Video Of The Day: Ramadan Iftar Feast, Olympics Edition

Tomorrow, July 20, thousands of Muslims will wake up around the world and begin a month-long fast for the occasion of Ramadan. From sunrise to sunset, they will abstain from eating, drinking, and smoking, while breaking the fast with lively Ramadan iftar feasts at night. This year is special as it will coincide with the London Olympics, and UK mosques will be welcoming people from all over the world from every faith (or lack there of) to join in the celebratory feasts. If you are visiting London, you can learn more about the Ramadan holy month or join an iftar. You can visit for more information.

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People Of Mali Fight Back Against Fundamentalists Destroying Their Heritage

We’ve been covering the turmoil in Mali for some time now. Three months ago, rebels in the north of the country took advantage of a coup in the capital to break away and set up the nation of Azawad. This new nation, as yet unrecognized by any other, was supposed to be a homeland for the Tuaregs, a people who complain of poor treatment from the central government.

All did not go as planned. The radical Islamist group Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) took over part of the area and put it under harsh Sharia law. Their area of control includes Timbuktu, where they have been destroying the medieval shrines of Muslim saints they say are contrary to Islam. There are also fears they may burn the hundreds of thousands of early manuscripts in Timbuktu. Fundamentalists tend not to like reading much.

Now moderate Muslims are fighting back. Sufi Muslims, who are the majority in Mali and who honor the shrines, have created an armed band to defend them. They’re guarding the holy tombs at Araouane and Gasser-Cheick, close to Timbuktu.

This is the latest step towards conflict between the supposedly allied Ansar Dine and the other rebel groups. Ansar Dine has overstepped its bounds and insulted local religious feeling. They may soon pay the price.

With the world community doing nothing but wringing their hands and making sympathetic noises, it appears the only hope to save the ancient treasures of Mali is in the hands of the locals.

[Photo courtesy Emilio Labrador]

Keeping Kosher In Muslim Istanbul

Before I lived in Turkey, I thought roasted chestnuts just existed in old Christmas carols. In Istanbul, they are sold on many street corners, priced by the gram and varying in quality. They have also been a major form of sustenance for several of my houseguests. My friend with a gluten allergy bought a bag of them nightly, saying they were the closest food to bread she could still eat. They also became a mainstay for a recent guest with the most challenging dietary restriction yet: eating an all-kosher diet in a mostly Muslim country.

Our friend decided at the last minute to fly in from Israel to spend a long weekend in Istanbul. I was almost glad for the short warning, as it gave me less time to worry and wonder. Is halal the same as kosher? If you have to ask, the diets have some things in common (i.e. no pork), but they are about as compatible as their respective religions. Would he be able to even eat anything from our very non-kosher kitchen, freshly stocked with pork products from Greece? Stock up on disposable plates to serve vegetarian dishes, and you’re golden. What could we do during the Saturday Sabbath, when using electricity or exchanging money is forbidden? Wandering is a good activity, one that is well suited to this city.Turning to the trusty Google for kosher Istanbul ideas, I came up with mostly outdated listings for restaurants that have since closed and odd suggestions like trying to get into the Jewish home for the aged near the Galata tower. Though Istanbul is home to nearly 20,000 Jews, they apparently aren’t dining out much. The single kosher restaurant we found open to the public is Levi’s in Eminönü, a few steps from the Spice Market. Accessed through an old and rather decrepit han (a large commercial building), it has excellent views of the Golden Horn and a decor that hasn’t been updated in several decades. Levi’s serves standard Turkish food: grilled meats, kofte meatballs, salads and such, all certified kosher. I was likely the first foreign shiksa to dine there in some time, and like all Turkish establishments, they fussed and fawned over my baby and offered her sweets.

When it came time for the Friday night Sabbath and services, I had an edge in knowing a nearby synagogue in Şişli, as I used to live across the street. After the 2003 bombings, most of the city’s synagogues are heavily guarded by local police and accessible only with prior permission and identification. Unfortunately, our friend only learned he’d need his Israeli passport once he got there, and as one can’t carry anything during the Sabbath, he had no identification or way to contact us to bring it. He went instead just to Shabbat dinner at a local rabbi’s house, climbing the stairs back to our apartment in total darkness.

On Saturday, I walked him back to the rabbi’s for lunch, and when Google Maps failed to find the house number, my friend’s yamulke and tallit helped us find our way. As soon as some Turkish men spotted my friend, they escorted us to the rabbi’s house; evidently they’ve learned how to identify a Jewish visitor! At lunch, our friend met a few other Jewish travelers who found themselves in Istanbul for various reasons, who reported that they had to pretend they had forgotten their hotel room keys as they couldn’t operate the electronic key cards during the Sabbath. They had all found the rabbi through the Chabad-Lubavitch organization (you may have seen their mitzvah tanks in New York City), which connects Jews around the world, and found community even in a primarily Muslim city.

As we broke the Sabbath that night at a rooftop bar with a couple of Efes beers (most non-grape based alcohols are kosher, so beer is fine), I apologized for our non-kosher friendly city, but our friend declared one Istanbul one of his all-time favorite cities. Despite a diet of mostly fruit and vegetables, chestnuts and whatever random snack products available at the supermarket with the kosher symbol, he had gotten a taste of Turkey without a single kebab.

Levi’s Kosher restaurant is open weekdays for lunch only. Tahmis Kalçın Sokak, Çavuşbaşı Han 23/10, near Hamdi Restaurant in Eminönü. Find more info on the Turkish Jewish community here and here.

Video: Finding Love In Iran

When people think of Iran, dating isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. It’s a conservative country with a strict form of Islamic law. Natural urges are unconquerable, though, and young people will always find a way to hook up. This video from Alessio Rastani describes how the young and well-off find love in Tehran, Iran’s capital. Rastani talks with his cousins, who live there, about how to go about it and what Iranian women are looking for in a man.

This is nothing new. When I was in university back in the ’90s, one of my friends was an Iranian woman studying in the U.S. She told me that when she was in a girls’ high school, guys would hang out in front of the gate at the end of the day and throw little balled up pieces of paper onto the ground with their phone numbers on them. If you liked the guy, you picked up the piece of paper and called.

She was strictly Muslim, so talking was all she did. She liked one guy enough that she got permission for him to come over. After a few visits, her parents left them alone together. The first time this happened they sat together and talked for a couple of hours. After he left, her mother came out from the next room and said she’d been listening the whole time and was proud that she had been a good girl. My friend replied, “What did you expect me to do!?”

For her, you could be a good Muslim and still have fun.

Check out Rastani’s YouTube channel, HelloIranTV, for more great videos about life in Iran.

Photo Of The Day: Indonesian Dancers

There’s a wonderful sense of pattern and repetition in today’s photo by Flickr user don.wright. Shot at a dance ceremony in Banda Aceh, the largest city on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the photo’s subjects each carry a unique expression that adds personality and charm. Some break into a bashful smile, some are expressionless, some – like the woman in the center of the frame – look deep in thought. I wonder what they’re all thinking?

Taken any great photos during your own travels? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.