Turkish Imam in Rize, Turkey
Tieran Meets the World,  Turkey

Ramadan & Religion in Turkey

Cycling through Turkey During Ramadan – VIDEO [Article Below]

Summary: What are the rules for Ramadan, why do people fast, and what’s it like to visit turkey during the islamic holy month? My cycle tour through Turkey coincided with Ramadan, a religious period I’d known embarrassingly little about before my arrival, but that was about to change…


Thoughts From the Road 

I should be scared, but I savour the rush. The wind picks up, roaring against my face as my eyes begin to water, and I allow momentum to take control. A car pulls out in front of me, and I veer left, tilting my entire bike into the stream of cars flowing past what feels like a hair’s breadth from my body; one wrong move and I’d be under those wheels, not beside them. Each near miss gives me a kick, and my risks get bolder. 

I started out that day nervous, inching my way into Istanbul, slowed by the countless breaks I had to take while I calmed my nerves and caught my breath. But now I rocket alongside the traffic, drivers pointing and laughing as a ridiculously overloaded bike bounces and clangs between them. Exhaust fumes burn my lungs, but I barely notice; I’m mesmerised, struggling to grasp the full scale and scope of this city. It’s endless, its buildings sprawling on and on and on and as it swallows me whole, it becomes my entire universe. Every street offers an opportunity to lose myself; if I do, it feels like years will pass before I emerge again. I’ve never believed in love at first sight, but Istanbul is testing that notion.


Chapter 1

Welcome to Turkey


I have sat here, staring at my screen, debating how I can possibly describe, in writing, the sensation I felt cycling in Turkey. I’ve written and re-written this three times already, and each time I read it back it feels like so much is missing. How can I do justice to the surge of adrenaline as I weaved between bumpers and boots, behind taillights and through gullies formed from an endless stream of metal, screeching vehicles in near gridlocked traffic on my way into Istanbul? Or the way my mind wandered, as I gazed in awe at the huge domes atop mosques and the minarets protruding from the mess of buildings that flanked either side of the Bosporus, before being snapped back to reality by the rumble of a truck or whir of a moped whizzing inches from my panniers? Or how the Islamic call to prayer from the top of those minarets, the “ezan”, which starts at marginally different times depending on which mosque you’re in, seemed to work its way around me, bouncing around the city before coming full-circle and enveloping me with its droning tones?


Galata Tower in Istanbul Surrounded by Seagulls
Seagulls swirl in front of Galata Tower in Istanbul, Turkey

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It took me nine hours to cycle just 40km, or about halfway, into Istanbul, but by the end of it, it was as though I’d spent a lifetime there. It was alive; a living, breathing entity in its own right, and was saturated with an energy unlike anything I’ve ever felt. It coursed through narrow alleyways and over cobblestones, and swirled in the streets. It felt electric, like at any moment the air could explode from all the intensity, and my brain reeled from the assault on the senses. 

The city was so packed, so teeming with life that it made your hair stand on end. Everywhere I looked, something was happening; to my right dice scuttled across a backgammon board as men gathered outside a shop to kill time. Ahead, two children arguing and pushing one another forced me to swerve, almost knocking into a man balancing an enormous box of bananas on his head. The bike rattled over cracks and bumps, but the noise was drowned out by the commotion around me. Dogs barked and scampered across the road, laughter spilled onto the street from tea houses, and I even passed three goats milling at the roadside, seemingly unbothered by the barrage of noise from the traffic a few metres away. It was pure, perfect anarchy.


Men play backgammon in Istanbul, Turkey
Men play backgammon in the streets of Istanbul, Turkey

Two weeks into my “four day” stop to Istanbul, and I was still trying to wrap my head around the scope of the city. It basked in the orange glow of the setting sun, falling over its buildings like a blanket.  Seagulls swirled above the water in their last feeding frenzy before dark, and behind them tourists crowded the viewing platform atop the infamous Galata tower.  This city was an urban jungle, its canopy formed of red and white political flags that would be dangling from strings criss-crossing rooftops until the upcoming elections were over. Alleyways beneath them drew me in with their hypnotic allure, through twists and turns until I lost all sense of direction. Narrow passages became more and more crowded as people funnelled through them; before long they seemed to take up every inch of space, flowing like a river. I didn’t so much feel as though I was strolling through a city, as I was being pulled through it.

