5 July 2016 marked the ending of the Islamic month of Ramadan. It is a religious observance that, here in Turkey at least, dominates life and profoundly influences the whole country, and does so for a full month.

Many people outside of the Muslim world are familiar with the requirements for the month: no drinking (of any liquid), no smoking, no eating, no intimate relations during daylight hours. Daylight hours are defined for each locale based on the determination of a religious leader who, using traditional and historic methods, declares when the fast commences and, more importantly, when it ends.

These tasks are performed on a daily basis as the actual length of the day varies through out the year.  This means each day the length of the fast is different. Additionally as there is one time zone for all of Turkey, the beginning and ending times also vary according to the clock – the timing being determined by the amount of light determined by the religious leader in each locale.

Okay, that degree of detail is known.

But what is this month of fasting ‘like’ for the average individual?

Many, I do not how many, will keep the fast throughout the time because they so choose, believing it to be their duty and obligation, as a Muslim. Others – again, it is impossible for me to accurately declare how many – will have kept the fast because of general expectation, peer-pressure, family pressure or work pressure. There is another category; those who ‘appear’ to be keeping the fast, and yet, secretly, are eating and drinking as and when they have opportunity – with no one witnessing – throughout the day. Oh, I might add, come the evening, they will break the fast with the majority as if they, too, have fasted and suffered all day.  Finally, there are always those, again I am loath to state even a guesstimated number, who simply do not, will not or cannot keep the fast.

Now that, described in brief and in a very broad brush fashion, is the fasting part.

But, there is another part.

There is the feasting part.

Yes, in the month of fasting, a time dedicated to not eating and not drinking (identifying with the unfortunate and suffering), this is also a time of great feasting, great banquets and, I’m afraid, great gorging of food. Fasting gets the highlight, but it is not the whole story.

At the end of each day of fasting there is the ‘Iftar’ meal, the special ‘breaking of the fast’ meal. Restaurants, hotels and other establishments will offer exceptionally rich buffets each evening where the patrons, for one all-inclusive price, can eat all they want from a vast wealth of a rich and varied selection of hot food, desserts, fruit and many speciality items seen only at this time of year – forget food that is ‘good for you’, rather, if it is good to eat, tastes delectable and is sumptuously delicious, then it will be offered.

The month of fasting is a good time to eat – well, after dark. In many places all eating and drinking establishments are shut during the day-light hours – you would be unable to purchase a meal even if you wished to – but come the evening, after the setting of the sun, now that is a totally different story.

Thus, after a interminable long day of yearning, burning, desire, where thoughts invariably go to, dwell on and are obsessed with food, the Iftar is an unleashing of that pent up, explosive passion and, with reckless abandon, prodigious amounts of food are consumed, but, again, only after the setting of the sun and before dawn, the rising of the sun for the new day.

Of course, not everyone can afford to go to restaurants for such a feast.

For many, nay, the majority, the Iftar is shared at home. The lady or ladies of the house, whilst fasting, neither eating nor drinking,  have laboured for hours to prepare the nightly grand Iftar feast, with speciality dishes and all the trimmings. At the sound of the evening Ezan – the call to Prayer that marks the official setting of the sun – the family gather and attack the long anticipated feast.

One of the deeply appreciated aspects of Iftar, of this evening meal, is the gathering of all the family together and eating together. Because of the fast – because of the hardship of the day and the common time to break the fast, there is much to encourage everyone to be assembled at the appointed place and time to break the fast together. As it is the first meal since dawn, people are highly motivated to do everything they can, to ensure they are not late.

The Iftar meal is not a rushed affair. Okay, initially, it is rushed, but, once the immediate, overwhelming cravings are satiated, the meal continues, surrounded as you are by family, extended family, friends and neighbours. A great social gathering – and this evening Iftar meal is repeated daily – for the full month of Ramadan.

