Ramadan: some advice for traveling to Muslim countries during the holy month of Islam

What is Ramadan?

Ramadan is the name of the sacred month of the Islamic calendar and according to one of the five principles of Islam, every healthy adult Muslim has the obligation to perform full fasting during the daylight hours, from dawn to dusk during this month. The number of hours which you must fast varies in each country, depending on the geographic location and the duration of daylight each day.

Ramadan, according to Muslim belief, coincides with the date when the Prophet Muhammad received the first revelation of the Koran, the sacred book of the Muslims.

The Islamic calendar is lunar and Ramadan is the ninth month of this calendar. Each month begins when the crescent moon becomes visible after the new moon. The lunar year is eleven days shorter than the solar year. Therefore, Ramadan begins on a different date each year. In 2019, the beginning of Ramadan was May 6 in most Islamic countries, and May 7 in Morocco.

Thus, during this month of fasting, a process of self-purification is carried out , in which all sins are forgiven. And in addition to a religious function, the sacred month has a sanitary function (purification of the body), mental (strengthens the will, reinforcing the sense of self-control) and moral (through empathy with those deprived of food).

Routines during Ramadan

The idea is to follow more or less the same daily routines but in general the schedules change a lot: during this month, the Muslims usually wake up between 3 and 4 in the morning, before dawn, to perform the suhur, the first meal of the day. After that they usually go back to sleep and start their day quite late if possible. Obviously they don’t drink or eat anything during the day until sunset, which is around seven or eight in Morocco. Then, when breaking the fast, iftar is celebrated, which literally means “break-fast” and which consists of large banquets mostly at home with the family and friends. Later, around 11 or 12 o’clock in the evening, they may or may not have dinner, depending on how big the iftar was and according to the hunger. The first day of Ramadan is the most special of the month and it is normal for the women of the house to spend several days cooking in advance.

During Ramadan, Muslims should pray more and be more generous than in the rest of the months of the year, helping their neighbors in need, maintaining pure moral and sharing as much time as possible with the family. During the night of the 27th day of the month of Ramadan, which is called “night of destiny”, they pray in the mosque throughout the night, and people often distribute food and money to the poorer.

How does this affect those of us who are traveling in Muslim countries during Ramadan?

When I learned that during our three-month trip through Morocco we would have the opportunity to experience Ramadan, far from appearing to be a problem, it seemed the opposite: to have the opportunity to live from within, in first person, the sacred month of the Islamic calendar is something that does not happen every day. I’m writing this one day after the end of Ramadan and I can confirm that I was not wrong. It was a great experience, especially for having lived it completely, from the beginning to the end.

For non-Muslims, or even for those Muslims who are traveling, it is not necessary to perform the fasting and you can live in your normal style. It will depend on you if you want to live this experience as protagonists and immerse yourselves in the local environment and customs or if you want to live it as observers. It will be a very different Ramadan if you accommodate, for example, through couch-surfing with local people or if you stay in a Riad run by expats, inside which probably there is no sign of Ramadan. We opted for the first option, and during the holy month we did three times couch-surfing with Muslims and also two volunteer jobs with Muslim families.

Anyway, it is important to take into account some details to avoid uncomfortable or undesirable situations as explained below:

It is important to know that during Ramadan, people’s schedules change a lot. As I said earlier, they wake up before dawn to have the first meal of the day and eat breakfast when the sun sets, which, depending on the case, can take several hours of preparation. This means that, if they have the possibility, they will sleep much more during the day and are much more active during the night, which can be a bit contrary to the “travelers clock” of those of us who are early risers by nature and use the day for exploring. If you are staying with Muslims who are practicing fasting, this will surely affect them in some way or another. There will be people who are awake and very active when you want to sleep and vice versa. It is important to know this and to be open and tolerant if you want to see what this experience is like accompanied by Muslims. Remember that this is the most important month of the year for them and many are looking forward to it. For example, when we were doing couch-surfing in Ouarzazate, with a Muslim family, it was 12 o’clock at night and after a long and very hot day we just wanted to sleep. Meanwhile, the women of the house prepared the kids to go for a walk in the park and the man went to work. As I said above: schedules change completely.

