Tasting tradition: Ramadan kareem

Cairo at sunset. Photo: Belinda Jackson
Today is the first day of Ramadan 2013, which for me is about the scent of almonds, the sweetness of fresh dates and the call to prayer. 

If you're shaky on the whole Ramadan thing, it's Islam's holy month, where Muslims take time to reflect on themselves and their lives. 

The most obvious part of Ramadan is fasting: followers don't let anything pass their lips from first light to sunset. At the moment, wintery Australia is considered a cushy place to be for Ramadan 2013: first light this morning was around 6am and the sun set at 5.15. In comparison, it's high summer in the Middle East, which sees 14-hour days, with 5am sunrise and sunset not until 7pm.

That means no food, no water, no cigarettes (a tough one for countries such as Egypt, where smoking is rated a profession). Some people don't use toothpaste in the daylight hours...mmm.

Of all the Muslim countries I've visited during Ramadan, I had the most fun in Egypt. Egyptians like to joke that they actually put on weight in Ramadan, sunset is the time for feasting, and feast they do. In a city where you can hit a traffic jam at 1am, the streets are empty at sunset: you can cross town in 20 minutes, normally a two-hour journey, as everyone's sitting down to drink sweet drinks such as tamrhindy (tamarind) or qamardeen, a thick, sweet apricot juice, and taste elaborate dishes and desserts made only in this month.

Ben Youssef madrasa, Marrakech.
Photo: some helpful, random tourist
who didn't run away with my camera.
The five-star hotels and the streets are lined with Ramadan 'tents' that serve banquets from sundown to sun-up, elaborate low lounges designed for smoking shisha and nibbling sweets, drinking tea and catching up with old friends. Music tends toward the traditional, though I spotted plenty of glam actors and smoking hot MTV stars (Amr Diab, people!). During Ramadan, TV shows tend toward swords-and-sandals dramas with strong moral punchlines.

I also like the solidarity of Egypt's citizens: around 10 percent of the population is Christian, yet they will never smoke, eat or drink on the street. It's considered poor form, and most tourists get the picture.

In far more liberal Morocco, where tourists amble around in hot pants, wining and dining on street cafes during Ramadan, it must be tough not to have a tiny touch of resentment when you're hot, thirsty and hanging for a fag. But the locals I know are proud of their country's tolerance of all cultures, and they have some pretty fabulous Ramadan sweets, including honey and sesame cookies, halwa chebakia

I rate my favourite fitar or iftar (the meal you take when breaking fast at sunset) as the cool almond milk and dates stuffed with almond paste served at Marrakech's sublime La Mamounia hotel.  

In comparison, in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, we foreigners were ushered into makeshift restaurants in the five-star hotels' basements for lunch, and the bars were shrouded affairs, if open at all. We were instructed sternly by hotel staff to dress even more modestly than usual, and our attire scanned before we left the hotel in case a rogue knee or shoulder should present itself to daylight.

Wherever you find yourself, Ramadan mubarak (Happy Ramadan)!

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