Over the many years I’ve been going to Turkey I’ve met a few tourists who are shocked when they realise they’ve booked they holiday during Ramadam (or Ramazan as it is in Turkey). The thought of being amongst millions of people who neither eat, drink nor smoke during the hours of daylight horrifies them. Several things can happen under these circumstances. Firstly if said tourists are vacationing in one of the big Mediterranean resorts they won’t really be affected by Ramazan. Some friends who recently returned from one of the biggest conurbations, claimed that they didn’t even know Ramazan was happening. They did notice Roman Abramovitch’s vast, mega-yacht glide past their beach but people gamely refusing tea and biscuits did not feature. Some people, secondly, may know that Ramazan is happening but just choose to ignore it. It is however, the third option, getting with, as it were, the programme, that I always choose.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not fast during Ramazan. I am not Muslim myself and although I did try it for two days back in 2004, I was far too wimpy and pathetic to keep it up. I am a beast without my early morning tea. No, by getting with the programme what I mean is that whenever I am in Turkey during Ramazan I try to get into the spirit of the thing. Fasting is only part of what is known as the Holy Month. Ramazan is a time when people give – to the poor, to their relatives, to their friends and even their enemies. Such gifts may be quite invisible, like the gift of forgiveness to someone who has hurt you. People give to beggars in the street, to charitable organisations and make sure that they put a donation into the appropriate box when visiting a place of worship. One of the reasons for this latest trip to Turkey was to visit abandoned Greek Churches. Redundant since the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey in the 1920’s, these buildings are now the responsibility of the Ankara government. Though largely empty, these churches are well maintained and votive candles and tubs of sand for them to sit in are always provided along with a box for donations. Normally I would donate. In Ramazan however I make that little extra effort. I like to think that this time I did my small bit towards lighting up those beautiful, deserted empty spaces.
Giving aside, the great joy of Ramazan has to be sharing an iftar meal with friends. Iftar is the meal that is taken at sunset after what can be a very hard day of fasting. It is a great privilege to be invited to an iftar meal and this Ramazan I was invited to several. Great feasts are lovingly constructed, without those cooking tasting the food during the preparation – a feat of self control in itself in my opinion. It is customary for guests to contribute too and so I arrived with goodies lugged in bursting suitcases from the UK. Swapping what a Brit considers quite ordinary, like a box of chocolate mints, for a gooey plate of Turkish pastries is always a laugh. Our ideas about what is luxurious and exotic are quite different. But let me tell you it is really great to see the look of rapt pleasure on someone’s face as they bite, with eyes closed, into a common or garden liquorice Allsort.
My message to everyone who has either avoided or just not been aware of Ramazan is to give it a go. Visit Turkey during the Holy Month and join in the spirit of the festival even if fasting is not something you want to do. No-one will judge you for eating, drinking and smoking – that is your choice. What you will benefit from however is contact with the spirit of giving and sharing that is the real crux of the matter. Also in İstanbul and other cities the after sunset food-booths, outdoor plays and concerts are fantastic fun. Can’t wait for next year!