Ahead, an archway. Rather than one of the hundreds of mysterious yet inconspicuous alleys and doors I’d passed before, this one was there with a purpose. Despite belonging to a building shorter than its neighbours, it dominated the street, as if everything I had passed had been built to lead people towards it. Packed shoulder-to-shoulder and hemmed in on all sides, I could do nothing but drift with the current, as the entrance to whatever it was engulfed me.  The splashes of sunlight, the noise of cars and mopeds, and the squawk of gulls evaporated as the words “Spice Bazaar” loomed overhead and disappeared behind me. The sounds of the city retreated; all that remained were the throngs of people, their voices and laughs echoing through a long, arched hallway. It was like stepping behind an invisible, aromatic curtain, and the scents of countless, unidentifiable herbs and spices toyed with my senses. Either side of me, mounds of vibrant powders, seeds, and grains turned store fronts into rainbows of colour, and salesmen beckoned me over with promises of free samples of Turkish delight.


Spices in Istanbul's Spice Bazaar
Spices in Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar

When I finally stumbled back into the outside world, I barely noticed evening fall. Meandering back in the rough direction of my hosts’ flat, I had to carefully time my movements as I forced my way through a torrent of steaming people where my path intersected with another.  I emerged on the banks of the Bosporus before passing the tips of countless fishing rods that gently rose and fell from Galata Bridge, and lines disappearing into the choppy waters below as dozens of fishermen lined up against the railings and waited patiently for Bluefish and Atlantic Bonito to bite. The warmth of the day remained for a while, and the energy in the streets never once let up. That was constant throughout my stay in Istanbul; I would spend nights in cafés drinking tea and playing backgammon until 1.30am, yet still the city remained abuzz.


Fishing from Galata Bridge with a view of Galata Tower in Istanbul
Fishing from Galata Bridge with a view of Galata Tower in Istanbul

But beyond marvelling at an exceptional city in an exceptional country, I was starting to learn more about Turkish society; its quirks and its nuances. I noticed that it was difficult to get a consistent answer to any question on politics, culture, or economics. Each one  was different depending on who I asked, a theme that extended to my research on the internet: Erdoğan is a dictator! Actually, no, he’s a little authoritarian but he gets things done. Kurds are treated well! Wait, but they’re arrested for singing their national anthem. Gülenists staged a coup in 2016! In fact, it was staged by the president so that he could declare a state of emergency and seize absolute control. Rather than fight the biases, I resolved to embrace the diversity of opinion, and take everything that I was told during my time in Turkey with a pinch of salt, something I hope you will also do when reading my interviews.


Turkish Women Bake Lavash bread in Pamukkale, Turkey
Women Bake Lavash, a kind of flatbread, in a garden in Pamukkale, Turkey
Thoughts From the Road

Sunlight dances on the choppy water lapping at the shore below, and I gaze out across the Bosporus strait. The immensity of the journey over the last year is setting in. 4,500km has made me acutely aware of every milestone I reach, and this is a big one. Behind a misty haze on the other side, there it is; Asia, one 10 minute boat ride away. I look at my bike, beaten and worn, the flags of the countries I’ve visited peeling from its scratched and weary frame. It’s impossible to resist the urge to smile, even though I probably look crazy to passers-by. Crazier still is the fact that I’ve developed an emotional bond with an inanimate object. I’ve assigned feelings and personality traits to my bike; I’ve had silent conversations with it as we struggled together over mountains, through snow, and against storms. I’ve shouted at it when things have broken, and thanked it when I’ve narrowly avoided being hit by a car. I’ve asked it how it’s doing after bumping over potholes, and given it words of encouragement as we pushed up a hill. We’ve been together through what I am certain is the biggest physical challenge either of us has ever faced. It never answers me, and that’s good… it proves I haven’t totally lost my mind yet.


