Ramadan Mubarak! The Islamic holy month of Ramadan runs from the end of June to the end of July this year – and if you're planning on travelling to a Muslim-majority region during this time, you’re in for an utterly fascinating experience. In many places, including the UAE, Morocco, Tunisia, Indonesia and Egypt, daily life changes dramatically this month, giving visitors a chance to see a whole new side to these regions.
1. Know the basics
Ramadan is a lunar month dedicated to sawm, or fasting, one of the five pillars of Islam. From sun-up to sun-down, the faithful abstain from food, drink, tobacco and sex to concentrate on spiritual renewal. After sunset, there's a euphoric iftar (sunset meal that breaks the fast), followed by a very late-night suhoor (the pre-dawn meal). Yet Ramadan 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.
2. Plan ahead
Like any holiday, Ramadan affects business as usual and this definitely isn’t the best time to attempt a whistle-stop sightseeing marathon. Many venues operate with limited hours and staff, so try to book accommodation, transport and tours before you arrive. Plan your daytime meals in advance – international hotels will often carry on serving food, as will a limited number of restaurants (you’ll probably need to reserve a table). Packed lunches are also a good option, although you’ll need to make sure you have somewhere private to eat them. Always bring a bottle of water with you when you’re out and about, but be careful about where you swig from it. Finally, remember that alcohol will not be widely available, even in the evenings.
3. Shift your schedule
It’s all about the nightly festivities during Ramadan. Traditions vary from region to region, but everyone breaks fast with iftar at sundown, then there’s often a long night ahead of socialising with family and friends, followed by the late suhoor meal. In Morocco, streets come alive with light displays, music and offers of sweets at every intersection. While life pretty much goes on as usual in Turkey during Ramadan (or Ramazan as it's known here), look out for the iftar tents where people flock to break their fasts; these are often subsidised by the local municipality, offering cheap or free food and covering parks and pavements with tables. In the Gulf states, the often very glamorous Ramadan Tents are popular places to spend the night snacking, smoking shisha and playing games. Wherever you are, non-Muslims are almost always welcome to join iftar or hang out in the tents until the small hours.
4. Know the local law and customs
Check the laws of the country you’re travelling in before you arrive, as some places are much stricter than others about public observance of the fast. Non-Muslims aren’t expected to keep the fast themselves – according to tradition, even Muslim travellers are exempt. But at best, eating or drinking in front of people who are probably fasting is bad form, and at worst you can find yourself slapped with a hefty fine. It’s a good idea to dress more conservatively than you would normally, too.
5. Get in the Ramadan swing
This month is traditionally a time of great hospitality and generosity, so go ahead and accept Ramadan sweets or invitations to feasts, parties and family gatherings. You can always return the favour with gift boxes of food or by practising zakat, and giving to a local charity. It might take a while for your body clock to adapt to the local rhythms of quiet days and staying up all night, but you'll have a far more pleasant and interesting experience if you go with the flow. Twitter can help you stay on top of Ramadan timings this year. If you tweet pan-Arab news network @AlArabiya with the hashtag #iftar followed by the hashtagged name of your city (ie #Dubai), you’ll get an instant reply with your local iftar time.