Whilst many will be able to do this, it is clear that there are still those who could never afford the special restaurant meals nor even to be able to manufacture the nightly ‘proper’ Iftar meals at home, but they are not left out. The local Council – note: not the local mosque – puts on Iftar Meals in specially erected Iftar tents in various locations around the city. Here, at the appointed time, whosoever desires can arrive and partake in an Iftar meal – without charge.

Additionally, many Councils will put on both daily Iftar meals and an evening’s entertainment – music, poetry, other artistic activity, plus readings from the Koran and such, again all without charge.

These are great public gatherings where everyone who is suffering in the daily fast can get together in a jolly, festive atmosphere and break the fast and enjoy an evening out as a family.

With regard to singles, those who are single for whatever reason and also those who are at a distance from their families, in Ramadan, no one is left sitting alone. In the Iftar tents all are together, corporately, breaking the fast together in a great, shared, social occasion.

Many, who, although they can afford restaurants and home-made Iftar feasts, will choose to join in the local City Council sponsored events – sharing the meal in a great, almost a Mardi Gras atmosphere followed by an evening of entertainment.

Oh, and then there are the extra special, Iftar meals, put on by the Great and the Powerful. These elaborate affairs are free – with an offering of food so resplendent as to make a life-long committed ascetic change his ways.

Putting on an Iftar meal is constituted as ‘sevap’ or earning merit with Allah, within the general understanding of the Islamic faith – an attempt to balance out the bad that has been done by doing a ‘good’ – an expensive and elaborate Iftar is seen as a good ‘good’. So this month is also marked by general acts of selfish ‘good will’, good deeds done to earn the much coveted ‘sevap’ or merit with Allah.

Once the evening meal has been consumed, then people will enjoy one another’s companionship, smoking and  drinking tea/coffee/water/ayran/whatever they wish to quaff, to their hearts content. As the sun has set, it is cooler and these times tend to go on.

Then, early, and by early, I mean really, really, middle of the pitch dark night early, the lady or ladies of the house will rise to prepare the pre-dawn breakfast. This can be a normal Turkish style breakfast or a far more elaborate affair in keeping with this pre-dawn breakfast’s task of preparing people for the long day of fasting that lays ahead.

When the breakfast is spread, complete with the last beverages to be consumed together with the last cigarettes until the Iftar in the evening, the men and boys rise to join the ladies and consume all before the sun begins to make its appearance.

This year, I was told – told because as I am not a ‘faster’ and as such I have no personal experience of this – that you would be up and dining on your breakfast by about 03:00 in the morning.

This combination of events does not leave much time in the dark hours for that little, inconsequential, thing called ‘sleep’. What this means is that often, during the month of fasting, vast numbers of people are seriously sleep deprived and either sleeping during the day, or, as a result of their poorly rested state, rather grumpy and miserable as they go about, or attempt to go about, their daily business. Short tempers, aggravated individuals, much shouting, swearing and cursing, some shoving and pushing – all the fruit of a burning thirst, lack of food, low blood sugar and a paucity of sleep.

So, in general, you can say it is a tough month – being composed of these two diametrically opposed elements, daily fasting – nightly feasting, compounded by adding in a generous portion of sleep deprivation.

I guess you could sum it up as a Sour-Sweet-Sleepy time. However, in spite of the daily feasting element, the dominate sense that pervades is more Sour-Sleepy… it is a tough month, for the fasters – regardless to their motivation and degree with which they comply.

Additionally, I dare say, it is a tough month for the non-fasters who must cohabit with those who, to various degrees of success/failure, are coping with the rigours of the fast.

It is a time of depriving yourself and, yet, fully indulging your passions and desires; a time of not eating or drinking and yet it is a time of great feasting and prodigious immoderation.

Billed as a time of fasting, hardship, denying yourself, suffering…

And yet, whilst being all of the above, it is a time of feasting and excess and indulgence… more food is consumed during the month of ‘fasting’ than at any other time of the year.

Ramadan, is a time of suffering and feasting.

But what comes next is most interesting.

