How to Celebrate Ramadan Like a Local
Observe the Muslim holy month with cultural events, authentic offerings and traditional cuisine in Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Doha and Istanbul.
The observance of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam—a time of reflection, self-sacrifice and community unity. If your summer travels take you to the Middle East, you can celebrate this important month, beginning around June 28 and ending on or near July 28, with those who find deep meaning in Ramadan’s rich traditions.
How can you absorb the sights, flavours and fragrances of this beautiful part of the world during one of the most important times of the year? We asked Four Seasons concierges in Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Doha and Istanbul to share their favourite ways to experience their cities during Ramadan.
One of the oldest cities in the world, Amman is the political and commercial capital and the cultural centre of Jordan. This city, once relatively small, is now one of the powerhouse destinations in the Middle East. However, Nadine Khabbaz, Concierge Supervisor at Four Seasons Hotel Amman, recommends a trip to Amman’s roots to drink in the artistic vibe and authentic spirit of the city during the month of Ramadan.
Rainbow Street is a vibrant avenue full of cafés, art galleries and shops with handicrafts created by local artisans. According to Khabbaz, the street—named for the Rainbow Cinema in the historic neighbourhood of Jabal Amman, one of the seven hills on which the original city was built—is a must-see for visitors.
Off the lower end of Rainbow Street and open 10:00 am to 10:00 pm every Friday from mid-May to September, the colourful Souk JARA (Jabal Amman Resident’s Association) offers shopping, impromptu concerts, film screenings and other activities. Souk JARA is also very active in promoting the community, notes Khabbaz. “[Here], local charities, men and women who work from home, and owners of small and simple businesses [have] the chance to present their products to a large customer base,” she says.
Among Souk JARA’s success stories are Batatee5, a smoothie and juice bar that finds creative ways to serve watermelon; Jobedu, a crowdsourced platform for artists to express their creativity and passion for Arab pop culture; and Um Ali Atoum, the oldest merchant at Souk JARA—called the “queen of the souk” by Zaid Goussous, president of the association—who creates simple handmade accessories.
For a special Ramadan treat, Sarah Atallah, Concierge Agent at Four Seasons Hotel Beirut, recommends a journey to Saïda, or Sidon, a historic coastal city 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Lebanon’s capital city.
“The capital of the south will charm you with its exquisite old streets and the hospitality of its people,” she says. The beautiful souks still reflect the old Arabic cachet and are true working souks, where locals shop. Be sure to stop by Souk Al-Najjarin and watch the carpenters at work before heading to Hanoun for a fruity, traditional Ramadan drink such as jellab, amareddine or tamar hindi.
“The journey can’t continue,” says Atallah, “without passing by Ajoue, the most renowned atayef pastry shop in the region.” Atayef is a delicious Middle Eastern pancake often stuffed with cream. The owner and creator of these special treats carefully guards his secrets, giving each pastry his own special touch before serving.
End your day in Saïda with a visit to the Audi Foundation Soap Museum, which preserves the methods and artefacts involved in the centuries-old practice of creating olive oil soaps. The shop at this restored mansion sells bathrobes, toiletries and, of course, traditional soap. And if your sweet tooth hasn’t yet been satisfied, be sure to sample the traditional Arabic sweet called ma’amoul, a delicate shortbread pastry filled with honey—a specialty of the museum.
To visit Egypt’s capital during Ramadan is to steep yourself in the city’s history and traditions for the holy month. Tamer Kelany, Concierge Supervisor at Four Seasons Hotel Cairo at the First Residence, recommends venturing out to a local awha (café) to enjoy your iftar (meal to break the day’s fast) or sohour (pre-dawn meal).
Situated near the splendid Al-Azhar Mosque (a fixture in the city for more than a millennium), Beit Zeinab Khatoun is a Mamluk-era house that, along with other historic buildings in the Old Cairo neighbourhood, has been recently restored to its former glory. Today, the heritage site serves as a gathering place for locals and visitors, alike. “There is no better experience than that of visiting during the holy month of Ramadan,” says Kelany. Savour the relaxed atmosphere while sipping black tea and nibbling termis beans and roasted sweet potatoes from one of the old street carts selling its wares in the courtyard.
You can stay until dawn, playing dominos and enjoying live entertainment. Or, says Kelany, “Wander about for a sunset walk in the festive environment of the surrounding streets. If you are lucky, you’ll get to experience the free concerts that arise sporadically in the area, taking you back to the era of Islamic Cairo.”
Life in Qatar’s largest city can be hectic, so be sure to escape to Souq Waqif to get the true flavour of Doha, says Mayur Gokarn, Concierge Assistant Manager at Four Seasons Hotel Doha. The market, which is more than 100 years old, recently underwent a facelift in which many original buildings were replaced with new ones in a traditional style. But the spirit of the souk remains, filled at any time of day with locals and tourists browsing through stalls, doing their daily shopping or choosing treasures to take home as mementos of their journey.
Gokarn recommends starting your visit to Souq Waqif with a stop at Café-Tasse on the main thoroughfare. Try an apple-flavoured shisha (hookah) and one of the delectable pastries. Wander through the lanes of the souk, where the air is filled with spices and perfume, and locate the falcon market—an entire block dedicated to these prized birds. For lunch, refuel with a meal of traditional Syrian food at Damasca One and continue your people-watching while you rest from the heat of the day. If you want something especially refreshing, says Gokarn, stop at Al Mourjan for a Casablanca smoothie—made with strawberries, avocado and coconut—to help you cool off.
Because the faithful fast during the day, dinner is a special event during the month of Ramadan. Hakan Taşpınar, Head Concierge at Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet, recommends a restaurant called Darüzziyafe for this important meal. “In every corner, you can feel the history,” he says.
Located in the Süleymaniye Social Complex, Darüzziyafe was designed by the architect Sinan for Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent more than 450 years ago, and it once served as a soup kitchen to feed the poor. Today, you can sit in the shady courtyard and let the world outside fade away as you feast on Turkish cuisine and listen to live traditional music.
Before you turn in for the evening, be sure to stop for Turkish coffee or tea with shisha at Çorlulu Ali Paşa Medresesi, tucked into an old cemetery in the Çemberlitaş neighbourhood of Istanbul. You’ll truly feel the call of the old city as you relax in this oasis, surrounded by sights, sounds and smells that will transport you back in time.