Re-experiencing Ramadan

August 16, 2012, Thursday/ 15:17:00

While my Turkish husband and I lived in California, Ramadan didn't have much of an effect on me. For most of that time Lütfü worked nights, so we didn't usually eat our evening meals together. He fasted, though, and observed other aspects of Ramadan, such as the timely breaking of his fast. Luckily, he worked in a Jewish retirement home, which served only kosher food, so there was never any worry about inappropriate ingredients. The residents and other staff (he was the only Muslim employee there) were very accommodating as to his religious practices, and Ramadan proceeded pretty smoothly. It also helped (although I didn't realize it then) that the Holy Month in those years fell during October and then a bit of late September, so the days were short and the temperature pretty moderate (25-30 degrees Celsius and low humidity), with cool evenings and mornings.

After we moved to Turkey in 2007, it still fell within that range, although the Islamic calendar was creeping up on August, where it is now. Ramadan is a completely different ballgame when the fasting hours are 15 to 16 hours in Kocaeli's humid, 30-35 degree Celsius weather (although certainly not as difficult as it is in our Southeast.) Through our years here I have come to truly admire the stamina and uncomplaining humility of the people who fast; while there are admittedly moments of “Ramadan Madness,” when tempers fray and people get a little snappy, the people I know are pleased to take on this holy obligation and do so in humble spirit. I know my husband is grateful every day that he isn't, for instance, one of the workers on the new fast train project under construction across our little valley. How the workers can work there all day, in the blazing sun, around heavy machinery and dynamite, is truly a wonder. We both send out little prayers for their safety and strength every day.

It has taken me a while to get in the swing of things during Ramadan in Turkey. Not working outside the home for the first time in my adult life, it has fallen to me to be responsible for making life as easy as I can for my fasting husband. At first I was pretty clumsy, and didn't manage my time well. It seemed as though it should be OK if there were water and dates available for my husband to break his fast, and no big concern if I couldn't have dinner on the table at the exact minute for iftar. I was wrong, and now chastise myself for my earlier insensitivity. I like to make nice dinners, and sometimes they weren't done in time, so my husband would have to wait for his “real” meal for 10 or 15 minutes. I have finally realized that my thinking was as backwards as my timing, and I am much better now. I still make nice meals -- better, my husband says -- but I start them much earlier, sometimes even the day before, and those soup bowls are being filled as my husband (and sometimes guests, of course) are finishing their prayers and their dates.

I also had a bit of a problem getting into the custom of eating at other people's homes a lot. We rarely went to other people's homes for dinner in the States, due, I suppose, to us both working outside the home all day; we rarely felt like getting dressed up to go visit and eat, staying late and having to get up early the next day. Here, of course, we don't have that problem, but at first I still resisted all the Ramadan visiting. When we did go to a neighbor's or a family member's house, I was just overwhelmed by the grace of our hostesses and the amazing quantity and variety of dishes they prepared and served. I felt I could never reciprocate.

But life is not all about me, much as I think so sometimes, for which I am embarrassed. I am happy to say that with my husband's help and assurances, I have advanced to become a fairly competent and creative Ramadan partner. When my husband is at work or otherwise out of the home, I try to get all my chores done and some of his as well, like feeding the animals and the essential garden work, so I can spend time with him during the last hard hours of his fast. I do all the heavy cooking so that when he comes home the extra heat and cooking odors have gone, leaving just a hint of what is to come. I plan menus for health and variety, because he can't eat very much compared to his normal habits, and I want the meal to be as tasty as possible. There is always cold water in the fridge to pour for the meal.

We have developed some family traditions of our own, like spending a few days in İstanbul during the season, so he can pray in some of the wonderful mosques there. If at all possible, we attend one iftar at the public facilities at Beyazit Camii, where the lovely manager offers a simple iftar to anyone who would like to join him. This year he even sat at our little table under the grape arbor, sharing the meal and calling us his honored guests. We also go for the best beans in the world (honestly) served to the thousand or so guests that gather outside Suleymaniye Camii, where the joint celebration of a crowd provides a huge contrast to the 20 or so present at Beyazit Camii. Both these İstanbul experiences have enriched our Ramadan experience for several years now; the intimate quiet of a simple meal and the joyous, simultaneous eating of a thousand dates, different expressions of the same feeling.

Iftars at our families' homes add another layer of meaning and color to iftar. Whether gathered with brothers and their wives and children on a rooftop terrace, watching the sun set and waiting for the imam's call, or sitting around a table on the living room floor, the anticipation and sharing just keeps regenerating, along with the sense of accomplishment of one more day of doing the will of Allah. My sisters-in-law don't intimidate any more with their incredible spread of humble but tasty dishes -- I just enjoy the meal. Typically, we have “simple” dinners of dates, water and soda, home-made soup, rice, bread, salad, either beans and meat or chickpeas and meat and chicken cooked in various ways. We eat three times as much at their houses, for some reason! And this year, we have added a new touch to our Ramadan: the boat iftar! Recently we had a picnic iftar, complete with water, dates and hot tea, with a friend on our little fishing boat. Another night, just Lute and I enjoyed breaking his fast about 75 meters offshore, along with the employees of the mayor of Gebze and their families, brought together at a seaside outdoor restaurant to break the fast with their co-workers and boss and cool off a little from the Gebze heat. It was fun to listen to the speeches and well-wishing whilst eating our dinner on the darkening sea.

And so, almost without realizing it, we have gone in a few short years from a little family who “managed” Ramadan to one that works in (almost) complete harmony to focus on the rituals and see that each supports the other during this holiest of months in Islam. Hopefully next year will be even more satisfying than most. To all of you we wish “Hayırlı Bayramlar”!

*Elsie is a non-Muslim living with her Muslim husband in Turkey.

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