Chapter 2

The Role of Religion in Turkey


Many Muslim-majority countries are hugely misunderstood, and sometimes intentionally misrepresented, by the West; our media often presents them as places where the people are all extremely religious and conservative, the separation of church and state is non-existent, and freedom of speech suffers as a result of radical religious views. But the complexity of the Muslim world is wildly underappreciated, and often painted with one brush. Turkey, in fact, has a proud history of secularism that many outsiders are unaware of (countries like Azerbaijan are similar in this regard, but let’s stick to one nation at a time).

NOTE: Turkey is a remarkably diverse country in everything from politics, to cuisine, to religion, to ethnicity. For that reason, much of what I say here will be enthusiastically agreed with by some parts of the population, and contested by others. 

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The Secular Legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

To begin, I have to take you back 97 years to 1923, and introduce you to a man called Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. You might recognise the name, since he’s the guy responsible for repelling the British attack at Gallipoli in WWI, an achievement that cemented him as a war hero in the eyes of Turks. There is so much to talk about when it comes to Atatürk; and how he is perceived varies depending on who you ask. To many Turks, he is seen as the “father” of Turkey – that’s the literal translation of the name “Atatürk” – and there’s no doubt he transformed the country into what it is today. But ask a Kurd or Armenian about him, and they might tell you they consider him to be a war criminal for his persecution of their people. His story goes back years before the date I mentioned but, in this discussion, regardless of your views, what is important is his attitude towards the role of religion in politics. 

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is regarded as the father of the modern Republic of Turkey by many
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is regarded by a large chunk of the Turkish population as the father of the modern Republic of Turkey, but by many Kurds and Armenians as a war criminal.

To find out a bit more, I travelled to the city of Kayseri in Anatolia. Sitting in the shadow of a snow-capped volcano, I spoke with Şeyda, a 21-year-old student at the university there:

“We were in a very hard time at the end of the Ottoman Empire. The Empire had been strong, but at the end it was really bad. We had so many debts that we owed to other countries. But a hero, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk… started to fight for us. We won Turkey back, and we were seen as such a powerful place. We only had each other – we didn’t have guns. Our soldiers were running with no shoes on the battlefield to kill people who were attacking our land – the British tried to attack in WWI. Women dressed up as men to fight for the country! Many people just fought with tools they had in the house. We didn’t have any arms or an army. So the farmers just stopped doing what they were doing, and they went to the battlefield. We had fighters that were just 15 years old. 

During that time, no students graduated because there were no boys at school; they had all gone to fight. The mothers at home tried to make clothes to send them. They hardly had anything to eat. I read about what they were eating; a quarter of a loaf of bread per day, water, or sometimes nothing. Britain had a lot of guns, but we didn’t. And we won! That was because of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. I really think that God sent him to save us. And he created the republic. He was the person who said religion and government should be separate.”


Şeyda Akyol explained the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
Şeyda explained the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in a park in Kayseri, Turkey

1923 was the year that the modern Republic of Turkey was formed, after Atatürk abolished the Ottoman empire, which had been on its last legs for some time. To get the new nation off to a running start, he implemented what became known as “Atatürk’s reforms”. One of the most consequential was state secularism. That value became so engrained in the Turkish military that it has hugely contributed to several coups since then, failed and successful ones, whenever military generals felt that secularism was under threat, the most recent of which was actually in 2016. In short the military has seen it as their duty to safeguard Turkey’s secular society ever since the early 20th century.

The level to which Atatürk is still admired by a large chunk of the Turkish population was obvious as soon as I arrived. Nearly every home I visited, restaurant I ate at, and teahouse I lounged in had a portrait of him hanging on the wall. The pride that millions of Turks feel towards his legacy cannot be overstated and, for many, the idea of patriotism is intertwined with his name. 

“The people who like Atatürk are called “Kemalists”,  Şeyda told me. “They say that you shouldn’t use religion in government, because they argue that that means you won’t do anything if you’re in power, because you’ll just say “God will help us”.  

