SETTING THE SCENE
Ramadan is a pillar of Islam and a requirement for Muslims to observe each year, as a show of reverance to God. This is at the core of Ramadan and underscores all else. Indeed, Ramadan is a month of spirituality, where we fast to feel empathy for those who do not have and give back to those in need, we create closer bonds with our community, we show humility in our daily actions, we also try to be better adherents to the faith (Check out this HERE for an overview of Ramadan). That said, I try to take Ramadan one level deeper to make it even more of a learning experience for me.
During the month, I seek to set intentions at the start of the month and use it as a time to practice actions and gain learnings that I would normal “not have time for” in any given week or month. For me it’s a time of a reset to take things slower, be more intentional, be prepared to try new things so I can learn and grow. For example it was during evenings after I break fast in Ramadan that I started intentionally walking 10K steps, which has now become an integral part of my health and ability to unplug each day.
While this is more of a newer approach, the roots of fasting started when I lived as an adolescent in Cairo, Egypt (1990-1998), a city that has an incredibly storied history and unbelievably vibrant environment during the holy month. So when a recent opportunity came to visit Egypt’s capital city, I decided to Track Cairo’s 5,000 years of history while fasting during Ramadan.
COVID TESTING: Since I am vaccinated, I was not required to take a PCR to get into Cairo. If you are not vaccinated, again make sure you check the requirements for the country based on your status. Calling the airline is one of the best ways to find out the most up to date requirements.
FLIGHTS: I decided to fly using Turkish Airlines since the combination of a great routing (through one of my favorite cities in the world, Istanbul) as well as cost made it the best choice for me. Plus since I am a die hard frequent flier with Star Alliance, I wanted to leverage my status with a member airline of the alliance. Note I did have a planned 12 hour layover in Istanbul. I actually wanted to spend the day checking out all the street food, and then have a delicious iftar (breaking fast, basically having dinner at sunset). I am sure I will have a future vlog/blog on Istanbul so stay tuned for that!
PLANNING: My trip to Cairo was aimed at spending time with some close friends, checking out the history of the city, and remembering how people spend Ramadan during the day and at night. So I planned my time to stay in the center of Cairo, kindly hosted by one of my childhood best friends, Tarek and his family. It was a short trip (less than a week) and decided to really capture the Ramadan spirit on one of those days during the trip, which is outlined here from Pre-dawn (sahoor) to late the following even after iftar.
The goal of the day would be to visit 5 different chapters of Cairo’s history while fasting and then break fast with some friends in the historic area of Khan el Khalili for a more traditional dinner.
So why the historical tour? (1) I LOVE history and even though I lived in Cairo for 8 years, I have not fully explored each part of the city and (2) I have to keep my mind off food and water so this is a great way to do it! That said, I somehow ended up picking the hottest day of the year so far, 104 degrees (40 celsius) to do it!! There was a heat wave in April so things definitely were more challenging!
I will outline below the different places I visited from 2600 BCE to Today! And then go through the Ramadan experience in Cairo!
Ancient Cairo – The Pyramids
My first stop was the Great Pyramids in Giza. Built some 4,500 years ago I still get blown away every time I see them. I took a cab to the Giza area, and honestly it may have been the smoothest time I have ever entered the pyramids. I spent about 10mins to get in without haggling and other BS that usually happens to tourists there. I toured the Sphinx (I learned that the face of the Sphinx was likely that of the pharaoh Khafre), admiring the lines and symbolism of this ancient monument. Then I made my way around the largest of the pyramids (Khufu) and then decided just to go in
I slowly made my way through the entryway a few levels up from the ground, and into the pyramid. First thing I noticed was that it was at least 15 degrees cooler in the pyramid?!? I made my way up a long ramp into the main chamber where I found a granite sarcophagus. Something so surreal about that experience given how ancient these monuments are and how much they symbolize for Egyptian history. Oh and the cool air I discovered was a portable air conditioning unit LOL! So much for a hidden mystery of technological antiquity.
