Ramadan begins in the Muslim world: a report from Turkey

Yesterday was the first day of Ramadan (or Ramazan, as it is called in Turkey), a month-long holiday in the Islamic faith of fasting, prayer, and reflection. For observant Muslims, eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual activity is prohibited from dawn to dusk for 30 days. The elderly, ill, pregnant and nursing mothers, as well as (interestingly) menstruating women are excused. Before dawn, drummers traditionally walk the streets to wake people up to eat a last meal before the fast begins. At the end of the day, the fast is broken with an iftar meal which usually involves special pide flat bread in Turkey.

While many Westerners choose to avoid travel to Muslim countries during Ramadan due to the awkwardness of eating during the day, the nights can be a fun and fascinating time to observe the celebrations and feasts. As Turkey is a fairly liberal country and Istanbul particularly secular, I was curious to see how behavior would change in the city, particularly during the current heatwave. The night before Ramazan began, I headed to the supermarket to stock up on provisions, not wanting to flaunt my food and drink purchases (including very un-Muslim wine and bacon) while others were fasting. While it wasn’t like the pre-blizzard rush I expected, I did spot quite a few Muslims carb-loading on pasta, cookies, and baked goods in preparation for the fast.The first morning of Ramazan, I followed tweets from my fellow Istanbulites reporting on the drummers who woke them pre-dawn but they weren’t heard in my neighborhood. Outside on my street of fabric wholesale stores, it was tea-drinking, chain-smoking, kebab-eating business as usual. Heading down to posh Nişantaşı, the Soho of Istanbul, shop girls still smoked outside designer boutiques and sidewalk cafes were busy as ever. I spotted a few Turkish workmen lying languidly on the grass in Maçka Park, though whether their fatigue was due to fasting or the unbearable humidity is debatable. Hopping on the (blissfully air-conditioned) tram to tourist mecca Sultanahmet, visitors brandished water bottles and crowded outside restaurants as ever, but the usual touts outside the Blue Mosque were hard to find, as were any signs of Ramazan being observed. Slightly different was the waterfront Eminönü area where the Galata Bridge crosses the Golden Horn; the usual dozens of fishermen where cut down to a handful on either side and the plethora of street food vendors serving the thousands of ferry commuters were fewer.

That evening near Taksim Square, hardly any restaurants had closed and even the fasting waiters seemed good-natured about serving customers. Just before sunset, lines started to form outside bakeries selling pide, and at the dot of 8:20pm, restaurant tables quickly filled up and several waiters sat inside and ate ravenously. The mood was convivial and festival-like on the streets, and special concerts and events are put on nightly throughout the month. This month’s English-language Time Out Istanbul provides a guide to Ramadan as well as a round-up of restaurants serving iftar feasts, but curiously, almost all of them are at Western chain hotels.

While it’s hard to tell if people are fasting or just not indulging at the moment, here in Istanbul, life goes on during Ramazan. As the days go on, I expect to notice more bad moods and short tempers, particularly with the already slightly deranged taxi drivers craving their nicotine and caffeine fixes. Little will change for a non-Muslim traveler during Ramazan, particularly in tourist areas, but it’s still polite to be discreet about eating and drinking in public as a courtesy to those fasting. I look forward to Şeker Bayramı (Sweets Festival) next month, the three-day holiday marking the end of Ramazan, and the equivalent of Christmas or Hanukkah, with a little bit of Halloween thrown in. During the holiday, children go door to door and get offered candies and presents, Turkish people visit with family, and everyone drinks a lot of tea.

Any other travelers experiencing Ramadan this month? Tell us about your experience in the comments.

[Photo credit: Flickr user laszlo-photo]