Kemalism is one of the biggest political ideologies in the country, and one of the primary issues Kemalists focus on is the idea of a secular state. Many Kemalists are actually religious, but maintain that their religion should not be what guides government decision-making. Şeyda explained more:

“Kemalists say that religion shouldn’t be mixed up with politics, and that it should be separated, because religion is something that we feel in our hearts. We we have lots of different people in Turkey – atheists, Christians, Muslims, and so on; Turkey is for all of them, so it can’t be just for the Muslims.

We can all pray for Turkey; I can do it with the Quran, or a Christian can do it in a church, but we all do it for Turkey, for all of us. We believe that religion is something you do for yourself, so keep it to yourself. If you’re praying, don’t go round showing everyone. It should be between you and God, and not mixed up with politics.”

NOTE: Having said that, it’s important to keep in mind that, whilst Kemalists hold that view, the current government, headed by Erdoğan, does not support Kemalism, and Turkish society is changing because of it. But that’s a topic for another day.

I write all of this not because I want to teach you a lesson about Turkish history, but because it’s an integral aspect of Turkey’s unique relationship with religion and secularism. To me, it’s best highlighted in that line from Şeyda, “I think God sent him to save us”. On the surface, that may seem like a contradiction, since Atatürk vowed to fight to keep religion out of politics, but it’s a sentiment that many share. It may be a secular nation in its legislation, but its population is still a very religious one; a fairly rare combination to find.  As such, it has managed to preserve the rich religious traditions and culture that I was so interested in exploring. And, luckily for me, what is arguably the most important festival throughout Islam was coming up; Ramadan would give me a chance to see first-hand how this unique difference between state and culture would play out.

Thoughts From the Road 

I’m Jewish; I don’t believe in the religion, but I adhere to the traditions, like celebrating Chanukah, Passover, and the Sabbath every Friday. I have lied about my background once in my life, because I worried that I’d receive a hostile response. It was in Istanbul, on this cycle tour, and the sense of shame I felt afterwards was unshakable for days. I felt like I’d betrayed who I was and where I’d come from. I can’t speak for all Jewish people, but I personally feel a responsibility, for 6 million men, women and children who were executed because of who they were, to be honest about my background. So, I promised myself that I’d never make that mistake again.

That decision opened up new avenues for experiences I hadn’t had before. There was the enlightening discussion with two Palestinian students about the state of affairs between their country and Israel, and an imam in Rize who took me into his office while we discussed how, despite what you see in the news, Jews and Muslims are much more alike than we are different. Then there was the doctor in Georgia, who taught me about Tbilisi’s Synagogue, and a group of students in Azerbaijan who were very excited to finally be able to say they had a Jewish friend. Yes, there were one or two tense and intimidating moments that came out of it, but I suppose my point is, cliché though it may be, it was heart-warming to have so many interactions that contradict that tired media narrative of the world being so divided.

Hanging out with an Imam in a Mosque in Rize, Turkey
Hanging out with Mustafa, an Imam, and his friend in Rize, Turkey, to discuss Islam, Judaism, and how you become an Imam.


Chapter 3

A Secular State, but a Religious Population


The Impact of Religion on Mert’s Life

On an individual level, outside of government and politics, there is still very much a place for religion in Turkish society. It still seemed to be where most people took their values from, even if they left that outside of the voting booths. In Istanbul, I met with Mert, a software engineer and airline-pilot-in-training, who spoke with me about what his religion meant to him.

“I am Muslim, and I believe in Islam. My family is not conservative, but when I was a teenager, around 14-15, I started to ask myself “what is the meaning of life? What am I doing here?” I recognised that there must be a deeper meaning other than things like money; there must be some ‘magic’. When I started to read the Quran, and when I started to understand the basics of Islam, I saw that there was a God. I started praying and learning a lot about Islam. And this changed my life positively. Whenever I go to mosque, or when I pray at home, I feel so close to God in my soul. When I put my head on the pillow at night, I feel so comfortable and relaxed, because I have so much trust in God. Then, I thank God I’m alive today, and hope I will do good things tomorrow, Insha Allah (God Willing).” 


