Ramadan Kareem is what foreigners need to learn to say today and during the rest of Ramadan, allowing the greeting to roll off the tongue morning, noon and night, especially for the next week.
The first 7-10 days of Ramadan is very much family time and if you are new to Cairo, use the evenings to travel around the city while it’s quiet, because for the last three weeks of the holy month, Cairenes socialize and fill the cafes, restaurants and hotels until it is time for sohour in the early hours and finally sleep until the early afternoon, if you belong to a certain social class, that is.
The first week of Ramadan is also the time to visit Islamic Cairo, especially Al-Hussein Square and Khan Al-Khalili. The prayers which are called here bring solace to the faithful waiting to break their fast. And with the firing of the canon from the Citadel, people calmly begin to eat, in a genteel way and not the frenzied state you may expect when one hasn’t eaten or drunk all day.
If you are invited to iftar, I always believe there are three simple rules. Firstly, arrive early and with an appetite as you do not want to embarrass your host. Secondly, bring a generous gift such as a tray of sweets or nuts and mixed fruit. Thirdly, do not rush away, hang out, share the shisha pipe and tell entertaining stories.
As a foreigner working in Egypt, depending on circumstances of course, you should invite your immediate colleagues to your home for iftar. Spice it up with something from your own culture, such as a BBQ or fondue, and don’t forget to provide an obvious place for people to smoke.
You will see tables and chairs set up on the side-walk, which are sponsored by local businesses. People attend these free iftars because they cannot get home for one reason or another, or they just don’t have a lot. Don’t be shy, you can join in if you desire and if you pulled out a packet of cigarettes following the dates and bread you would earn serious street credit.
Be generous during Ramadan, smile and be up-beat and life will find a way to reward your kindness.
Tip your maid with extra cash (LE 100), but your bawwab with a tray of nicely presented sweets, nuts and fruits. Give your driver something he can take home like a kilogram of chicken or the hind-quarter of a lamb. Give small tips (LE 10-20) to those who make your morning coffee, open doors, run errands and who generally make your life a breeze.
People who you deal with daily will remember your kindness during the year.
Ramadan is a celebration, so be sure to get out in the cool of the late evening to take in the sights and sounds of the city. A felucca ride is a wonderful tradition and if you are working, hang out for sohour one Thursday night, so you can sleep it off until late on Friday.
Try fasting for the day, but keep it to yourself. It is interesting to experience the ebb and flow of energy, the ups and downs during the day, and the listlessness that comes just before iftar and then the serenity which precedes the breaking of the fast.
Plan your day as well if you are new to the city. Shops and supermarkets often close mid-afternoon and reopen around 8 pm. Do not expect too much from tradesman, your bank and most private schools; they will finish their day early. If traveling, leave the two hours either side of iftar out of your schedule.
Must do Ramadan activities, especially if you are new to Cairo: have to see the Sufi dancing at the Ghouriya, adjacent to the footbridge in the Khan. Enjoy the remarkable peace of Downtown during iftar and a late night on the roof of the Odeon Palace Hotel.
Obviously the first thing all foreigners do to prepare for Ramadan is to get the beers in, but if you haven’t organized your Ramadan cellar, there are always ways around any convention. Just ask.
Lastly, you need to think about Eid El Fitr, the holiday following Ramadan. Book early, book now, as everywhere fills up fast. Or of course, stay local and have fun in Cairo as Cairenes shop, celebrate and feast.
Ramadan Kareem to everyone.