My Turkish Ramazan

For my first Turkish Ramazan I was living in Istanbul. It was November 2000 and I was living in Erenköy, a leafy suburb on the Asian side of the city. At that time there were no natural gas connections so the air was thick with coal smoke from apartment heating systems, darkness fell around 5pm and it was cold. Even though I had travelled a lot in Turkey before, this was the first time I had lived there for any length of time. As a result I wasn’t really aware of the particulars of the fasting month. All I knew was that people didn’t eat or drink anything in daylight hours and the meal held to break the fast was called iftar.

I can still remember the way the normally courteous customers in the upmarket supermarkets I frequented on Bağdat Caddesi were overcome with what I came to call iftar rage. Having been up early to make breakfast, then fasted throughout the day, hungry housewives would menacingly patrol the aisles in search of the perfect ingredients for the much anticipated evening meal. They were tired, they were irritable and they were determined to get home as quickly as possible. Woe betide the ignorant foreigner who came between one of these trolley wielding woman and the check out desk. Once I accidentally bumped a woman standing in the queue in front of me with my trolley and was subjected to a scathing rendition of complaints. As she raged at me at the top of her voice everyone turned and stared. Apologising profusely I looked at the floor wishing I could just sink into it.

Crossing roads, always life-threatening in Turkey, became even more so. Frantic drivers sped home for the first longed for meal of the day, or in many cases their first cigarette since before dawn. One day, after waiting in the cold with about 200 other passengers for over an hour, I learnt to organise my outings around iftar time. It was essential to plan to get home either well ahead of the meal time or well after it. If you didn’t, you’d end up watching every taxi, bus and dolmuş driver breaking the fast as you stood and shivered in the cold until they finished eating.

Nonetheless it was a joyous time too, when people shared what they had, be it a lot or very little. One night I was crossing the Bosphorus by ferry, basking in the warmth of the onboard heaters and looking forward to a good meal. An old village woman, dressed in a pair of traditional baggy pants called şalvar, numerous bulky cardigans and a hand edged scarf over her freshly washed hair, was sitting opposite me. Everyone was weary, slumping with eyes half closed but she was bright eyed and eager to know the time. Each time she asked, ‘Is it iftar yet?’, no one complained. Instead they happily checked their watches again and told her to wait. As soon as the minute hand clicked into place she opened the black bag she’d been clutching to her chest and brought out a loaf of Ramazan pide. This special round bread is only baked during Ramazan but she readily offered it around. No one accepted a piece but they all thanked her sincerely and smiled as she ate her simple meal of bread and dates.

I was living in Kayseri in central Turkey for my next Ramazan. I was working at a government university and living on campus. It was 2002, and winter once again. The cold made me permanently hungry so food was of paramount importance. Knowing most of my colleagues and students would fast, I took a sandwich with me to work on the first day. Used to the warm and hearty meals served at the personnel yemekhane I hoped it would suffice, along with a hot drink from the tea room. This was run by a woman with a penchant for washing the crockery in so much bleach that the smell permeated the taste of the tea, and an annoying habit of rearranging everything on your desk when she cleaned it, no matter what you told her. Nonetheless she was loudly cheerful and friendly so I was upset to learn the tea room was closed for the month. Not only would I not have tea, she wouldn’t earn as much money. I made do with guiltily ordering weak Nescafe from the school canteen which surprised me by remaining open. Kayseri was a very conservative town and few people wanted to be seen to be eating.

Going into town on the first day of fasting I noted one or two restaurants bravely advertising lunchtime specials. By day three they had posted notices in their windows saying they would only be open for the evening meal. The supermarket where we gamely bought our alcohol had removed every bottle of wine, beer and rakı and replaced them with Ramazan packages. These are large cardboard boxes containing household staples necessary for the iftar meal, including rice, lentils and sugar. People often buy these as gifts for less well off relatives and neighbours. The contents are boldly listed on the side, complete with illustrations, which is vastly different to the way alcohol was furtively sold. If I bought a couple of bottles of wine they were always placed in an opaque black plastic bag, rather than a white see-through one. I know the intention was to protect my honour but it made me laugh because people could still hear the bottles clinking.

Classes finished at 3.15pm but the students’ ability to concentrate usually ended well before then. Darkness fell at 4.30pm and the closer we got to the last bell, the more they thought about food. One day in particular they were madly overexcited because we were all going to the home of one of the students for an iftar meal. He was in my reading class, and unfortunately, on the day in question the text we were studying was all about the nutritional value of broccoli. When I told them how much I loved broccoli and that it was now available at a supermarket in town, they didn’t care. They begged me to change the topic, but conscious of the pop quiz coming up the following week, I made them finish the chapter. It was all I could do to keep them seated and as soon as the bell went we all raced out the door and piled into the waiting minibus. The boy lived in a suburb on the outskirts of town. As the name of the suburb meant ‘White Palace’ in English I was looking forward to seeing it. Sadly it turned out to be a disappointing misnomer. Like many Turkish towns and cities it consisted of large breezeblock apartment buildings, with few trees, gardens or other attempts at beautification.

