I believe that today is the first day of Ramadan. It's supposed to start on or around today, but you can't know for certain until the night it starts. You see, Ramadan is a month in the Islamic calendar, which is lunar. The month begins when religious authorities see the first sliver of the new moon with the naked eye, and it will end when religious authorities see the first sliver of the next new moon, probably around September 19. It was anticipated that it would be seen last night, and if it was, it will have been announced via TV, radio, and newspapers. But since I don't watch Egyptian TV, listen to Egyptian radio, or read Egyptian newspapers typically, I would have to make a special effort to find out, and I just haven't done that yet.
So why does it matter if Ramadan has started yet? After all, for most purposes, Egyptians use the same calendar we do, so I don't even know the names of the other Islamic months, much less care when they start or end. But Ramadan is special.
Ramadan is considered a holy month by Muslims. It is the month in which they believe that the first verses of the Quran were revealed to Mohammed by Allah. One of the five "pillars" of Islam concerns the month of Ramadan: Muslims--at least the ones who are not prevented by health reasons--are to fast from sunrise to sunset during this month. They are to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and having sex during the day. The fast is supposed to turn their hearts and minds toward Allah and spiritual concerns, including prayer and worship. It disciplines their bodies and helps them to regain control of their earthly desires. Because of the benefits of observing Ramadan, a typical greeting is "Ramadan kareem" (Ramadan is generous). The appropriate reply is "Allahu akram" (God is more generous).
The fast is broken each evening. The sunset call to prayer signals the end of the fast; at that time, the iftar meal begins. (I believe that iftar literally means breakfast, but I'm not certain of that.) Traditionally, the meal begins with a thin soup followed by a main course of fuul (a yummy bean dish) and/or meat served with vegetables, starches, and pickles. Drinks include karkadeh (hibiscus tea), tamr hindi (tamarind tea), and 'amar il-din (apricot juice). Dessert is always very sweet: konafa (a raisin and nut cake), 'atayif (a crepe with syrup, usually stuffed with nuts and raisins), or khushaf (fruit and nuts soaked in apricot juice). Iftar often is celebrated communally, with extended family, friends, and neighbors. It is popular among those who can afford it to go to a restaurant for iftar, as restaurants often have special menus for Ramadan. (If I were a Muslim woman, I'm pretty sure I would prefer going to a restaurant for iftar--can you imagine preparing a feast when you're hot, thirsty, and hungry, yet you still can't have so much as a sip of water? I do sympathize with Muslims who work in restaurants during this time!)
After iftar, life often turns to what would be normal during the day at other times of year. Many stores stay open until midnight or later (often not opening until late morning or afternoon, and closing during iftar), so people do their shopping then. They also socialize and celebrate until the wee hours.
Just before sunrise, Muslims eat another meal called suhoor. Suhoor usually is a lighter meal than iftar. It consists of fuul, yoghurt, fruit, cottage cheese, and/or eggs. Wise Muslims also will drink water at this meal, since they won't have any more throughout the long, hot day!
During the day, life is much slower than it is at other times of year. Many will go back to sleep after suhoor, since they stayed up so late the night before. Many businesses have shorter hours during Ramadan, and most restaurants (at least those that don't cater mostly to expats) will close. Traffic is very light in the mornings, which makes for the easiest and quickest commutes ever known in large cities. However, non-Muslims would do best not to leave work in the evenings until sunset, because traffic in the hours preceding iftar--beginning around 2pm--is at its craziest as people race home. For the unlucky ones who are not able to make it home in time, it is common to see people standing on street corners around iftar time, handing out bottled water and dates (a very popular food here, particularly during Ramadan) to passing motorists at no charge, as a charitable activity, which is one of the pillars of Islam. Wealthy individuals also support the ma'idat al-Rahman (literally, "table of the merciful"), which are iftar feasts held in public venues where anyone--particularly the poor or homeless--can come to break his or her fast.
The end of Ramadan is marked by Eid al-Fitr. During this 3-day "Feast of Fast-Breaking," parents give gifts of money and clothing to their children. Families and friends share large meals. Large congregational prayers are held. Small villages hold fairs. Jeff should get two of those days off work (it'll probably start on a Saturday, so the last two days will be embassy holidays).
Last year during Ramadan, I had only been here for a few short months. I was still getting used to being in Egypt at all; Ramadan was simply a month to get through, waiting for things to get back to normal so I could continue adjusting. This year, I probably still won't do much in observance of Ramadan--after all, I'm not Muslim. However, I would like to participate in an iftar meal as a cultural experience (maybe even skip lunch that day so it feels a little more authentic; I won't even pretend that I would fast all day or not drink water, though). Some of Jeff's friends from work are planning to go to a restaurant together for iftar one evening, and I'm looking forward to that. Other than that, my "participation" in Ramadan probably will consist of not eating or drinking in public during the day, although I'll eat and drink normally at home, and I won't avoid going to restaurants that are open during the day (I will avoid outdoor seating areas and window seats, however). I'll also be extra-careful when out and about between around 2pm and sunset--I've gotten accustomed to Egyptian traffic, but during the race-home-for-iftar rush, it reaches new heights of insanity.
I don't know if any Muslims read this blog, but if so: Ramadan Kareem! (And I whole-heartedly agree, Allahu akram.)
Information for this post was taken from two articles in the 20 August 2009 issue of The Niler (the newsletter for the "mission community"--everyone associated with the U. S. mission to Cairo). One article was a management notice providing information to mission members about Ramadan, what to expect, and appropriate behavior. The other was adapted from Egyptian Customs and Festivals by Samia Abdennour.)