Ramadan in Egypt


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 Coca-Cola

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.

Tourist Police

Favorite pasttime — reading the Quran

Many countries with a critical mass of tourism, especially in the developing world where the average person may not speak any English, often have separate “tourist police” forces. In every country we had been in, prior to Egypt, the essential functions of tourist police have been to act as English-speaking policemen for whatever visitors may need, to police tourist areas for additional security and peace of mind, to prevent tourists from interacting with “regular” police, who may not speak English or might be incompetent or corrupt, etc. Yes, it’s possible for tourist police to become involved if a tourist commits a crime, but really they’re there to aid tourists. To encourage tourism and tourism receipts.

Not in Egypt. Egypt has a very large “tourism and antiquities” police force, seemingly omnipresent, but they are not the helpful tourist police that travelers may have gotten used to in other countries. Nowhere have we met police, *tourist* police no less, whose job it seems to be not to aid tourists, but to harass them and otherwise get in their way, like the tourist police of Egypt. Even if the primary mission of the Egyptian tourist police is to deter terrorist acts against tourists, which have occurred with some frequency in Egypt [post to come], or there is a special concern in Egypt that tourists themselves may commit crimes (a relic of the days when tourists doubled as antiquities thieves), even then, the Egyptian tourist police should not be so useless to tourists, so negatively harassing.

1. Egyptian tourist police don’t speak English. Given that part of these people’s job description is to interact with tourists, wouldn’t it be useful if they were able to speak to tourists? Even superior officers frequently speak none or only a few words.

2. Egyptian tourist police beg for baksheesh. Now, petty bribery is common in many parts of the developing world, but nowhere have we seen police officers beg for tips. This is common behavior by tourist police at all Egyptian tourist sites. They ask for it in exchange for allowing you to enter restricted areas, for taking photos, for acting as informal guides or for doing nothing at all. Even a policeman guarding a police station asked us for a tip, with four other guards in earshot. Is this really the impression that the Egyptian government wants to give to tourists? That their police officers are beggars?

Acting as an informal guide

3. Egyptian tourist police may steal. I’m almost certain that I had my cell phone stolen during a security check at Philae Temple near Aswan. Most of the time, tourists are simply waved through security checks (perhaps too crude a profiling method), and so I didn’t pay too close attention to the guy going through my bag. Next time I looked–phone gone.

4. Egyptian tourist police are rude. Not only have tourist sites closed early because of Ramadan, but the guards close off sections of sites and try to have you out well in advance of even the early closing time. Given that admissions in Egypt are not cheap (often in excess of USD 10 per person), it is very upsetting, after you’ve paid for your ticket, to learn that much of the site is already closed or to be chased out early. After such an experience at the Egyptian Museum, I refused to leave until the proper Ramadan closing time, at which refusal all sorts of expletives and insults against my country were hurled at me and I was physically handled. Police may have threatened to detain or arrest us in other countries, but never have they stooped to this sort of base hostility, in this case for simply wanting to stay until the designated closing time.

One bizarre incident. We were visiting a small mosque in the “northern cemetery” region of Islamic Cairo. The mosque is famous–on one of the Egyptian bills–and a standard tourist attraction. When we showed up, a keeper of some sort started showing us around, as is usual, in expectation of a tip, or baksheesh. This was fine, especially since the mosque itself didn’t charge any admission. In the middle of our tour, the “guide” was called aside by a tourist policeman who had just entered, and returned to say that we had to leave because of the police. Now, there is no rule in Egypt that tourists cannot visit mosques (they actually make up a fair percentage of the sightseeing in Cairo), and this mosque was one that is quite prominently listed in guidebooks. We were mid-day, at no special time. Annoyed, we finished taking some pictures and exited, giving a few pounds to the custodian/guide at his request. The man then handed the money to the tourist police! You may think that forfeiting the baksheesh could have been some kind of punishment for showing us around, but not if you’ve been to Egypt. The most likely scenario was that the whole “chasing us out” was some sort of setup to encourage more tipping–to make us feel like we saw something that we weren’t “supposed” to see. Derek grabbed our money back.