However, looks in Turkey can be deceiving. Once inside the building we were warmly greeted by his smiling mother, two aunts and three sisters. They were sorry to tell me his father couldn’t be with us. He was a truck driver and on his way to Germany. The aunts, who lived on the same floor, slipped away after giving us a quick greeting. They had been cooking all day in readiness for our arrival and there were still some things to put on the table. While we waited for them to come back the sisters found slippers for all twenty six of us. As a teacher and a foreigner too, I was the honoured guest so I was given the best pair, white high heeled sandals that in no way matched my all black outfit. We were then ushered into a huge salon, the Turkish name for the combined dining and loungeroom usual in most homes. The three piece lounge suite that would normally take centre place had been pushed against the walls, and I also counted 18 individual upright chairs. This was clearly a house that saw a lot of visitors. The empty space had been filled with mismatched tables set out in long lines. The surfaces were simply groaning with food, and I couldn’t imagine we could need any more. Nonetheless when the aunts returned, along with two neighbouring women from downstairs who had also cooked for the occasion, they were bearing enormous plates of rice, pasta and salad.

As soon as it was time everyone slowly ate a date, and then silently and methodically worked their way through a bowl of lentil soup, a bowl of mantı (small envelopes of pastry filled with mince), a large piece of layered pastry called börek, then a plate filled with rice, köfte (meatballs) and salad. No one rushed their food and if I hadn’t known they had been fasting all day, nothing in their behaviour would have suggested it. Once the main course was finished, and only after I had been asked and had given my permission, did the students who smoked, light a cigarette. I still smoked back then and there was quite a competition to get me to choose one from the many packets held out to me. After a reasonable pause we were plied with plates of baklava and endless cups of Turkish tea.

Knowing I would be expected to eat a lot I had skipped lunch. Still, it was a struggle to get through the sweets but I managed. Just as I was silently congratulating myself and surreptitiously trying to ease the bulge in my stomach, another plate appeared in front of me. This one was piled high with fruit, including a large mandarin, a huge apple, one orange, and strangely enough, a cucumber. I was about to object when I noticed everyone else was just making a token attempt at eating the fruit. After swallowing a small piece of apple I somehow managed to crawl to the place I was shown on the couch. I didn’t move until it was time to go, some seven hours later. Cucumbers after dessert, and really long visits weren’t unusual in Kayseri during Ramazan. I went to quite a few iftar meals while I lived there and after arriving at 4pm, the night more often than not finished with me putting on the offered pyjamas and sleeping on the spare fold out bed, bought for that purpose.

In contrast, Istanbul is modern and diverse, so some people fast while others don’t. I’m not sure of the numbers but looking back over the years it does seem that less people fast now, particularly when Ramazan falls in the hot summer months. Regardless of whether you fast or not, Ramazan in Istanbul is still a special occasion. People spend time together in whatever way best suits them, they remember what they have and are grateful for it, local councils provide free meals for the poor, and Sultanahmet and Eyüp take on different complexions.

Most tourists go to Sultanahmet to experience the ‘real ‘Turkey but it is a foreign place to me. Although it has beautiful and historical mosques and palaces it feels like a Disney version of Turkey catering to Western expectations of some imaginary and mystical east. The one time I don’t feel like this is during Ramazan, when Sultanahmet once again belongs to the Turks. The open area that was the ancient Hippodrome is filled with picnic tables, stalls selling döner kebab and other foods, and there is a nightly fete. Well before dark, hundreds of families secure their place, sitting patiently with bottles of water set out in readiness, packets of dates from Saudi Arabia and their meals in front of them, waiting for iftar to begin. Those who miss out on a table sit formally on the ground on the carpets and rugs they have brought along, just in case. There is an air of expectancy and excitement, repeated in the queues of chattering people waiting patiently for a table at one of the many restaurants that more usually feed Western tourists. Large groups of girls and women demurely clad in headscarves and pardesu, the long coats they favour, use Ramazan as a time to sightsee in their own city and to catch up with friends. Tourists used to casually picking a restaurant at the last minute are stunned by the length of the queues and appear strangely out of place. After dinner everybody strolls through the many displays of Turkish handicrafts. You can watch felt being made, silver wire being turned, exquisite works of calligraphy being created, and buy hand beaten copper coffee pots, leather shepherd shoes and delicate lace work items. For those with any room left there are sweet treats such as fairy floss, helva, and goat’s milk icecream to indulge in.

Along the Golden Horn over in Eyüp, Ramazan also has its own character. In the last few decades Eyüp has become associated with women in head-to-toe black çarşaf, extremes of religion and an intolerance of difference. Yet during the fasting month it is an almost magical place, with hundreds of people visiting its famous mosque of the same name. Each night the surrounding square and first courtyard are alive with people coming to pray before and after an iftar spent with family and friends. The inner courtyard is still home to two large plane trees growing on a platform where the Girding of the Sword of Osman ceremony would take place to mark the inauguration of a new sultan. The tradition dates back to the time of Mehmet the Conqueror. The faithful will also visit the tombs and shrines associated with the mosque.

It is an enchanted month where normal routines are suspended and plans postponed until ‘after Bayram’, after the holiday to mark the end of the fasting month. Most people stay out late, for different reasons, but always with the people who are important to them. Some families camp out all night on picnic rugs, hoping to catch the early morning breezes blowing off the Bosphorus. Others spend the night driving dodgem cars in nearby Feshane. Last year there was a funfair where you could eat even more icecream and fairy floss, experience 3D cinema in a van, shoot at targets using modified guns, or throw darts and win a soft toy. On Kadir Gecesi, the night it is said your prayers will be answered, people stay up all night, performing the Muslim form of prayer called namaz or reading the Koran. Mosques the breadth of the city have twinkling fairy lights and banners strung up between the minarets. The banners on them used to read ‘Bayramı Kutlu Olsun’ in modern Turkish and now they say ‘Bayramı Mubarek Olsun’, harking back to earlier times. Whatever the language, the year or the place, the message and the meaning of Ramazan remains unchanged.

You can read this story and many more in my book “Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries”.