele makes eating less fun.
So how about the parties every night? That part was pretty much right. Everyone starts cooking starting mid-afternoon (rather early, I think–things must get overcooked; also, are things poorly seasoned because the cooks cannot check for flavor?). Tables are laid out on the streets. Starting about an hour before sunset, people start sitting down and waiting, and starting about twenty minutes before, prepared food is delivered all around town. A few minutes before the muezzin signals the end of the fast, the streets grow eerily quiet as people stop what they’re doing in order to break their fast.
Sunset over the Mediterranean in Alexandria. In some cities, a cannon was sounded to let people know the precise moment at which the sun had set and food could be eaten.
If you’re walking about the streets of Islamic Cairo or less touristy parts elsewhere in the country at this time, it’s quite likely that someone will invite you to their iftar (fast-breaking meal). Or, in many public places such as subway stops, youth will hand out some free beverage or snack (dates are popular) intended to pump some sugar into your blood, a nice custom that we believe is sponsored by local mosques.
Bread deliveries, shortly before sundown
But iftar isn’t about long, lingering meals or happening restaurants–it’s more about eating a lot very quickly. So, unless you’re invited to a fast-breaking meal, it’s unlikely that your dinner will be particularly fun. In fact, dinners were the sources of some of our greatest frustration, as we were often not allowed to order from the special Ramadan menus (which felt to us bizarrely inhospitable–like being refused a Thanksgiving menu because you’re not American or a Christmas set because you’re not Christian).
Eating in the streets
After the meal is when the real fun begins. All of the coffeehouses that were shuttered during the day fill up with customers. Especially in Islamic Cairo, around the touristy Khan Al Khalili, thousands gather for eating, shopping or just hanging about.
In Islamic Cairo
One minor inconvenience of Ramadan is shorter business hours, including at museums and other tourist attractions. We were initially concerned about this, but it ended up not being too big a problem. While the shorter hours mean a little more careful planning, things are generally open long enough–after all, in this heat, one cannot sightsee 8-9 hours straight every day.