My first semester of teaching has come to an end. Jumping into the daily grind at a professional language school has been a crash course in the 9-5 life. It’s been a refreshing and stimulating challenge, a blur of lesson plans, classes, exams and marking.
Next week also sees the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, or ‘Ramazan’ in Turkish. It is said that during this time, fifteen hundred years ago, the archangel Gabriel revealed to the Prophet the first lines of the Qu’ran.
The birth of Islam is marked by fasting from dawn till dusk, from new moon to new moon. Anything that passes the lips – food, water, cigarettes – is forbidden. Ramazan is also a time of charity. The Turkish Red Crescent alone aims to deliver food, clothes and donations to 15 million people in 37.
My first experience of Ramazan was actually two years ago, when I first visited the country. On my very first night in Istanbul I wandered down to the famed Sultanahmet Square as the sun was setting. There, I discovered hundreds of families gathered on the grass, preparing to break the day’s fast with the iftar meal. On either side of the congregation rose the twin majesties of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia.
I had thought only to sit and watch the festivities. Soon enough, though, I was approached by a little girl and invited to join her family’s table. Though they hardly spoke a word of English, they welcomed me and shared their feast of Turkish delicacies, including Ramazan Pidesi – Turkish bread baked especially for the evening meal.
Afterwards, the children played football on the grass, the cousins added me on Instagram, and the parents told me of life in Turkey. They were Kurdish, and the father a police-man. Having prepared most of the food, the grandmother smoked cigarettes and listened, occasionally ducking into the Blue Mosque to pray. Between minarets was strung a banner of lights – an especially Turkish tradition – that glowed with a message of the season.
I enjoyed many iftar meals that year, with friends and with strangers, in parks and in mosques. In some countries, Ramazan can almost completely shut down public life during the day. In Turkey, with its more diverse cultural demographics, things are not so extreme. Still, life took on something of a different rhythm, not circadian but spiritual, as after long, hot days spent in rest and retreat, the balmy spring evenings bloomed across Istanbul, bringing the city to life with the salty breath of the Bosphorous.
This life lasts until the early hours of the morning when the city is woken by drummers in traditional garb marching through the streets. They bang their drums and recite classical Turkish poetry, rousing the faithful to take their final sahur meal before sunrise.
This time round, the evenings have found me working. What iftar meals I have enjoyed have been with my students – once when food was brought to class and once when we all ducked out to enjoy the seasonal menu at a local restaurant. Class schedules were adjusted to allow students to break their fast. It’s difficult to concentrate on your lessons with a belly sixteen-hours empty, after all.
Not everyone fasts, though. Children, the elderly, pregnant and menstruating women, the sick and those who are travelling are all exempt. Others begin the month with strong intentions only to peter out, unable to maintain the taxing regime. Some fast only for the final week. Some do not fast at all, instead abstaining from something – alcohol or sweets, for example – like the observance of Lent.
The less religiously inclined still believe fasting is good for your health. They speak of the personal challenge it presents, the mental and physiological benefits – clarity of thought, detachment from cravings. And values of charity, community and family can be celebrated by anyone, regardless of faith.
Like Christmas, Ramazan can extend beyond its religious significance to become a broader celebration of communally cherished values. And, like Christmas, one of those values is increasingly consumerism. Ramazan specials are emblazoned across the windows of every shopping mall. Online app stores offer Ramazan discount packages. And Vodafone hasn’t stopped texting me about its special data pack, ‘in celebration of the holy month.’
It’s especially jarring when it comes from Western companies, where it reeks of cynical tokenistic gesturing barely veiled in service of commercial motives. But I’m sure the imams are gritting their teeth even when local companies do it, just as much as the priests might grumble back home at the commercialization of Christmas.
The month of fasting comes to an end with Eid, thee days of feasting and festivities for families to come together and celebrate. These days, busy professionals use it as an excuse for a quick holiday – which is what I’ll be doing, as well. An hour and a half east of Antalya, a southern resort city on the Aegean Coast, a five-day experimental dark psy-trance music festival has my name on it…