Ramadan moves forward every year by 10 days due to the cycle of the Islamic lunar calendar, which means that the last time the month of Ramadan occurred in August was in the year 1978, the first time I visited Turkey. I have watched Ramadan swing completely around the calendar, and I now find myself in 2012, back in a hot summer of fasting. This year, as in 1978, Muslims will fast for more than 16 hours a day, a challenge for even the most pious.
Much still reminds me of what I first experienced in Kayseri on my inaugural visit to Turkey in August 1978, when I knew nothing about Turkey or Ramadan. I had freshly arrived in this central Anatolian city and was welcomed for dinner at the home of a business associate of a colleague. It was my first visit to a Turkish home, and the host did not speak English and I did not speak Turkish. I was ushered into a room where 20 men were sitting around a table. No one spoke, everyone seemed tense, their black bottlebrush moustaches intimidating. Bowls of soup were already set on the table, but no one moved. Were they waiting for me, the guest, to start first? I had no idea what to do, but I was literally saved by the bell -- in this case, a muezzin call. Upon hearing it, men grabbed their wooden spoons and began frantically slurping their soup. I was a bit startled at their inelegant table manners. Women kept pouring out of the kitchen bringing platters of food (why weren't they sitting with us?), and then disappeared, leaving me with the hoard of ravenous men. As abruptly as the feeding frenzy started, it ended, a few resounding burps were pronounced, and up they all rose gesturing me to follow them. We walked over to the main square and entered a mosque, the first time I had attended a prayer service. I was entranced by the low rings of brilliantly lit lights, the mass of people and the droning prayers. They placed me in the rear of the mosque with a group of women (finally!) I didn't know and gestured for me to wait there. After what seemed like an eternity, they came to fetch me, and we went back to the house and spent the next two hours drinking tea and puffing on cigarettes. I understood nothing of that evening and wondered what kind of a place this was, this country called Turkey, where men ate with lightning speed and stayed up late drinking endless glasses of tea and smoking. Jetlagged and innocent, I had no idea I had just participated in my very first iftar dinner -- the nightly meal that breaks the Ramadan fast -- and my first day of Ramadan celebrations.
Since then, I have since learned much about Ramadan, its customs of fasting, feasting and the spiritual impact of the month, and have found that it is more than guzzled soup and tea. Like many Turks, I find myself welcoming the arrival of this holiest, yet scorching, ninth month, unlike any other time of the year.
The evolving customs of the scorching month of Ramadan
Ramadan is a month of celebrations in every Muslim country. This annual observance is regarded as one of five pillars of the faith. In Turkey, Ramadan is celebrated as a month of faith and cultural effervescence: fasting, contemplative prayer and celebration go hand in hand. It is estimated that in this Muslim country (98 percent of the population) with a strong democracy, some 60 percent of the population keeps the fast, while the rest choose not to fast or fast irregularly, in a particularly relaxed Turkish take on the custom. The proportion of fasting people is less in urban centers, where perhaps only half of the people fast. By fasting, Muslims understand that nothing must pass the lips from sunrise to sunset: food, drink, water, chewing gum, or cigarettes. Observant Muslims even refrain from licking postage stamps and postpone their vacation plans for fear that they will take in water while swimming in the sea.
You can hear Ramadan in the soundscape of the country as well. Canons boom when it is time to break the fast, the muezzin's calls are amplified even louder, and at dawn drummers walk the streets to make sure people wake for the sahur meal, the last one before the sun rises on the next day of fasting. Despite the fact that alarm clocks and electronic devices have rendered the town crier obsolete, this beloved tradition endures.
Indeed, Turkey has changed drastically since 1978: Turkey's population has skyrocketed, it has fearlessly dived into the computer and telecommunications age, global markets have crossed its frontiers, and the economy of the country is envied by many in the world. Turks now enjoy a level of comfort and well-being inconceivable in the darker days of 1978. Much in the same way, over these almost 35 years of observing Ramadan, much has changed in its customs, but many of the traditions that I first observed in 1978 endure.