Tipping, or Baksheesh!

Tipping culture varies across countries, and is one of the local customs that a traveler needs to know in order to behave appropriately in accordance with expectations. Failing to tip in New York is likely to get you a pretty nasty response, and we were once followed into the street by a waitress in Hong Kong who thought that we had accidentally left our money on the table. In any event, especially for Americans who are used to tipping, it’s not a big deal–whether a tip is expected or not, you can imagine that the total cost of service is in the end reflected in the total outlay, the only difference being whether it is included or not included in the price itself. In fact, one may even have a preference for tipping countries, since there is an incentive to provide better service (however patronizing that may seem).

Or at least that’s what I thought until I came to Egypt. In Egypt, tipping has merged with begging to result in nagging open hands absolutely everywhere you turn. It is not just requests for tips under ordinary circumstances (where someone has provided a service), such as one might expect. It is closer to begging, which in most countries is restricted to people who are genuinely in need, even if in some countries that segment of the population may be quite large. In Egypt, people who have done nothing for you at all, or perhaps worse just gotten in your way, people who are not particularly needy or underprivileged, constantly ask for handouts.

Situations where baksheesh is demanded: Guards at ruins, museums, etc., whose job it is simply to stand guard, ask you, on your way out, if you enjoyed the site and for baksheesh (asking for a pen if you refuse them money). People follow around the hot air balloons in Luxor trying to get their pictures taken so that they can ask for baksheesh. Custodians at mosques (including even the most holy, such as the Al Azhar) persistently pester you to go up the minaret (for which they have the key), so that they can get baksheesh. Guards inside tombs and the Egyptian Museum ask if you want to take pictures (ordinarily not permitted), so that they can get baksheesh. People offer you unsolicited directions and demand baksheesh. One small child asked for baksheesh for “helping” us off of a felucca, saying that he had “no mother no father.” One hotel front desk manager negotiated a baksheesh into the room rate (“50 for the room, 20 baksheesh”). Maddening.

Art Deco Is Egyptian

I did not even know the well-established fact that Art Deco was inspired by (if not outright lifted from) ancient Egyptian art, but even if I did, I think that seeing the extent of the influence would have been astonishing. Staring inside a four thousand year old tomb and having what looks like the facade of a New York skyscraper staring back at you is quite an uncommon deja vu experience.

Gay Egypt–A Pilgrimage

Actually, we haven’t made any attempt to find gay life in Egypt. As was widely publicized in 2001, the Egyptian government has developed a record of actively persecuting gay men in the country (with even some foreign tourists caught in raids, although released), and there appears to be little public gay life–not even as much as Iran (see post of 6.6). So far, the only “gay” activity we’ve experienced in Egypt is one somewhat elderly security guard trying to grope Derek in the dark of an underground tomb chamber and numerous disturbingly young boys offering sexual services for money in the tourist ghettoes of Luxor and Aswan. One also reads (although we did not encounter it) that felucca (Nile sailboat) captains offer more than just sailing services and that guards at Cairo’s Egyptian Museum have been known to hook up with tourists. Pretty unsavory stuff, though I’m glad to hear that all those empty sarcophagi are being put to some additional use.

But there was one special place to which I felt a pilgrimage absolutely mandatory: the joint tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep at Saqarra. I will leave the full background of the mystery to other websites (see http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/20/science/20egyp.html, http://www.egyptology.com/niankhkhnum_khnumhotep/), but the short story is that the tomb (from around 2400 BC) appears to be for the first gay couple in recorded history. (The more/less official line from the Egyptian Department of Antiquities is that they are brothers.) They were, believe it or not, Overseers of the Royal Manicurists.

Below are some pictures we took of the close pair.