We’re halfway through the month of Ramadan (called Ramazan in Turkish), an important time for religious Muslims but also a time of many celebrations. Turkey is a largely secular country, thanks to founder Ataturk, who brought the country out of the Ottoman Empire into the modern world 90 years ago, and many Turks do not observe the fasting but do enjoy many of the traditions associated with Ramazan. Each day’s sunrise-to-sunset fast is broken with the iftar meal, a feast anyone can enjoy and typically started with consuming a few dates.
In Turkey, a large flat loaf of Ramazan pide bread is a specialty only made during this month and a must for any iftar. Last year, during my first Ramazan in Istanbul, I tried a few supermarket Ramazan pides and was mostly underwhelmed, it tastes similar to a pizza crust. This year I got wise and joined the many locals standing in line for a fresh hot pide and now I’m hooked. Bakeries all over the city make pides in the afternoon and evening to be fresh for sunset call-to-prayer and it’s one time you want to show up at a bakery at the end of the day. Look for a bakery with the longest line, get your lira ready (they generally cost around 1.50 TL or $1 USD), and grab a piping hot loaf wrapped in a paper sleeve. Pides are usually covered in sesame seeds and make a great sandwich base with cheese or spread with tahini and Nutella, that is if you can wait that long. Many Turks tear into their pide on the way home from the bakery, while it’s still hot and crusty from the oven. Enjoy them while you can, Ramazan will be over August 29, when the national bayram holidays begin and pides disappear until next year.
Today begins the Islamic holiday of Ramadan, a month long period of prayer and reflection, fasting and sacrifice, as well as feasting and acts of charity and kindness.
Travelers should exercise extra patience and flexibility this month where Ramadan is celebrated, but enjoy the special atmosphere and festivities.
If traveling in a Muslim country during August, expect closures, a slower pace, and shorter tempers during the day, but lively iftar meals and celebrations at night.
Here in the largely secular city of Istanbul, foreigners and tourists won’t encounter many problems, most restaurants and attractions will be open and travelers aren’t expected to observe the fast, though it’s polite to refrain from eating or drinking in public (read about last year’s Ramadan in Istanbul here and in Cairo).
In the US, Whole Foods has become the first nationwide chain to offer promotions and special content for Ramadan. The grocery store’s blog will share recipes and sponsor giveaways all month for the nearly 2 million American Muslims.
The TSA has just posted on their blog about what to expect in airports during Ramadan, though most of their tips are general for any time of year (you may encounter Muslims performing ablutions in airport bathrooms or hear prayers whispered) or information about what not to expect (i.e. eating or smoking).
Ramadan will end on August 29 this year, followed by a week of celebration when many Muslims travel to visit family or pilgrimage to Mecca.
Read more Gadling travel tips for Ramadan here. Traveling in the Muslim world this month? Share your experiences with us in the comments below.
Today France has taken a controversial move and instated a burqa ban, aimed at the traditional religious covering worn by conservative Muslim women. The ban will potentially affect up to 2,000 women who wear a full-face veil in public, though it is unclear how the enforcement will work as police cannot remove the veil. Women who refuse to lift the burqa or niqab may be taken to a police station for an identity check, threatened with a 150 euro fine, or forced to attend “re-education” classes. Men who force women to wear the veil will face a 30,000 euro fine and up to a year in jail. So far only a few women have been arrested for protesting the ban near Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral.
Jacques Myard, a Parliament member and supporter of the ban said “The face is a dignity of a person. The face is your passport. So when you refuse me to see you, I am a victim.” France has the highest Muslim population in Europe, estimated between four and six million, though only a few thousand women wear the full-face veil. Belgium has passed a similar law but hasn’t enforced it, and the Netherlands is considering a ban as well.
Travel broadens the mind, at least for most people. As we explore different cultures and beliefs we see that for the most part they’re OK. While there are always local customs we just can’t follow, in general the more we travel, the more accepting we become.
But how accepting should we get? I’ve traveled extensively in the Muslim world and I’ve yet to figure out exactly how I feel about the burqa and niqab, two types of female Islamic clothing that cover the face. For the vast majority of the world’s population, the face is a key to identity. We look at the face to tell what a person is thinking and feeling. It’s how we spot friends and enemies at a distance. To see a covered face makes many people suspicious. In most cultures, it means the person has something to hide.
