My Ramadan World Tour

I’ve spent the Muslim holy month in five predominantly Muslim countries. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Also in Slate: See a gallery of photographs of Ramadan around the world.

Pakistani Muslims during Ramadan

My first Ramadan experience came in Casablanca in late December 1997. I was traveling in Morocco with a high-school friend, and on the last night of a very eventful journey, as we were about to step into a convenience store, two middle-aged men, perhaps as old as our fathers, stopped us at the door.

“Sir,” one said. “We are not bad men. Here, please take this money and buy us some schnapps or vodka.”

During our two weeks in Morocco, we had been approached by many men trying to sell us hashish, but this was a first: We were being shoulder-tapped by guys twice our age, and we were confused.

“Please. It is Ramadan, and they will only sell alcohol to non-Muslims.” Weary of scams by then, we refused. Besides, as an Iranian-American, I was at least as Muslim as they were.

That incident served to alert me that “Muslims are different” well before that become part of the global dialogue. It was also before I really grasped to what extent Islam was an integral part of my own background, which was only made clear to me in 2001, when I became the “other,” often consulted by friends of friends on Islamic matters I was completely unqualified to address.

Now I feel a bit better equipped to speak on some aspects of Islam, especially about this holy month, having experienced parts of Ramadan in five different predominantly Muslim countries.

Since the Islamic calendar is only 355 days long, Ramadan falls a little more than 10 days earlier each calendar year. This means that we are entering a difficult period, since Ramadan will take place during the height of summer for about a decade. Longer, hotter days mean thirstier and more irritable Muslims, at least in the Middle East, which has the highest concentration of the devout.

The holiday is meant as a time to ask for forgiveness for past sins by fasting and praying more than usual. It is also intended to promote humility, patience, and spirituality, but in recent times Ramadan has become a generally accepted and acceptable excuse for workplace inefficiency in most Muslim countries. As one British government Web site points out, “it’s not impossible to travel or do business in Islamic countries during Ramadan, but different rules do apply.”

The manic nature of the month adds to the mess. Fasting extends well beyond food, to a prohibition on drinking any beverages during the day and a ban on smoking. In many Muslim countries, where cafe culture dominates, abstaining from caffeine and tobacco products may have an even greater impact than calorie deficiency. The irritability and fatigue of the day give way to relief, overconsumption, and short-lived bliss after sundown. It’s no surprise, then, that in many Muslim societies, people actually gain weight during Ramadan.

I wonder what impact 14 centuries of spending one-twelfth of the working year hungry, dehydrated, and fatigued has had on these societies. The question will probably go unanswered for the time being, since it is somehow considered offensive to Islam. Still, I’ve noticed that each of the countries I have visited during Ramadan has its own set of traditions and customs that say more about national identity than about religion. My next experience of Ramadan came nearly a decade later in Mecca. Seventeen family members and I had joined an Iranian pilgrimage tour of Saudi Arabia. Generally, these trips last two weeks, but since ours coincided with the beginning of Ramadan, three additional days were added at no extra charge.

Elated to be visiting a land that few can hope to see for themselves, the three-day bonus seemed like a gift from Allah. That was until I arrived in Saudi Arabia.

It was in Mecca that I first came in contact with Wahhabism, the branch of Islam most extreme in its adherence to the Quran. Shockingly, though, my Iranian companions—Shiites—were quick to follow suit while there, accepting all the regulations laid out by the current overseers of Islam’s holiest place. Saudi Arabia, it’s true, is not the place to break rules, but I was disappointed to see my tribe falling in line with such unforgiving insularity.

I was horrified to watch my father—at the time a diabetic in his late 60s with a bum ticker—adhere to the fasting rules in heat that was more than 110 degrees Fahrenheit. It was the first time I realized that he might put something ahead of me, and it didn’t matter to my 30-year-old secular brain that this thing was God. Even the thought of breaking the fast before sundown seemed inconceivable in the kingdom, but I hoped my dad’s survival instinct would trump all that.

On Day 12 of the trip, Day 3 of Ramadan, my cousin and I fled Saudi Arabia for Dubai and witnessed some of that Muslim moral flexibility I had dreamt about.

Dubai tends toward gluttony every month of the year, but during Ramadan, things are even more over the top, with nearly every eating establishment offering an Iftar fast-breaking gut-buster at sundown. It’s Dubai doing what it does best: using its limited resources for its own commercial advantage. Even American fast-food outlets in Dubai offer Ramadan Value Meals, usually adding a dessert to the already calorie-packed meal deal. At the Dubai Mall, McDonald’s was the only major international food chain that didn’t have a special offer, just a banner that read: “Ramadan Kareem“—”Happy Ramadan.”

Still, being caught eating, drinking, or smoking in public during daylight hours would result in a hefty fine—about $266—although most locals agreed that anyone who didn’t “look Muslim” would probably be let off with a warning. For people who can’t make it to sundown, hotels discreetly serve breakfast and lunch to anyone, erecting a screen to hide the offenders.

The next stop on my Ramadan tour was Iran, where, as in Saudi Arabia, penalties are harsh for those caught not fasting. This year, I’m told, it’s 80 lashes. Still, many Iranians don’t mind, since offices close much earlier than usual, and the separation of the public and private spheres unofficially allows them to go home and do whatever they please. This is an aspect of Iran we don’t often see in the West, but it has been on full display in recent months, with Iranian protesters publicly airing all the frustrations they’ve kept inside—literallyfor 30 years.

One endearing aspect of Iran’s Ramadan observance is the sense of community that emerges at sundown. Each day, many Iranians prepare huge amounts of food to give away in the street. The tradition is called a Nazr, a good deed intended to win favor with God, and it is particularly common during Ramadan. Persians fall back on their superstitious and pagan roots while still following today’s rules.

This year, I spent part of Ramadan in Istanbul, where many Turks seem to be conflicted about whether or not they are indeed Muslim. In Istanbul, hardly anyone appeared to be fasting. I spoke with many residents of the city, and most took a decidedly modern and convenient view of their faith, incorporating the aspects that made sense for them and ignoring those that didn’t—like fasting. They were respectful of their observant compatriots, but there was no hiding of food and drink during daylight hours; the restaurants were open, and many served alcohol.

The Turkish flag was on display much more than any symbol of faith, and I realized that this might well be the direction Muslim societies are headed in. Other than in Saudi Arabia, where the Quran is literally the law, in my travels I’ve found encouraging examples of societies fitting their own local needs to religious restrictions; a sign that pragmatism, if not secularism, is on the rise.