Mert Himmet Gumus Discusses the meaning of Ramadan in Istanbul
Mert discusses the meaning of Ramadan over coffee in Istanbul

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Like many others I’d spoken to, Mert placed emphasis on rejection of the “shallow” aspects of life, like money, in favour of things he considered more spiritually rewarding. As an atheist myself, I’m always fascinated to hear stories like that, and to understand the impact it can have on people’s lives.

“Before I practiced Islam, when I didn’t pray, I was more focused on money. I thought about how much money I had to make and so on; the tricks of capitalism. But after I recognised the meaning of religion – of Islam – I started to understand the meaning of life as a bigger picture. Before praying regularly, I was a modest Muslim who was not praying or trying to understand life, who was just focused on money. After that, God helped me to find my way, to understand the world, and why we have to continue praying and having good relations with Allah.”


Muslim Men Pray in Istanbul's Blue Mosque
Muslim Men Pray in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque

Pressure on Women to Dress Conservatively Because of Religion and Tradition

I was interested in how attitudes to religion were changing. As is the case in most countries across the world, much of the younger population is growing up in a totally different world to their parents, and even some of their older siblings. At 21-years-old, Şeyda was a prime example. I wanted to know how she felt about the more conservative aspects of the religion. The combination of strong ties to socially conservative tradition and a deeply religious population means that there is a very lopsided experience for many when it comes to being a woman in Turkey, versus being a man. That’s an issue I heard raised often in my conversations with locals, and it’s easy to spot. When it comes to social expectations, women tend to be held to a much stricter standard than men; whether that be in terms of the freedom to go out, dating, or clothing (then again, there’s elements of that back at home too…).

“My mum told me a story where a man had given his wife a present. One was covered with a box that was very beautiful, and the other was without a package. The wife kept wondering, “what’s in the package?”  My mum said that’s what happens when you are covered.

I didn’t used to wear a hijab. When we came to Turkey, my mother was like “ok, you should start wearing it because you’re getting older”. I didn’t wear it for the first year here, but then she told me that I had to. 

I didn’t feel ready for it at the time, but I did plan on starting to wear it at some point. She said that if I didn’t start it now then I probably never would, which is kind of true; my friends got too used to wearing certain clothes which you can’t wear if you wear a hijab. You have to cover from your heels and up to your neck, including your arms. But I have changed it a bit according to my taste. 

We wear it because boys supposedly get aroused when they see our legs, our arms or our breasts. That’s why we have to cover all of our body. Also we have to cover our hair. But the boys don’t have to do it apart from their knees and chest. Sometimes I think that it is unfair; they can just close their eyes or look away if they don’t want to see it. Why should we have to cover up just because of them? If it was for another reason, then maybe I would accept it more. So, I’m still reading about it.

She didn’t appear to totally endorse the most conservative clothing rules in her religion. So, I asked her why she dresses the way she does when she feels that way.

“We all have problems with our body. I have my personal ones. And this way, not everyone has to see my breasts or my butt. This is what I am comfortable in, and the religion also says to cover up. So, I’m finding the middle-ground. For example, there are some people who cover up everywhere except for their eyes, and I have also seen that some even cover their eyes with something thin. That is too much for me. I don’t think that you have to do that for boys. Boys will still say ‘oh, I saw a little part of her heel or her hand’. We just have to teach the boys to be a little more restrained. Sometimes it’s worse if all the girls are covered up, because then when the boys see a little bit of skin they actually find it more attractive, because it’s more taboo.” 

Şeyda’s Unique Style of Hijab

Şeyda seemed to have found a balance between accepting some of the traditional values and behaviours her family wanted her to adopt while maintaining a strong sense of individuality and a very open mind. Interestingly, from what she told me, her doing so had a knock-on effect, and encouraged some of her friends and neighbours to do the same, especially when she changed the style of her hijab; rather than using the traditional one, she turned to YouTube for inspiration.

