Planning a trip to the Middle East this month? You're in for a treat. Like in other Muslim-majority parts of the world, all attention will be centered on Ramadan, the month-long period of fasting observed annually by all Muslims across the globe. The holiday officially gets underway next week, and is scheduled to last through the first week in August.
Depending on where you go, many aspects of day-to-day life (eating, shopping, nightlife, transportation) are affected by the fasting — for example, driving can be particularly hazardous in the evenings as delirious, food-deprived workers all race home to enjoy their first meal of the day.
These changes can at first be disorienting to a non-Muslim traveler. However, rather than focus on the challenges, it is useful to see Ramadan as a way to experience another, more sensitive side of the culture you're there to visit.
To help you better plan, here are five things to keep in mind while visiting the Middle East during Ramadan:
1. Throughout Ramadan, it is forbidden to eat, drink, smoke or chew gum in public during the day. This can be problematic for non-Muslim travelers who wish to respect the holiday while not having to abstain from meals themselves. As a solution, many hotels and shopping centers provide screened-off areas where it is permissible to eat and drink without offending.
2. Private businesses and government offices tend to shorten their hours during Ramadan, but public transportation continues as normal (meaning you can still rely on airports, taxis and Metro services to get you where you need to go). Additionally, many restaurants and shopping malls will extend their hours at night to accommodate those who have spent the day fasting.
3. Tourist-y, cosmopolitan places like Dubai are more liberal when it comes to attire; however, Ramadan warrants extra care when choosing what to wear. (Sex is also forbidden during the day, so a suggestive outfit could cause more harm than intended.)
4. Once the sun sets, Muslims enjoy a light meal known as iftar, which can range from a snack of dried fruits to a full plate of food. Many hotels will set up Iftar tents so non-Muslim guests can participate in the experience as well: this is highly recommended, as it's a great place to sample traditional Arabic cuisine with locals as they break their fast). A larger, more festive meal called suhoor is enjoyed by families later in the evening, around midnight.
5. Just as non-Muslim travelers should respect the rules and guidelines of Ramadan when abroad, Muslims too are expected to practice tolerance. A spokesperson at Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed Center for Cultural Understanding explains: "To forgive and be kind is what Ramadan is all about. So long as a person's actions are not blatantly in poor taste and done on purpose to spite the faith, there is no need for concern."