After this date-shifting observance that is Ramadan, which being a lunar month, shifts some eleven days each year and so slowly moves throughout the year, is completed, it is immediately followed by the ‘Sweet Holiday’ (Turkish = Şeker Bayram).

This ‘Sweet Holiday’ I suppose is in contrast to the day-time suffering endured during Ramadan with its fasting and sleep deprivation. The ‘Sweet Holiday’ is a wee bit like Christmas.

I guess I should immediately say, a ‘Christmas’ without ‘Christ’ for this is a Muslim country and knows naught of Christmas. But if you think of the modern, secular meaning of Christmas – which by definition, is a holiday without Christ – then this ‘Sweet Holiday’ has some similarities.

Historically Christmas has been a time when families made a supreme effort to get together for the holidays. Many people, travelling from wherever they normally live from all over the country, striving to ‘get home’ for Christmas. It is a time of gift giving, true, but, more notably, it is a time when all of the family gather around the table to share a meal together. Often, this is the only time in the year when the whole family sits together around the table and shares a meal. It is regarded as a ‘positive’, ‘happy’, ‘family’ time.

Well, viewed from this limited understanding, you have described the ‘Sweet Holiday’. It is a long holiday and like ‘Christmas’ it, fundamentally, has a religious aspect which some acknowledge and many do not. People make a determined effort to ‘get home’ for the holiday. Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands and more, are travelling at this time – with the resultant carnage on the roads as tired people push to get ‘home’ in time. It is a High and Important holiday.

Special clothes have been purchased, the children in their equivalent to ‘Sunday Best’ and family groups out visiting various relatives. It is a time marked by the giving of sweets wherever they go – remotely like Halloween, but without the threat of ‘tricks’ if not given a ‘treat’ – the sweets freely offered and received. Presents are also given.

The highlight of this time, as shared with me, is the visiting of the relatives – much like the Christmases of my youth.

It is a happy, festive time – in stark contrast to the ‘suffering’ of the fast.

Well I recall in years gone by, that here in Turkey, you had to make sure you did your shop before the holiday began, because once started, you would be unable to purchase anything that ran out or that you forgot. And doing that last minute shop on ‘Sweet holiday eve’ (the day before the holiday commences) was fully compliant to the mad rush, the crowded shops and bare shelves that are often synonymous with Christmas Eve shopping.

So, it was a bit of a surprise for me as I went out, at 08:00 on the first, most important day of the Sweet holiday on my morning constitutional, that I came across a grocery shop fully open and with custom. It was not unique. Yes, most other types of shops were closed as I would expect, but many grocers, barber shops and a few other shops were open…..and the shopping Mall, which has a full range of shops, also was open on the first day of the holiday, the highest day and most important day of the holiday – albeit opening four hours later than usual.

And so, in practice, the length of this holiday, officially three days as a ‘bank holiday’ is extended to five days if you are a government employee. But the length has practically been reduced to zero for some shop owners, two days for most others and three days for others. Does this sound familiar?

What to say, in this modern time we live in, not everything is as it appears on the surface – fasting can equal feasting. Life is complex. Societies are complex.  People are complex.

Not everything is as it is billed and not everything lives up to its stated ideals.

Life is, well, unpredictable and as it is made up of individuals, it is marked by diversity, colour, variety and I suppose, glaringly obviously, individuality.

Methinks that the essential point is to not rely on the ‘broad brush’ understand for anything more than a ‘general’ notion of something. If you really want to know, you need to go deeper, and actually mix with people in their lives and their personal expression of the ‘ideals’ that are presented.

If you are unable or unwilling to do this, then know that the ‘broad brush’ description whilst maybe it is ‘generally true’, it is often functionally false. Indeed, for many and maybe even the bulk of the individuals who are living the reality of whatever has been described in a ‘broad brush’ style, their experience may be not just at variance, but significantly ‘other’ to what is commonly described.

Be careful with value judgements and pronouncements about things known only at a distance and second-hand.

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