Cultural norms / Family / Turkey

The magic of Ramadan in Istanbul

Every year, I plan to write at great length about the magic of Ramazan (usually referred to as Ramadan in English), taking in all the different aspects of it you see as a foreigner living amongst believers and explaining every last detail to those who aren’t familiar. But every year, my ambition overwhelms me, and I somehow end up writing nothing at all. This year, I’m just writing. I’m not aiming for anything particularly fancy or thought provoking. I just want to share the magic a little bit.

hosgeldin-sehri-ramazan-cigkoftebayrampasa-comRamazan is one of my favourite times of year in Istanbul. Only a relatively small proportion of people actually fast during Ramazan in Turkey, but there is a definite change in atmosphere during this month, the holiest in the Islamic calendar, that even non-believers can’t help but notice. Every morning, we are awoken by the clatter of the davulcu (the drummers whose job it is to wake those who are fasting in time to eat sahur, the meal eaten before sunrise).

In Istanbul, unlike other places I’ve lived, you really have to look for the signs of Ramazan. Some restaurants don’t open during the day, some close completely – but not the hordes guidebooks often threaten. You can usually tell whether someone’s fasting by mid-afternoon by the a slightly glazed look in the eyes and a certain, erm, edge to the breath. But no-one makes a big deal of fasting. It just is, and people get on with their days.

As iftar, the time of fast-breaking, draws near, the streets empty. People trudge home to wait for the call to prayer. Kids are sent out to buy fresh, hot pide, the pillowy, slightly chewy flatbread eaten during Ramazan. Restaurants fill with diners who don’t eat, but merely sit, contemplating the spread before them. The city is poised, holding its breath so as not to miss the first strains of the ezan. And then, when the first cry echoes, the collective exhale, the joy, as cool water is gulped and fudgy shiny dates are devoured.

I’m more spiritual than an adherent of a particular religion, but I greatly admire and respect those who do have faith. Ramazan is, for me, a particularly spectacular act of faith. Thirty days without food or water, when the days are over 17 hours long and the temperature is pushing 30˚C, is a feat I can barely contemplate. And yet all around the world, millions are doing it, without comment, without complaint, without updating their Facebook statuses about it.

For the last five or so years, I’ve fasted for a few days every Ramazan. Of course, my meagre couple of days is nothing compared to those who do the full thirty days, but it is bloody hard. You get a very particular kind of headache from not drinking water all day by around 5pm. The hunger is nothing. I’ve realised that I can, despite what my brain tells me, easily go without food. But no water? I last until around 11am until I’m cursing myself for embarking on such a ridiculous endeavour.

On the other hand, I like the way it forces me to walk in others’ shoes, even just temporarily. And I tell you what: there is no better sound than the muezzin’s call as the sun slips below the horizon. The sensation of cold water hitting your stomach and sugar entering your bloodstream would be delightful enough alone. But share that moment with family and friends as darkness descends on the city, and even the most angry atheist could start to understand what moves people to believe.


More on Ramazan

Ramazan in Istanbul:

Ramazan: the basics:

What to eat:

What to eat during sahur/suhoor:


4 thoughts on “The magic of Ramadan in Istanbul

  1. I just returned from Dubai. Dehydration is a huge issue there. I saw people actually pass out late afternoon.

    More power to those who do fast but I could not, not in this heat.

  2. I’ve lived in Turkey for two years, but I still have not been there for Ramadan. I’m very curious about what it’s like. The most I’ve ever fasted is 18 hours and that included a full night’s sleep. I admire the dedication it takes to observe Ramadan – without writing a Facebook status about it. 🙂

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