A Winter's Tale: Full of Middle Eastern Promise

If the British winter tempts you to flee to warmer climes, make sure you are prepared for the annual muslim festival of Ramadan
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The Independent Travel

On or around 28 November this year - the exact date is determined by the first sighting of the Moon - the religious festival of Ramadan will commence in the Muslim world, setting in motion a month-long period of daylight fasting.

On or around 28 November this year - the exact date is determined by the first sighting of the Moon - the religious festival of Ramadan will commence in the Muslim world, setting in motion a month-long period of daylight fasting.

Exactly how this will affect travellers to Muslim countries will depend on how strictly the festival is observed at the destination in question. Wherever that may be, it seems clear that exercising self-restraint when the sun is up is the most sensible, and respectful, attitude for travellers to take.

Claire Rock, who has lived and worked in various Middle Eastern countries, says the effect that Ramadan has on tourists varies from region to region.

At the more lenient end of the spectrum, travellers to Turkey will often find themselves excused from fasting. "Museums and mosques may be closed to the public, but you could visit Istanbul and not realise there was a religious festival on. As a foreigner, you can eat, drink and smoke in public without anybody saying anything."

Where the rules are a little firmer, that doesn't necessarily mean that you will encounter problems. Claire adds that "in Cairo and parts of Jordan things are much stricter than in Istanbul, but you can still come by food and drink in Western restaurants".

In Saudi Arabia, however, travellers might want to take a more cautious approach; Saudi Arabia's religious police, or matawwa, have the authority to jail tourists if they find them flouting the rules during Ramadan.

Tour operator Explore Worldwide, which specialises in the Middle East, says that the more unusual destinations tend to be the most problematic in terms of travel: "Iran is one of the most inconvenient places to visit. Shops are closed and you have to be careful about eating in public, even as a tourist." Travelbag Adventures agrees, warning visitors that museums and other sites might not be open during the daytime. However, the company reassures visitors that "buying food and drink to consume in private does not seem to pose a problem, even in Iran, or Syria".

The Syrian embassy in London is even more keen to put tourists at ease. "Public transport runs 24 hours a day. Ramadan is not a public holiday and most things carry on as normal."

Further afield, the message appears to be similar: pay respect to the local customs during Ramadan and you should have no great problems with a visit. In fact, the biggest threat is probably from the frayed tempers which may be caused by long bus journeys without access to food and water.

And, as the Rough Guide to Indonesia points out, the inconveniences posed to travellers by Ramadan are often no greater than those caused by simply being in somewhere unfamiliar. "[Usual opening times] for museums and temples sometimes boil down to whenever staff manage to turn up."

The consensus, then, is that Ramadan poses few problems for travellers who put in plenty of forethought to a trip. The fact that Ramadan takes place in winter, coinciding with the time when British daylight is shortest and the weather at its most dangerously dreary, means that this is often the ideal time to escape to warmer locations. If that just happens to be a Muslim country, then your visit will be all the more rewarding for it.

* Explore Worldwide (01252 319448, www.explore.co.uk). Travelbag Adventures (01420 541007, www.travelbag-adventures.co.uk)

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