Here in Europe a debate is raging over whether the face veil should be banned. Some politicians say it’s oppressive and against Western values, while others defend it as part of a cultural heritage that needs to be tolerated in a free society. One thing these pundits have in common is that they talk about women who cover their faces, but very few actually talk with them. Regarding the burqa ban in France, one female friend quipped, “It’s just another case of men telling women what to wear.” Here’s a video from the BBC program Newsnight that interviews Muslim women both for and against veils.
This video makes two important points: that opinion is divided in the Muslim community over face covering, and that there are thinking, educated people under those veils.As a Western man I haven’t had many opportunities to talk with covered women, but when traveling in Somaliland I got to talk to a few niqabis. While talking with them I discovered that their personalities began to emerge. I also kept a lot of eye contact since there was nothing else to look at. The eyes are always expressive. Among niqabis they’re even more so.
Fellow travel writer Lara Dunston taught in Abu Dhabi for many years and noticed the same thing. The veil didn’t stop her from getting to know people as individuals. She even became able to recognize people just from their eyes. She says the vast majority of her students cover by choice. In the book From My Sisters’ Lips, Muslim convert Na’ima bint Robert talks about why she chose to cover her face, and interviews others who made the same choice. Central to their decision was the desire to be known for what they think, not how they look. They see the veil as accentuating a person’s identity rather than hiding it.
If only it were that straightforward. In many places it’s not individual choice but social pressure or even force of law that makes women cover their faces. Saudi Arabia, which is our ally because we need their oil and they need our weapons, has been instrumental in the global spread of radical Islam. For example, they’re building beautiful mosques and madrasas in the Muslim regions of Ethiopia in order to change what has been a bastion of liberal Islam. I’ll never forget passing through one village where the only stone building, and the only one that had more than one storey, was a Saudi-built mosque. Walking along the road in the noonday sun was a woman in a niqab with a huge bundle of firewood over her back. I was hot just standing there. I can’t imagine how she must have felt.
Take this woman: uneducated, almost certainly illiterate, who’s probably never been outside her own region, and introduce her to a Saudi cleric with his nice car and clothes and education, and he tells her she needs to cover her face or Allah will be angry and her neighbors will think she’s a slut. What’s she going to do? That’s not a choice; that’s oppression pure and simple.
In a response to the controversial “Just Say No To Burqas” mural in Australia, a Muslim activist friend of mine Asra Nomani said, “‘Say No To Burqas,’ says ‘no’ to not only burqas but the interpretation of Islam that says that women are too sexy for their faces and have to cover up to be ‘good Muslims.’ It’s important that we reject the interpretation of Islam that sanctions burqas. One girl who had to wear a burqa in my village in India asked me, ‘What’s it like to feel the sun shine on your face?'”
Asra makes a good point that the burqa is only one interpretation of Islam. The Koran and Hadith say that both men and women should dress modestly. They say nothing about women bundling themselves up from head to toe in yards of cloth.
An educated debate about this issue is becoming increasingly important as Western society becomes more multicultural. It’s becoming more important to me personally. I spend every summer in Oxford. Among the many Muslims there, most women wear headscarves, something that I barely notice anymore. A small minority of women wear the niqab, including a local pharmacist. Last year we were in the park and my son, then four years old, saw one of the mothers wearing a niqab.
“Why is she hiding her face?” he asked.
“Because she wants to for her religion,” I said.
“SHE SHOULD TAKE IT OFF!” he said in that typical child voice that carries for miles.
“Only if she wants to,” I replied rather lamely.
I couldn’t think of a better answer. I still can’t.
Thumbing your nose at the Taliban has never been so fun.
The Malam Jabba ski resort in the Swat Valley of Pakistan has been a battleground between the Pakistani army and the Taliban for years. When the Taliban seized the area in 2006 they blew up the resort. They decided that skiing is unislamic, probably because it’s fun. Well, the Muslims in the Pakistani army didn’t agree with this interpretation of Islam and when they retook the region in 2009, they rebuilt the resort. Now they’re hosting a skiing competition to show off the new facilities, the BBC reports. Six Pakistani teams are competing. No news on the winners yet, but the only losers are those grumpy nutcases in the Taliban.
The army, which runs the resort, is hoping to attract tourists to the region. It used to draw intrepid foreign skiers but the fighting, which continued into last year, scared them away. Judging from the above photo, the skiing looks pretty good. Unfortunately it’s hard to tell what the facilities are like now because this picture was taken in 2005 by M. Sajid Ishaq, before the Taliban got their hands on it.