“I was thinking ‘what can I do to make it more comfortable?’ And then I started looking at styles from other places: from Egypt, Morocco, and other parts of Africa. I was looking at lots of Arabic women in North Africa and I saw a style, and I thought “oh, maybe that’ll work on me”. I did it on a special day, when I had to give a presentation. I looked at videos on YouTube and on a blog that taught me how to do it. When people at school saw it, they said “normally, I don’t like this type of thing, because it totally doesn’t look religious, and it’s a different style, but it looks so good on your face!” 

 

Her headscarf was the first thing I noticed when I met her; a hijab usually covers the ears, neck, and shoulders, and frames the wearers face, but hers was wrapped tightly around the top of her head with a knot at the front. It left much of her skin exposed, unlike the ones her classmates wore, and looked more like a fashion accessory than a piece of religious clothing. When she moved to adjust it, I caught a momentary glimpse of neon blue hair underneath; Şeyda certainly didn’t shy away from standing out.

“I was worried about what my mother would say. She wasn’t mad, but she was like ‘hmmm, different!’ So I realised, ‘ok, my parents accept it, my friends don’t care about it, and I feel comfortable with it, so this is how I’ll wear it’. Although my mum sometimes is like, ‘can’t you be a little more like a normal Turkish girl?’  But if I had done it a few years earlier, my mother might have gotten mad.

After a while, people around me got used to it. I went back to my hometown, Yozgat, which is normally a place where people are scared to try new things, to see my parents. When I returned a month after that, I saw so many girls wearing this style. So I was like, ‘I started something!'”

NOTE: Şeyda and I have spoken several times since I interviewed her. Since then, she has made the decision to stop wearing her hijab entirely.


Chapter 4

Ramadan


What is Ramadan?

I was fortunate enough to experience first-hand the most important religious period in Turkish society. If there was ever a religious occasion that embodied the nature of hospitality and generosity, it would be Ramadan; a period of fasting observed across the Islamic world, though the specifics of it vary depending on which denomination of Islam you follow. I was being hosted by a group of students in Rize at the time, and they did everything they could to show me how it’s done. Weeks earlier, Mert had explained what the Islamic holy month was all about:

“Ramadan is the biggest celebration here. We have a lot of sweets and desserts, like Baklava and Börek. During Ramadan holidays, married and older people tend to stay at home and spend time with relatives, and kids and so on. But people under 30 like to go out. Ramadan is an Islamic month when Muslims are fasting. 


Mustafa, an Imam at a mosque in Rize, Turkey
Mustafa, an Imam at a mosque in Rize, Turkey

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During Ramadan, you don’t eat anything from sunrise to sunset and your blood sugar goes down. After that you feel like a zombie! It’s easy until the final 3 hours. You can’t have anything; no water, no food, no sex, nothing. It’s based on the lunar calendar so the date changes each year… [This year] it’s from the start of May until June. Sometimes it happens in Summer, sometimes Spring, Winter, or Autumn. It’s unbearable in summertime, when the days are longer. I remember that a few years ago we were fasting for 17-18 hours a day!

Thoughts From the Road 

I peer through a window speckled with condensation; daylight has shrunk into the horizon, drawing any remnant of warmth with it and plunging the countryside into a frigid night. The pale glow of the moon illuminates the silhouette of an enormous, slumbering volcano in the distance; if I look closely, I can almost see it breathing. The shadow of its ridges cascade down to the flat plains that stretch up to its base and seem to guide your eye in its direction. My attention snaps back to one of my hosts, Ali, leaning forward on a creaking wooden chair opposite. He pours a few drops of chilli oil into a glass of dark, purple-red ‘Şalgam’, a salty drink made from beetroot juice adored by much of the country, but that I struggle to stomach, before tilting his head back and downing it in one. I wonder if I, at his age, would welcome some random cyclist into my home as though they were a long-lost friend. Legs still burning from a long day on the bike, I rest on pillows intricately embroidered with dazzling shades of red. I’m doing my best to converse with Adile, Ali, and Erkan using elaborate hand-gestures, as I contemplate the kindness that total strangers have shown me since I’ve been here.

