I have friends at home who still think I have to wear a headscarf when I leave the house, and who are mildly alarmed at any story involving beer. I think these are the same friends who don’t know exactly what Ramadan, or as it’s known in Turkey, Ramazan is, or what it entails, or how a foreigner copes with it, so for the perplexed I offer a guide of what to expect during Ramazan in Istanbul.
1. Ramazan is the holiest month in Islam. It always falls on the ninth month of the Islamic calendar which moves around like Easter, and like Easter, everyone’s mom probably has to tell them when it is this year. The idea behind it, as I understand, is equal parts self discipline and compassion for the poor. From sunrise to sunset observers do not eat or drink anything. (Which is bad enough here- consider the poor observers in Moscow, or Finland, where sunrise to sunset is such a looooong time.) They break fast every evening as soon as the sunset call to prayer sounds, generally at a large table filled with other people who are equally relieved. This is called the Iftar. There is special bread cooked just for this meal, and dates are also traditional.
2. As a foreigner, it will always surprise you who among your varying shades of secular and religious friends observes this holiday and who doesn’t.
3. You might find a strange man with a drum in your apartment building asking everyone for money. This is normal. He is not a bum. His traditional role is to wander the streets in the wee hours of the morning to wake everyone up for the traditional carb and tea heavy pre-dawn meal that fortifies one for the struggle ahead. Anachronistic, perhaps, in an age of alarm clocks let alone cell phones, but a nice link to the past. Just nod and smile and say hello in your very worst Turkish and pass by him as though you do not comprehend. You are an infidel. You do not have to give him money for waking you up when you do not wish to be awakened. Your god does not demand this of you.
4. Your school will basically give up on serving lunch, and you will have to adjust. Oh, lunch will be available, but it’ll be last night’s Iftar remnants, (my anonymous school serves a free Iftar meal for all observant students and staff) and is as such a bizarre combination of leftover carbs, as, even in a carb crazy country, everyone gobbles up all the protein they can get their hands on after a long hot day with no nourishment. Today: potatoes with two kinds of pasta. Bring sandwiches to work. Try not to eat them in front of people who are fasting.
5. Your students, especially your afternoon and evening ones, will be especially dazed and uncomprehending. Many will simply stop coming to class. This may puzzle you, as an infidel. Ramazan happens every year. Why schedule a class when you know you won’t be able to think straight? I mean, I don’t fast, obviously. But in summer I seldom eat breakfast, and by the end of my first class, at two, I can barely put a sentence together. I know this about myself. It’s why there’s a sandwich in my bag. But then, after three years in Turkey you’ve come to understand the cultural limits of planning, here.
6. Some of your favorite bars and restaurants will close. Rulo, I miss you! Your delectable veggie wraps are the perfect weight for long, hot summer days!
7. The accounts manager will look at you wistfully every time he wanders outside and you’re smoking, and he will try to wave some of your smoke towards his face. He’ll also be extra cranky.
8. Public eating and drinking will generally be frowned upon. And for good reason. It’s rude.
9. Some of your Western friends, with a kind of when in Rome zeal, will also attempt fasting. This will puzzle you as they’ve never attempted headscarf wearing or praying five times a day. But it’s their life, and you have a sandwich in your bag.
10. Traffic will be both better- cause there are quite a few people out of the city- and worse- cause quite a lot of the remaining drivers are delerious and cranky with hunger and thirst. Cabs are dicey. Well, dicier.
11. You will feel very bad for the ladies walking around covered with nine layers of fabric, including trenchcoats, who can’t even sip water.
12. You will come across surprising public iftars. Last night when I was walking home I had an idea to walk along Antik Street to look in the windows and maybe see if Naturel Sam was open again or not, and the street was end to end tables, full of people happily eating soup and dunking the special Ramazan pide into it. It was beautiful. I took pictures, but I really am a horrible photographer and I’m embarrassed to show them to you.
13. Ramazan ends with the Şeker Bayram, or Sugar Holiday, which is three days of solid feasting and celebrating and hanging out with your folks. Young people show respect to their elders and get money for it. Everyone eats tons of sweets. The city will empty like a sack of chicken feed with a hole in the bottom, and you’ll wander around confused at the lack of bodies obstructing you, the relative freedom from the general muddle of cars, buses and delivery bikes in the street. It’s a good time to think about your post-zombie-apocalypse plan. You will get three days off of work.
So that’s Ramazan, for the yabancı infidel. Wish everyone an easy fast, be respectful, don’t eat or drink in front of your fasting friends like a dick, and remember the reason for the season and show some compassion for the poor.