In large cities it is usually relatively easy to live “normally”, without Ramadan affecting the travelers much at all. The rule would be: the greater the amount of tourism the less need for adaptation. But as we go to smaller places, we will have to adapt more and more to these schedules and customs. In villages, it can be very difficult or almost impossible to find places to shop for groceries or eat something during the daytime. Or if there are open restaurants, they will be the most expensive and touristic ones, not those where the locals usually eat, which will be closed. This is why it is better to foresee it by making necessary grocery purchases the day before and not to depend on whether there are open shops and restaurants or not.

Regarding purchases, stores usually open much later than usual and close for a while at sunset, when everyone will be having their iftar (the exact schedule will depend on each country and whatever time of year it is). But with a little organization and planning, this can be handled without major problems.

Dates of Ramadan for the next years

Either to organize your trips in order to live Ramadan or to avoid it, I leave you the estimated dates of Ramadan for the next years.

April 24, 2020, April 13, 2021, April 2, 2022

Typical meals during Ramadan

This depends a lot on what is available in each country and it can vary a lot throughout the globe. In Morocco, where we lived it, they usually start with fresh dates accompanied by a glass of water, milk and juices.

Fresh dates, milk and fruit juices, warm-up

It is usual to continue with sweets, which have a great importance in the tables of Ramadan. In Morocco the typical sweet pastries for these dates are called Chebakia. They can have many different forms, but they are usually very similar to each other, filled with ground almonds and anise. It is normal to see them in shops surrounded by bees, but do not worry, this is so because they are coated with honey and sesame seeds.

Chebakia and bees, the indivisible combo of Ramadan

Another thing that is never missing at a Ramadan table in Morocco is the harira, a typical Moroccan hot soup that can be prepared with a variety of ingredients. We have tested so many different hariras that we come to the conclusion that there are no two equal and each family has its own recipe. The ingredients range from all kinds of vegetables to wheat, rice, lentils, meat, etc. Moroccans love it and eat it regardless of the climate. We have eaten harira in several of our iftars with local hosts, even with forty degrees of heat and drops of sweat sliding down our faces. On the record, the drops also passed by our wide smiles, because after all, we were having an authentic experience, which was what we wanted…

Some of the many hariras that we had in Fez, Chefchaouen and Imlil

Crescent moon, end of game

Both the beginning and the end of Ramadan, do not have an exact date set far in advance, but must witness the appearance of the crescent moon. This establishes the beginning and end of the month of Ramadan.

At the moment of finalization, the celebration of the Al Eid al-Fitr takes place. On this day the Muslims gather in large open spaces, specially prepared for the occasion, each carrying their praying carpet to thank Allah for his help during the month of fasting and his blessings. The tradition also includes eating something sweet before going to the celebration, using the best clothes you have and preferably new ones, bathing, perfuming if possible and returning home by a different path, among other things.

The celebration of Al Eid al-Fitr this morning in Taroudant, Morocco

We had the opportunity to see this celebration in Taroudant, a small city in the southwest of Morocco, where we are as I write these lines, a few hours after having attended the conclusion of the fast, at 7 o’clock in the morning.

We, ready to go to the celebration of Al Eid al-Fitr with typical local clothing

What we saw was shocking. A huge mass of people that did not stop arriving and that exceeded all our expectations. A synchronization in their actions and movements that take your breath away. Men in one sector, a second sector for women further back (something that often happens in the Islamic world, and is a theme on its own). The men in general, dressed in white, and the women dressed in all the colors that can be imagined. In the background, the mighty wall of Taroudant’s medina, forming a postcard in motion, that in another moment of our life would have seemed so distant, so otherworldly, so from another time and yet, now it was before our eyes…

Our experience fasting

So far came this collection of data and information useful for traveling through Muslim countries during the month of Ramadan. If you want to read about how our experience was fasting you can do it in this post:


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