This is the all-encompassing representation of Turkish hospitality; relaxing on a farm where time seems to freeze along with the steppe grassland, in the shadow of a volcano, dogs barking outside and chickens scurrying around the garden. It’s Adile’s homemade Karnıyarık, the conversations taking place without us speaking a word of each other’s languages beneath a picture of Atatürk that hung on the wall among their family photos, and the sense of home that I feel when I’m so far from home. It’s an experience that will repeat itself over and over again, until I’m convinced I’ve run out of luck, only to be surprised yet again by another generous host, and it’s interactions like these that I find to be the most eye-opening of my journey.

My hosts, Adile (left), Erkan (centre) and Ali (right) on their farm in Cumhuriyet, Anatolia.
My hosts, Adile (left), Erkan (centre) and Ali (right) on their farm in Cumhuriyet, Anatolia.

It was a unique time to be visiting; Ramadan caused a temporary shift in the culture, and even fundamental psychology, of the people there, bringing with it a spirit of togetherness. At one student flat I visited, an elderly woman from the apartment upstairs knocked on the door with plates upon plates of food to give to the younger residents for Iftar (the time when people break their fast to eat in the evenings), and people seemed to do similar things for their neighbours and beyond wherever I went. The sense of community was astounding; entire Iftar tents, which offer food for free to anyone who wants it, filled with people at sunset, and strangers shared tables with strangers as they were finally able to satisfy their hunger and thirst after a long day. Drawing from my own experience, I only have holidays like Christmas and Chanukah to compare to. Those centre around spending time with family, and though they do bring people together, this was different. This made an entire country feel like a family, all having one, giant meal together. 


Locals in Rize serving food at an iftar tent during Ramadan
Locals in Rize serving food at an Iftar tent during Ramadan

The Issue of “Hanger” During Ramadan

Though it enhances the sense of community, with everyone so hungry, tensions can be quick to inflame and arguments got heated. I can still picture the man outside my hosts’ flat in Kayseri, pacing back and forth in an empty playground, a pistol pointed downwards and gripped firmly in one hand, the other pointing furiously at someone opposite him. The standoff continued for what felt like an age, before a woman shouted at the aggressor until he reluctantly stuffed his weapon back under his jacket. At times like that, the atmosphere seemed to be permanently simmering, waiting to boil over at the slightest hint of confrontation. 

From a mountaintop mosque I’d visited in time for sunset in Rize, after the final call to prayer echoed from the minaret, the rattle of gunfire echoed through the valleys below. It wasn’t a violent clash, or a military drill; in a region where many people own firearms, it was a way to blow off steam. People stepped out into their gardens and fired into the night sky after a long day. But it wasn’t unheard of for tensions to turn to violence in some regions, particularly if you’re caught eating in public while people are fasting. Şeyda told me that this was particularly the case in her very traditional, very conservative hometown:

“Where I come from [Yozgat], it’s a big problem. It’s a little city, and everyone is kind of forced to fast, but it’s possible that some people around you don’t do it. You get a bit hungry when you see that, but I don’t make a problem out of it. But some people do, and they get really angry, like ‘why are you eating?!’ and they are starting fights because of this.”

I wanted to know more about why people fasted. Was it simply for health reasons? Did it make them feel closer to their God? Or was there a more cultural and societal reasoning behind it? Şeyda explained:

“The thought behind Ramadan is that you have to feel what the people who can’t eat are feeling. You understand that they are really suffering. It’s very hard to not have food; you get angry, and you have no food or water. You really feel you need it, and that means we understand them better. Then we give money to people who provide food for the poor. It lasts for one month, and it’s about feeling what they feel and appreciating what you have.”


A Mountaintop Mosque in Rize, in Turkey's Black Sea Region
A Mountaintop Mosque in Rize, in Turkey’s Black Sea Region

What are the Rules for Ramadan?

Ok, so now we know the meaning behind the festival, but not much about the specific rules. Can you drink water? Can you smoke? What happens if you miss a day?

