By Chantal Blake

Just in case you missed the memo, Ramadan has arrived.  Muslims all over the world are well-aware of this fact but if you like to travel, this holy month might become significant to you too.  In Muslim-majority countries, Ramadan is unlike other months.  Although fasting from dawn to sunset is an individual act of worship, there are often societal signs of abstinence that can make or break your itinerary in a Muslim country.  So, let’s start with the basics.

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar.  Because the calendar is lunar, Ramadan is not a fixed event annually.  In this month, many adult Muslims abstain from food, drink, and marital relations from dawn to sunset.  If they are unable to do so, they can feed others in place of fasting.  Beyond physical abstinence, Muslims are expected to restrain themselves from anger, malice, and stinginess.  Virtues of patience, forgiveness, and generosity are emphasized instead.  Early morning meals taken before the fasting begins are usually at home, whereas collective fast breaking meals can be shared at mosques or in large gatherings.  Traditionally, the fast ends at sunset with dates and milk or water.  Some cultures may add soups, appetizers, or sweets to this fast-breaking meal called iftar, with a larger meal taken later in the evening.

What to expect?

In many Muslim countries throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia, daily schedules might be shortened to accommodate those who are fasting.  Depending on the country, schools and universities might be closed, and work might be relegated to night shifts.  Regardless of a particular country’s habit, it’s important to realize that many businesses, including restaurants, may close from mid-day until the early evening and stay open until very late at night. In some Muslim societies, institutions cater to the needs of the non-Muslim expatriate community by remaining open and available. It really depends on the particular country, city, or village.

How might this affect your travels?

Some people love the festive nights of Ramadan, since people tend to stay up late eating, socializing, and compensating for the somber days of fasting.  Invitations for dinner are generally abundant–even to guests who don’t observe the fast–and acts of charity and kindness abound.  On the other hand, some travelers hate the restrictions on business and dining hours in Ramadan.  You might hear the recitation of the Holy Quran more abundantly than pop music.  Also, the mad dash to get home by sunset can lead to speeding on the roads and some hunger-induced agitation.  Regardless, all travelers should be aware and consider the following etiquettes in Ramadan:

Avoid eating and drinking outdoors during the daylight hours. It’s also a good rule of thumb to avoid such in the presence of fasting Muslims as a courtesy
When invited to a fast-breaking meal with others, eat with your right hand and take from what’s closest to you. Keep in mind that in many Muslim societies, meals are served on large collective platters. Observing such rules of dining etiquette will positively set you apart
Share the greetings of Ramadan Mubarak (Blessed Ramadan) and Ramadan Kareem (Generous Ramadan) if you so wish

If you stick around long enough to celebrate the Eid holiday immediately following Ramadan, you’ll have the opportunity to see a people awaken by dawn, dressed in their finest clothing to attend congregational prayer, and spending time with friends and family.  The Eid celebrates the commencement of Ramadan. It is usually observed with feasts, family get-togethers, and sweets. Muslims are even obligated to pay an alms to the poor amongst them so that the destitute can also celebrate the Eid. In some traditional Arab societies, it is not uncommon to find young men with rifles on the Eid. But rest assured that they are not for you! Their Kalashnikovs serve moreso as firecrackers than firearms.  With these tips, you should be in the know about Ramadan happenings around you, whether observed at home or abroad.

This article was originally published on Ethos International.

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