From the 700s to the time of the Ottomans in the 1500s, Egypt was occupied and overseen by different Caliphates and dynasties. All of these eras were underscored by Islam. Therefore, Islamic influence pervades the capital. I decided to visit Khan el Khalili, an area created as a main market area for the Mamluks in the 1200s. It continues to be a bustling market with some incredible landmarks in the middle including mosques and the Al-Azhar University, which is one of the oldest Islamic centers of thought in the world.
I also checked out Mouaz Street which has been restored and renovated. It is a super lovely street especially during Ramadan. Walking through the street seeing the street food, lights, music, merchandise was exactly what I would expect Ramadan to be all about in Cairo.
Early-Modern Egypt – Royalty & Colonialism
Cairo was occupied by the Ottomans in the 1500s and later Muhammed Ali took over in the 1800s eventually leading to the era of the Khedivate in Egypt. Architecture of that era dots the capital and is really crowned by the Citadel (sadly did not make it there since you have to really grapple with traffic in the capital).
I did stop by the Abdeen Palace built in the 1860s by Egypt’s monarchy during the Khedivate of Egypt.
I also stopped by the Marriott Hotel in Zamalek (a personal favorite since my high school was around the corner), where the central building was built to inaugurate the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. And I also walked across the Kasr El Nile bridge which has two lions on each end of it that are a vistage neo-classical design and influences of Europe.
The British occupied Egypt for about 40 years and they had their barracks in the heart of the city in Tahrir Square (the site of the Egyptian Revolution in 2010/2011). Even though you can’t film there anymore (security risks, go figure) it’s still definitely worth visiting, with the Egyptian Museum on one end and the Mogamagh (infamous government building that was the main place where you had to go for most administrative issues) on the other end.
Republic – Pan-Arab Nationalism
An exciting and dynamic period of modern Egyptian history was the era of Pan-Arab and Pan-African nationalism. This was an era ushered in by the late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
To see this in its full splendor, I decided to stop by the Cairo Tower.
I had grown up seeing this building but never went inside. So on this trip I decided to take a deep dive and see it all. First thing I learned was that Abdel-Nasser between 1956-1961 built the tower with funds ($1-3 million) apparently given to him by the CIA to stay out of the civil war in Algeria. It was a major snub to the west, especially the U.S. in terms of meddling in Middle Eastern politics. The building stands as the tallest in Egypt and the highest building in North Africa and therefore has one of the nicest views of the whole city!
Because Cairo has a population well over 20 million, many are leaving the central parts of the capital in search of quiet, clean, and greener pastures. Of course, this is usually reserved for the more wealthier in Egypt who can afford the more exorbitant housing prices. So I decided to visit one of those areas, Attamiyah, which has a golf course and incredible homes rivaling some areas here in California! I also wanted to see the incredible infrastructure that is coming up all over Cairo, roads, highways, tunnels, metrolinks, bridges etc. Most certainly the capital is much more interconnected compared to when I lived there in the 1990s!
I started the day, well started and then went back to sleep, with Sahoor. This is a meal you have before sunrise to keep you going throughout the next day. I try to pack it with things that will help quench thirst and hunger like water, yogurt, chia seeds (chia seeds absorb water and form a gel when soaked in liquid, which can help with appetite suppression), bread, beans etc.
It’s key to distract yourself with work and activities during the day so you are not thinking about food. My historical tour was exactly that distraction. But some people rely on sleep and just hanging out at home. I instead far prefer to try to maintain my life as if nothing has changed in terms of activities.
I try to be more intentional when I interact with people, more patient and polite. I also try to be more spiritual during this time and avoid distractions (ifyouknowwhatimean). Refraining from profanity is a tough one for me but something I certainly strive to achieve especially in the act of fasting! During that day I was parched since it was SUPER hot and I of course had no water. But the human body is incredible and I was able to pull through!
Finally breaking fast at sunset is an amazing experience! You usually start with a date followed by a little water. Then soup, appetizers, and finally the main meal. PACE yourself otherwise you will be in pain from eating too fast on an empty stomach and don’t drink too much water at first because you will get full!