“You can’t have alcohol for a month before Ramadan”, Şeyda told me”. “That’s because, according to the religion, alcohol stays in your body for one 30-40 days.

In the morning, when we’re supposed to wake up to eat before we are forbidden from eating, drummers go past all the houses to wake us up at around 3a.m. They play music, and some people will go out and even dance with the music. The Ezan (call to prayer) happens 5 times in a day, and we eat when we hear the 2nd-to-last one in the evening. Then, at the first one early in the morning, it’s the last time you can eat something. I struggle at the beginning; you eat every day, and then suddenly you stop. But then after a while you get used to it.”


Ramadan drummers wake people up at 2am during the Islamic holy month
Every day, in the early hours of the morning (at around 3am while I was there, though the exact time depends on the year), in most towns across Turkey, Ramadan drummers go around neighbourhoods banging drums to wake people up. This is to ensure they don’t miss their last chance to eat before fasting for the rest of the day begins.

It seemed there was a fair amount of leniency when it came to those rules, though. When travelling, for example, you are allowed to skip prayers, since you have to exhaust so much time and energy on the road. The same was true of Ramadan; if there were extenuating circumstances, you could be a bit more flexible with your fasting.

“When you are travelling you do not have to fast for Ramadan that day. But after Ramadan, you then have to add a day of fasting when you feel ready for it. And when you are really sick, you’re not forced to do Ramadan. If it’s just a little cold or something, then you should still do it, but not when it’s something more severe and it’s too hard for you. When you’re pregnant you’re actually not allowed to fast, because that will be really bad for the baby; it’s totally forbidden, and it’s written in the Quran. When girls are on their periods, they are also not allowed to fast.

When you fast, you can’t take insulin. So, if you’re a diabetic, you can’t fast. It would be dangerous for diabetics to fast and not take insulin, so they don’t do it.  And if you vomit as well, that is technically breaking the fast, too. If that happens, you’re allowed to eat, and you just add a day of fasting later. 

Also if you have to take very important pills during the day, and it’s during the fasting hours, then you don’t fast and take them, and you also can’t have sex while fasting. After you’ve started eating in the evening then you can.”

Another student I met at Kayseri university, Shoa, told me that “you also can’t smell things. If you smell a flower, it’s also kind of breaking the fast, and it’s the same if you smell food or a perfume. Sometimes in your dreams you can smell and taste things. They say that that’s because God is appreciating your fast, so God lets you experience those things and eat in your dreams.” Being on a university campus and hearing so much talk of God stood out to me. Back at home in the UK, universities tend to be the most non-religious places you can find, and the younger you are the more likely you are to be an atheist. The same was true to an extent in Turkey, but there seemed to be a base level of belief and spirituality that wasn’t present at home, at least in the groups I hung out with during my studies.


A man performs wudu - ritual washing - before prayer in Istanbul's Blue Mosque
A man performs wudu – ritual washing – before prayer in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque


Final Thoughts


Turkey’s diversity means it’s impossible to paint its population and cultures with one brush; each ideological faction, ethnic group, and even generation has different values, objectives, and challenges. To explain away all that richness, even in terms of just one topic – religion – in one article would be to minimise and disregard countless variations in tradition and beliefs. What is clear is that Turkey’s history has resulted in a fascinating distinction between governance and population; one that you would expect should lead to more conflict than it does, but that many people accept without resistance. The importance of the secular way the country is run has not diminished people’s respect towards tradition, and religious principles still permeate deep into the bedrock of Turkish society. That’s a double-edged sword; on the one hand, it has contributed to problems like the asymmetric expectations of women compared with those imposed upon men, but on the other, it allows for expressions of identity and faith, like Ramadan, to exude the unique culture that made me fall in love with the country in the first place.


Thoughts? Leave a comment down below!


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Mutlu
4 months ago

Hi Tieran, interesting topic. I never observed Ramadan but I always like the atmosphere in Ramadan. People meet their friends and family, streets get very busy at rush hours, you get desserts and meals special to Ramadan that you dont normally eat the rest of the year like Christmas time Europe. Mutlu