Strings of colored lights depicting tulips and roses still festoon buildings and trees in parks. Banners hang across the roads and welcome the arrival of the month: “Hoşgeldin Ey Şehri Ramadan-ı Şerif” (a reference to Ramadan being the most important month over the 11 other months in the Islamic calendar). In 1978, as today, around the major squares a festival atmosphere reigns with booths and tables set up to sell traditional snacks, balloons for children and religious paraphernalia. In a custom dating back to Ottoman times, mosques are illuminated with giant strings of lights hung between the minarets. People come from all over Turkey to see these lights, and I must admit seeing them fills me too with a joy akin to the lighting of the beloved Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza in New York. I have duly noted many of them in my travel notebooks over the years (“Sevelim, sevilelim,” “Onbir ayın sultanı,” “Bu ayın kıymetini bil” etc.), and was pleased to see that as I learned Turkish, their meanings were revealed to me. My favorite of all is the "Ramadan is sharing" sign at the 16th century Yeni Cami in İstanbul.
I remember much about that first Ramadan in 1978. In Central Anatolia, there were no grocery stores laden with all types of imported goods. You bought your food at the market place or in the local Amca bakkal, not in a shopping mall. You carried your string bags full of vegetables and meat in your hands, not in your fancy van. Kitchens were modest as well, and I was always astounded that Turkish women could make such elaborate meals with such simple utensils and equipment. Rice was considered a luxury item at the time. Turks begin preparing for Ramadan the month before, stocking up on supplies well in advance. No one wanted to be without adequate staples on hand to prepare the many extensive meals over the month, not to mention that shopping and preparation is much easier to do in a non-fasting -- and cooler -- moment.
But the most difficult was coping with the heat, with August temperatures soaring to 35-40 C -- and even 45 C in the southwest. There was no air conditioning and going without a drop of water in such heat is no easy matter. Despite the scorching heat, Turks went about their daily lives and chores. Women cooked and took care of the children, both men and women worked in the fields in the blazing sun, toting their bundles on their backs and cutting grain, all without a drop of water to sustain them. Fasting for 16 hours is no easy feat, but they seemed to adapt to it simply and nobly with no fuss.
In the endless hour before breaking the fast, people scurried like mad to the bakery to buy the Ramadan pide bread, baked only at this time of the year, hot from the oven. When the cannon did boom to end the feast, neighbors joined together in one house or in a garden, all sharing the food they had prepared in their homes that day in a potluck spirit of community, easing the strain on all. Children were charged with carrying platters of food to friends, neighbors and older people.
Now, as in 1978, after dinner, some people go to the mosque to perform the terawih prayers (as I had seen that first night in Kayseri), and then families stay up watching TV programs, which include special musical programs, films and ads prepared just for the season (one particular ad this year even shows a foreigner being invited to an iftar dinner!). Conversations with family and friends over endless glasses of tea last late into the night.
Now, as in 1978, Ramadan means sharing, as says that favorite sign of mine, and modern grocery stores prepare specially-packed “Ramadan” boxes laden with non-perishable supplies such as bulgur, oil and tea for Turks to purchase and offer to others less fortunate. One of the most noticeable differences I have observed over the years has been the proliferation of lavish iftar dinners hosted by politicians, NGOs and corporations as a way to make a social or economic statement. Much like the lavish weddings favored by Turks, these glamorous gala events are used by businesses as a public relations promotional tool (a large European supermarket chain held one at a prominent Emirgan museum, for example, last week), to assert their visibility in the public eye. These banquets -- of which I have attended several -- seem far from the humble dinner of dates, lentil soup and Ramadan pide that I first experienced that first night in Kayseri. Like the whirlwind of Christmas parties during the end of year holiday season in the West, these events put a very social spin on the month.