(This article was first published on September 28, 2009 for the Study Abroad section at Global Post. View the original article here.)
As twilight turned to night, roads that 20 minutes earlier were choked with impatient cars in twisted gridlock became calm. Congested sidewalks emptied, and a scattered few now meandered down the streets. The call to prayer echoed through the neighborhood. Allah-hu-akbar … It was time for iftar in Balgat, a neighborhood in Ankara, Turkey.
Muslims worldwide fasted 30 days for Ramadan, their holiest season. Devout Muslims will abstain not only from food and water during daylight hours, but other items like cigarettes will not touch their lips. Life for many Turkish residents, even if they aren’t practicing Muslims, revolves around the sundown dinners, called iftar, where observant Muslims break the daylong fast.
Imagine celebrating a mini-Thanksgiving dinner every night for 40 days, or so it seems to me. During Ramadan, observers rotate invitations to their families or friends. Even I, a stranger, attended at least 15 different iftars, some large, some small, some formal, some not.
“It’s the best time to invite people to your home,” said Mehmet Canpolat, “It’s a time for sharing dinner, sharing life.”
I had iftar several times with Mehmet, his wife Malek, their 4-year-old daughter and their spirited 10-year-old son, who always asked if I was fasting. After I said no, he replied proudly that I didn’t have the muscle because I wasn’t Muslim.
Iftars with the family were usually simple. Mehmet would watch TV, waiting for the signal broadcast on Turkish stations that it was time eat. Dates, the traditional fruit the prophet Muhammed used to break his fast, lay on the table with large bowls of soup, plenty of fresh bread, salad and a main course. After dinner, the family and I would settle in the parlor for dessert, tea and plenty of fruit.
Iftars at home include families or neighbors, but restaurants serve iftar, as well. Ranging from city-funded free dinners for the poor in tents to meals at Turkey’s high-end restaurants, groups flooded eateries that lay mostly empty during the day. In Balgat, it took three tries before finding a restaurant with one lonely table amid a feverishly hungry crowd that the wait staff scrambled to serve.
Like Christmas in the West, Turkey’s capitalistic markets have taken advantage of seasonal Ramadan. Cell phone companies, clothing retailers and others advertise special sales for Ramadan and Bayram, the holiday ending the month of fasting. Restaurants and supermarkets publicize special meal deals.
“The important thing is not iftars,” Zeynel Oz told me over Turkish tea at his home. “What’s important is fasting, not iftars.”
Practicing and more devout Muslims like Zeynel and Mehmet are not always happy with Turkey’s commercialization of the holiday. Zeynel scoffed when I referred to the Bayram holidays as Seker Bayram (Sugar Holidays). In Turkey, traditions have emerged where children go door to door looking for candy treats from neighbors and family. Just like the U.S. during Halloween, candy retailers push Seker Bayram festivities.
Discipline is the real lesson of Ramadan, according to Mehmet and Zeynel.
“All humans want everything,” said Zeynel. “But God says, ‘No, not everything.’ ”
Mehmet grew up in Istanbul and started fasting in university. Like Zeynel, he sees it as an opportunity to cleanse the spirit and discipline the body.
“The main point is a whole behavioral change,” Mehmet said. “You must be a good man, woman, kid — whatever you are.”
These ideals are the ones that Mehmet and his wife Malek admired the most. They agreed that during Ramadan, many try to live up to these ideals.
Some in Turkey worry about the growing popularity and religiosity during Ramadan as a harbinger of fundamentalist expansion. The secular government allows minority voices on both ends of its political spectrum, but continues to uphold its constitution.
Zeynel prays during Ramadan that conflicts can be reconciled and people will respect each other. When asked about an Islamist takeover, Zeynel said he doesn’t want to force his religious views on anyone.
“The fundamentalists are a problem, and they cause issues for more modern religious people,” said Zeynel. “The Koran tells me to be modern … I don’t see modernity and religion as opposing forces. They are in the same glass.”
If you’ve been reading the blog or visiting the photo gallery during the past forty days, you’ve probably seen the words Iftar and Bayram come up more than a few times. I apologize in advance that I’ve only gotten to writing about Ramadan for the blog now, five days after the its end. Part of the reason is that I was kept very busy during Ramadan, and the other reason is I’m holding back on what I have written until next week when it might be published with Global Post, an online international news source. (A new job I haven’t talked about also, but I promise I will soon.)
However, there are a number of things about Ramadan in Turkey, that won’t be in next week’s article. So without further ado, here is a little Ramadan 101 for those who know little about the season or how its practiced in Turkey.
Ramadan is the forty day period in the lunar calendar when all Muslims engage in ritual fasting during the day from
food and drink. It’s one of the pillars of Islam, and therefore mandatory for all practicing Muslims. Early in the morning before sunrise, Muslims will wake up to eat a meal called Suhor, and at sundown, families get together to break their fast with another meal known as Iftar. All over the world, Muslims traditionally break their fast with a date or olive because according to their scripture, it was also the practice of their Prophet Mohammed. Why forty days? The number is chosen because Moses and Jesus also fasted for that amount before beginning their spiritual work. Turkey is reportedly 95-99 percent Muslim, so any visitor who knows nothing else about Turkey besides this statistic would probably expect to see a dramatic change in atmosphere.
