As we find ourselves in the middle of the holy month of Ramzan, it’s a good time to learn to say ‘Ramzan Mubarak!’ – especially if you are considering travel around August and September to countries with a significant Muslim population like Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco and even within India. With a few pointers, you can join a happy Ramzan already in progress.
Know the basics
Ramzan is a lunar month dedicated to sawm, or fasting, one of the five pillars of Islam. From sun-up to sundown, the faithful abstain from food, drink, tobacco and sex to concentrate on spiritual renewal. After sunset, there’s the euphoric iftar, the meal to break the fast, followed by sahur, a meal before the sun comes up and fasting begins again. Yet Ramzan isn’t all daytime discipline and nightly parties: it’s a time of generosity and zakat, or charity, another of the five pillars of Islam. Fasting isn’t easy, so everyone slows down during the day – but you’ll also notice people going out of their way to extend small kindnesses.
Like any holiday, Ramzan affects business as usual, especially in Islamic countries. Many venues operate with limited hours and staff, so try to book accommodation, transport and tours via internet or phone before you arrive. Even if offices have posted hours, call ahead to ensure someone’s available to meet your needs. Most restaurants close by day, so pack lunches or reserve ahead at restaurants that open for lunch in tourist areas. In India, it will be more relaxed.
Shift your schedule
Nightly festivities trump early bedtimes during Ramzan. Sunset streets come alive with light displays, music and offers of sweets at every intersection. After an iftar of dates, soup or savoury snacks, people of all ages binge on sweets until the late-night feast – followed by more visits and sweets. There’s no rush to get up the next day, unless shopping is on the agenda. Stores often close in the afternoon, and bargaining is more pleasant before midday heat kicks in and lack of water is felt. As sundown approaches, the mood turns upbeat, with Ramzan finery on display and tantalising aromas filling the streets.
Get into the Ramzan spirit
Don’t worry: if you are not a Muslim, you won’t be expected to fast during Ramzan. According to tradition, even Muslim travellers are exempt from fasting – it’s hard to do at home under controlled conditions, let alone in unfamiliar places. To show your support, avoid eating or drinking on the street in front of people who are probably fasting, and grant people privacy at prayer times.
When a new friend offers you special Ramzan sweets or invites you to a family feast, polite refusal would be crushing. You’re not obliged to return the favour or eat the sweets: you honour givers just by accepting their generosity in the spirit of Ramzan. Kindness can be repaid by practising zakat, and giving to a local charity.
This article was originally written by Alison Bing and first appeared in www.lonelyplanet.com on August 2011. It was refreshed in July 2012.