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Friday, October 27, 2006

Ramadan in Istanbul

Uyansana, uyansana
Ne bulursun bu uykuda
Al abdesti, kıl namazı
Cennet mekan olsun sana
Come on wake up, come on wake up
What do you finding in sleeping so
Cleanse yourself, do your prayers
And may Heaven be your abode
A Ramadan Drummer's Mani (Rhyme)

Ramadan drummers beat out a variety of rhythms, and in between rounds, they may also sing.Particulars vary across Turkey, but in Istanbul, a typical day during Ramadan starts an hour and a half before sunrise. People are traditionally woken up to have their pre-dawn meal, known as sahur, by the Ramazan davulcusu, or Ramadan drummers, who walk around the neighbourhoods with a big double-headed drum. They beat out a variety of rhythms, and in between rounds, they may also sing a mani, a rhyming couplet. Locals will often tip the drummers at the end of Ramadan with gifts of food or money as the job is voluntary.

In certain regions of Istanbul, however, local councils who have started to register drummers may sometimes decide not to use them, depending on the wishes of the residents. Complaints about drummers have been rising in more urban areas, as it seems that in the age of alarm clocks most city dwellers would rather read about them in history books than have them become a part of their lives during Ramadan - other than as part of the holiday festivities.

The Oruç: Sobriety in the Sun

At sahur people tend to eat at home, but usually a number of restaurants will be open before dawn to cater to those who want to eat out for their last meal before beginning their fast, or oruç in Turkish. After people have "stocked up" for the day, the morning ezan, the first of five daily calls to prayer from Islamic churches or mosques, marks the beginning of the fast, and nothing is eaten or drunk until sunset.

Ramadan sees the city's population locked in contradicting terms. Even though those that fast, which also means giving up cigarettes, should do so only if they can do this with a joy of spirit that encompasses the month itself, the strains of modern living means that sometimes tempers are frayed during daylight hours if people have to continue daily routines on an empty stomach. The traffic rush hour starts early during the month, too, as everyone tries to get home early to prepare for the evening meal or iftar. And yet, people are also known to be more tolerant, warm and more loving and charitable and generally it's a pleasant time of year in Istanbul and across Turkey. It is a time of solidarity; fasting is viewed as a challenge that people undertake together, and there is a sense of accomplishment when a person completes the fast.

At the exact minute the fast is to be broken, cannons go off around the city of Istanbul, and the evening ezan is chanted from the mosques. Then with thanks given, and with as many friends and family as possible, the feast for the soul begins.

Nightly Feasts

The focus of the city shifts into a higher gear towards the approach of evening. Lines form in front of bakeries all over the city, democratic lines peopled by housewives, taxi drivers, business executives, bankers, street sweepers. Each waited to buy a large round loaf of hot, fresh pide bread with which to break the day-long fast. The aromas and the excitement grabs everyone and even those that haven't fasted share these times with as much gusto as those that adhere to the month.

And when the feasting begins at sundown, it continues long into the night. It isn't just an exercise of revelry to make up for the fasting during the day, but the celebration of an accomplishment.

In several parts of the city "Ramadan tents", hosted by various municipalities, provide a free iftar meal for all who come and carnivals around major mosques, especially Eyüp, Fatih and Sultanahmet, with puppet shows, games, food stalls, arts exhibitions and sales, and live musical performances that go late into the night. Generally a sanctuary for the homeless, throughout the month it's also usual for places of worship to become headquarters for volunteers who donate their time to provide the poor with meals in mosque's soup kitchens.

The month also sees a rise in people who will open their own doors to the needy, to share a meal and a chat with those less well off. Some also fulfill other religious obligations by providing food and drink for the needy depending on their means. Those that decide not to participate or who are not eligible to fast in accordance with the religion, may also directly contribute to the table at Ramadan time by sponsoring iftar meals for needy people.

An Atmosphere of Respect

"In Istanbul I saw a different scene to write about every evening during the month of Ramazan which is the ninth month of the Arabic months and when Muslims fast. For the whole of Ramazan it is forbidden to the Turks to eat, drink and smoke tobacco. So everybody all night eats and drinks lots but as soon as the sun is seen they turn to their religion and no one has the courage to ignore this. One morning I and my friend went to visit a member of the imperial entourage with whom we were acquainted. This young man who hadn't the slightest western thought was in a room on the entrance level to the imperial palace. He had a coffee coup in his hand. "How's this?" asked Yunk. "You're drinking coffee after the sun has come up?" The youth shrugged his shoulder and said that he wasn't fasting during the month of Ramazan; but just then when the door opened without warning and he made a sudden move to hide his cup spilling half of it on his feet in the process. From this small story one can understand that people who are in front of the eyes of the people all day have to take fasting seriously."
From "Istanbul (1874)" by Edmondo de Amicis.

As for decorum during Ramadan, it's no issue at all in the heavily touristed areas of Sultanahmet and Taksim Square. Most restaurants and cafes remain open for those choosing not to participate and for non-Muslim and even in most of the rest of the city, the chances of anyone saying anything to foreigner eating during the fasting hours are next to none, but out of respect of the challenge others have taken on, even many non-fasters still refrain from smoking or eating out on the street. Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk in his book Istanbul describes his memories of Ramadan, expressing that, "My grandmother, my mother, my father, my aunts and uncles - none of them ever fasted for a single day, but at Ramadan they awaited sunset with as much hunger as those keeping the fast." Secular Turks and denominations of every faith respect and take those fasting and their spiritual challenge very seriously during this month.

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