WRONG! Turkey, unlike most of its homogeneous Muslim neighbors to the South and East, hardly shuts down for Ramadan. In large cities like Ankara, I only encountered two small food shanties that were closed during the day for Ramadan. Likely, the owners were from the outskirts of Ankara where Islamic conservatism is much more prevalent. Instead, cafes, restaurants, and bars remained open and popular, particularly at night when everyone could eat.
The difference between Ramadan in Turkey and most other countries in the Middle East is one that exemplifies one of Turkey’s most interesting traits: the diversity of its Muslim community. Turkey’s uniform identity is deceiving because its diversity of Muslims runs the gamut from fundamentalist to those who no longer practice their family religion. Just as in the US, the vocal minorities on both ends often garner most of the attention while many of the nation’s residents lie somewhere in the vast middle. Again, like the US, the different communities can be somewhat regionally separated with more conservative Muslims living in the South East while the most liberal convictions lie on the Western and European shores. Big cities like Ankara and Istanbul are incredibly modern and secular, but do have their fair share of conservative communities, particularly with the rise of a new, more religious middle class migrating there. (Something that I’ll continue to cover as I move to one of Turkey’s newly developed cities, Kayseri, a city with a reputation for Islamic conservatism.) Meanwhile, the BBC reports that the growing gap between the richest and poorest in Turkey continues to feed violent and fundamentalist groups in Turkey’s poorest villages. However, the same reports say that the situation has improved vastly in the last ten to fifteen years.
In any case, the fact that Turkey is filled with this diversity makes Ramadan an incredibly interesting affair. Life does change during the season with huge traffic delays on major city roads during the half hour leading up to Iftar when many are rushing home. Even those who are less devout, find Iftar dinners the thing to do during the month. Ofcourse, once the sun goes down and the call to prayer echoes across the city from Ankara’s many mosques, the streets usually become deserted. It’s a great time for a walk if you’re not starved for food.
“It’s the best opportunity to invite people to your home,” my host Mehmet said to me when I asked him what he thought of Iftar dinners. He was right, and in Turkey, you’ll see groups everywhere eating together. Families, friends, acquaintances, or total strangers like me are invited out to these sometimes elaborate, but always huge, dinners. During the last forty days, I shared dinner with many new friends. Mehmet reminded me that along with the discipline Ramadan teaches you, it’s also a time to remind each other about being hospitable to your community.
“By coming together, the children learn,” said Mehmet, “(It’s about) sharing time, sharing dinner, sharing life.”
However, communal rituals do not end with Iftars. In Turkey, Ramadan is capped off in a uniquely Turkish way. During three days after fasting (national holidays in Turkey), most Turks visit relatives’ homes, pay respects to their deceased family, and of course, indulge the children in a tradition known as Şeker Bayram (Sugar Holidays). Traditions of buying new outfits and handing out candy and pocket money reign during the holiday. Think of Christmas crossed with a costume-less Halloween and you have an idea of what the bayram looks like in Turkey. Everywhere I went, I saw people dressed to the nines in new suits and dresses going from house to house (reportedly, children often knock on neighbor’s doors for candy).
On the last day of Bayram, I was invited by my friend Özgür to a picnic with his and his fiancee’s families. First, we drove out to one edge of Ankara to pick up his fiancee and her family, and in two, small, packed, four cylinder cars, we drove to the opposite end of the city for a picnic, and then tea and dessert at Özgür’s family’s home. It was an excellent way to finish the Ramadan season in Turkey.
Of course, Ramadan is more than just big feasts. Some of the more religious people I spoke to felt that commercialism has invaded what is supposed to be a season of refraining from extravagances and indulgences, and emphasize self-restraint instead. “It’s about disciplining behavior,” said Mehmet, “The main point is a whole behavioral change.”
However, if you just looked in any mall or at any billboard, you’d think its a time to make money too. Merchants entice people into buying more with special Ramadan and Bayram specials. I found the entire relationship similar to our own culture’s relationship with Christmas where a sacred religious season is also a financial moneymaker that puts most department and toy stores in the black for the first time.
In all cases, Ramadan in Turkey has been a great experience, except for the occasional time I’ve felt guilty for eating on the street in front of people who might be fasting. During Ramadan, I met a number of new Turks, alongside sharing dinner with friends I already knew. Ramadan festivals organized by the city offered sometimes good, sometimes not-so-good concerts and dance shows throughout the forty days. I shared hours and hours with friends, new and old, and many times found myself welcomed into the houses of complete strangers, some who had much to give and others who did a lot with the little they had. Adapting a few words from Andy Williams, “It was the most wonderful time of the year.”