I broke fast with a group of friends in Khan el Khalili at a very famous cafe named after one of Egypt’s most famous authors and playwrights Nagib Mahfouz. We ate all kinds of Egyptian cuisine though I have to say the funniest is a soup with orzo pasta that is named the ‘bird tongues’ (I forgot it was just the pasta and freaked out thinking I was going to eat actual bird tongues!).
The cafe also has some amazing music and desserts that are well worth it!
Usually at night people go out with friends and enjoy the evening sometimes through to sahoor (around 3-4AM). Also this is a time to pray and be spiritual. So it’s a balance between community engagement and spiritual introspection. That is the beauty of Ramadan: balance, reset, and engagement.
We decided to walk the streets in central Cairo and along the Nile (great for digestion) and then hang out smoking hookah, drink tea, eat desserts, have snacks, and play cards with friends. Really an amazing experience for anyone to enjoy!
Ramadan is truly a sacred time for me. For many years I dreaded it, but as I got older I began to see the utility of using this time to reset and be a better person, lose a little weight and get healthy, reinforce a sense of discipline and give up certain things, see friends and reconnect with old ones, get more introspective and become more spiritual so I can be more humble and connected with a high power. Many of these learnings I then carry with me through my daily actions well after Ramadan.
Experiencing Ramadan in Cairo, one of the most dynamic Muslim-majority cities in the world and reliving my early days of fasting, really was a treat and something I am grateful to have re-experienced. If you ever have a chance to travel to a country that observes Ramadan, don’t miss it! It’s very much worth it. I dont just say this as a Muslim but as someone who is curious about different cultures and traditions, especially those that help us become more interconnected, patient, thoughtful, and more moderate in our ways.
Below is one of my favorite examples of interconnection, empathy and community during Ramadan in Cairo: The Maidaet el Rahmaan, a communal dining in the streets of Cairo where local residents and businesses contribute food for people to stop by and break fast for free!
FINDING COVID LOCATIONS: When it came time to get my antigen test for the U.S. things got tricky in terms of finding a location that can provide results in 24 hours. So what I ended up doing was asking local pharmacies to see where I could get it done. One said, you have to get it at a government hospital if you want it for travel. I was worried from this prospect since government hospitals are notorious centers of administrative nightmares, long waits, and possibly even more exposure to unnecessary risks. I asked another and then another until one pharmacy directed me to a lab very close by (I was walking around Zamalek) called Al-Borg Laboratories that could do it. BINGO! I went there and it took a total of 20 minutes in terms of entering my information, taking the test, and giving me the printed results with a QR code. What more can one ask for! So the hack here is to ask pharmacies for direction, as they are in the medical field, and don’t forget to ask several so you can get to the right answer!
CONNECTING FLIGHTS: This goes without saying, NEVER schedule any international connection less than 1-1.25 hour layover. Anything less is a recipe for delayed luggage transfer or worst still missing the flight. In my case, I had almost a two hour layover in Istanbul on the way back BUT don’t forget, the new international airport in Istanbul is essentially a city! So of course there was a near hour delay in Cairo and by the time we got to Istanbul and deplaned, we had 45 minutes before the flight to the U.S. In this instance, what you should do is ask the flight attendant during the flight (when you realize you are cutting it super close) to radio ahead so that there is an usher, or better still an airport golf car, that can take you directly to your gate while calling your gate and letting them know you are en route and to hold the flight. This especially works when you are flying on the same airline for all the legs of your journey and there are others on the plane similarly situated (it will likely cost the airline less in hassle and money if they hold the flight for a little bit to let you make it then having to rebook you etc.).
USING UBER: When I got to Cairo airport at 230AM I was super tired. So when I was approached by cab hustlers at the airport I acquiesced at the first price I was offered (about 2-2.5 times the normal price). But when I left Cairo, I used an uber to get to the airport. The car was cleaner, faster, more relaxing, and 2x less in cost! So the point is, when you get out of the terminal AVOID the cab hustlers and fire up your wifi to link to Uber, then ask an airport official where you can get to the uber and take that to the city. Make sure in Cairo to take Uber Comfort and not UberX, because UberX is just another version of the cabs, which can be grimy for some people.
Stay Curious. And I look forward to seeing you on my next journey!