“When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”, goes the saying. Some countries are very similar to Italy, others less so. That’s why it can be helpful to know the customs and traditions of the destination of the trip you want to take so you can avoid bad figures.
The holy month of Ramadan
A particularly sensitive time to visit Islamic countries is the month of Ramadan, which in this 2018 begins at sunset on May 16 and will end at sunset on June 14. Beginning and ending are determined by the lunar calendar: Hilal, the crescent moon, marks its beginning, while the next moon,Shawwal, begins Eid al-Fitr, the end of fasting. During this month, from Morocco to Malaysia, Turkey to Somalia, Islamic believers will abide by certain rules to celebrate the Quran’s revelation to Muhammad. Observing fasting and prayers is crucial because Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam.
Some minor behavior advice
Last year I was living in Sudan and during the Ramadan period I had to modify my behavior slightly to avoid being rude. In fact, there are small gestures, such as chewing gum, that are seemingly harmless to us but might instead annoy those who are fasting. These are small shrewdnesses that, if followed, make life easier for everyone.
So I avoided chewing gum and eating candy in public, also because, for fasting to be valid, one must not ingest anything, some even advise against using toothpaste and eye or ear drops. Clearly during daylight hours, after sunset things change.
Personally, I tried fasting and found that it takes a great deal of self-control and willpower, which alas I lacked. Not so much for food but for water: that was the real tragedy. Do not drink when temperatures fluctuate between 45 and 50 degrees is extremely difficult, requiring great mental strength, especially when headaches and fatigue prevent any movement. It was clear to me from day one that I would not be able to fast for the entire period, but still wanting to share the experience with friends and colleagues, I chose a middle ground good-naturedly dubbed “european fasting” That is, I was not eating, but drinking. This hybrid was always viewed with admiration, of course, as a non-Muslim I had neither constraints nor obligations to keep the fast, however the very fact that I tried and approached what they did was always appreciated. At no time was I told that I could not eat or drink, never did anyone try to convince me to follow Ramadan. I have read different experiences on the Internet, but I don’t want to go into that; my experience is limited to Sudan and my circle of acquaintances.
Whether you are an expat in an Islamic country, or traveling, in order not to be disrespectful, these are tips on how to behave. Warning, the guidelinesare generalized, so they may vary from country to country.
What to do, point by point
- Wish happy Ramadan to your friends and colleagues by saying “Ramadan Murabak” (رمضان مبارك) which can be translated as “Ramadan bless you” or, less formally, “Ramadan Kareem” (رمضان كريم) which literally means “Ramadan be generous.”
- Embrace the philosophy-it is not just a religious celebration, it is a time of reunion and fellowship. Take the opportunity to introduce yourself to the community, knock on neighbors’ doors and participate in Iftar: the meal after sunset that ends the fast. Often Iftar is celebrated in public places, outdoors, perhaps on a lawn in a park. If as you walk they invite you to sit and eat with them, accepted! And a sign of respect and friendship. But remember to eat in moderation, especially if you have not fasted.
A welcoming example:
This photo depicts the preparation for Iftar in the central market, the souq in the heart of Khartoum. When the sun sets, the imam will kick off the breaking of the fast and passersby can sit on the green carpets to eat the first meal of the day. Anyone can participate and anyone passing by will be invited.
Public spaces, especially green ones, are widely used: in this large park the people of Khartoum gather and together celebrate the fasting day that has just passed. Families, friends, passersby, all gathered to eat, drink tea, play ball, cards or Ludo, the most popular dice game.
- Try fasting – If not a full day, try skipping a meal to test your self-control; the food, when you stay, will taste completely different. When breaking the fast, always start by eating a few dates and drinking a juice; gorging or eating fast is definitely not recommended.
- If you receive an invitation for Iftar, bring something to eat or drink, clearly NOT alcoholic. Remember that the party is such only if it is shared!
[galleria]These three photos collect typical Sudanese dishes that are generally eaten during Iftar. On the circular platter are tomatoes and salad, olives and cheese, felafel (or falafel), the classic and timeless beans, meat, and the quintessential signature dish: Asida. Questa è una specie di polenta nostrana servita con varie salse tra cui Tagalia, my favorite, which is made by mixing tomato sauce and….nut butter. Delicious!
On the green carpet are felafel, fried chicken, beans, yogurt sauce, and rolls similar to Chinese spring rolls and Indian samosas.
The last photo is a take on spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino. Listen to this: you cook the spaghetti, when it is cooked, you (s)cook it some more. Then you drain them and add industrial quantities of sugar, pour them on a plate that will act as a mold, and when they are dry you add coconut powder to taste.
You don’t see cutlery and think they put it later? No no — you eat everything with your hands helping yourself to the bread.
- Help, help, help – Ramadan is about helping others with small or large gestures. Share what you can, give food to the needy, make donations or take part in volunteer activities.
- You know the traffic on the ring road during rush hour? Here, nothing compared to the road congestion when hordes of hungry and thirsty drivers return home before sunset. Plan accordingly and avoid taking public transportation at that juncture otherwise you will have to wait until the end of prayer.
The big four “DON’Ts”: what you should avoid doing in public
- DO NOT eat, drink, smoke in public places during daylight hours, even if you are not Muslim.
- DO NOT listen to loud music, use headphones
- DO NOT wear tight, skimpy, low-cut or overly revealing clothing.
- NO amorous kissing or hugging in public places: although this rule applies year-round in almost all Islamic countries, effusions in public during Ramadan are particularly offensive.
Whether or not to adhere to the guidelines listed above will be up to the traveler to decide. Each situation, contingency, city, is different from the other so it would be utopian and useless to draw up strict rules. Look around and try to emulate the behavior of the locals, go with the flow and you will be fine. If not, do not hesitate to ask! They will be happy to explain everything about Islam and Ramadan, the holy month.
Experiencing Ramadan in Sudan was as beautiful as it was difficult. Difficult because hunger and thirst make people less kind and friendly than usual: drivers are more distracted, traffic accidents increase, students are tired and listless… But also from a practical point of view: store hours change, during prayers the city comes to a standstill, before sunset the streets are clogged with traffic, and at sunset it is impossible to find transportation and you have to wait until the end of prayer.
Leaving aside the practical tasks, the month of Ramadan was a unique experience. It is difficult to explain what it means to share a meal after a day of fasting, to share stress, fatigue, thirst and hunger, and then together to quench spirit and body. The atmosphere of togetherness, solidarity and sharing was palpable, perceptible. An experience that unites and fortifies and makes one appreciate the good fortune of always having water and food available.