Posted by: mollyscafeistanbul | September 20, 2009

ramazan 2009

Ramazan 2009

What does this have to do with Molly’s Cafe?  Actually, not much, as only people who were not fasting came to  my cafe.  However, the energy of ramazan affects us all, since there are so many people around who do observe it.  following are my own observations for those of you who do not live here or who are new here.

This year Ramazan was from late August to late September.  In the first days, some people get cranky because they are adjusting their habits—no eating, drinking, smoking, or having sex from sunrise to sunset for a month.  However, at night they can do all those things, so while the days are a test of endurance at first, the nights can be full of excess.  A lot of people don’t do the fast and it is perfectly acceptable in most places.  Those people would not hang out in the more religious parts of Istanbul anyway.  Some restaurant business does get hit at this time, though they make up for it in the evenings. Some places actually close down for the month. People with money have iftar (breaking of the fast)  meals at restaurants and the “sosyete” people are often seen on the social page in the newspapers at the iftar in a fancy place.  Often there are photos of the main religious leaders—Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, Armenian—having iftar together.

This year iftar started at about 8:30, but these years it gets about one minute earlier every day.  People are counting the minutes to the call to prayer by then,  excited and relieved at the prospect of finally eating. There are several traditional foods to break the fast.  One of these is dates. One evening a few years ago I had a date taster of Tunisian, Algerian, and Bagdad dates.  The Bagdad ones were the best, once famous all across the Ottoman Empire.  Of course the iftar includes black olives, white cheese,  lentil soup, and the special Ramazan pidesi, which is a thick flat bread scored in squares.  Now the iftar often includes those but there is also just about anything else.  One thing that is probably served at the end is gullac, which is a very bland milky pudding with layers of thin breadish pastry, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and grated pistachio.  Other sweets include baklava and helva.

Like at holiday times in other countries, the television commercials are aimed at Ramazan spending, especially food.  Coca Cola shows people all across Turkey waiting for the call to prayer and then digging in with the help of Coke.  People shop for new clothes, especially for the children, as during Sheker Bayram at the end of the Ramazan month, people generally go to visit their relatives, especially the grandparents.  Children are taught to kiss the grandparent’s hand and touch it to the their forehead as a gesture of respect.  The grandparents then give them money or a present.

A common question during Ramazan is “oruch tutuyormusun?” “Are you fasting?”  People who are not fasting try to be discreet in their eating and smoking.  Women don’t have to fast while they are on their period and then make it up at some time during the year.  People who are ill or travelling don’t have to fast either, and again they can make it up some time later.

People who fast say that they do it for health, though as I said before, they make up for it at night, which may cancel out the healthful effects.  Other people say they fast so they understand what it is like for poor people. The city sets up tents all around the city so that people who are en route can break their fasts.  It is also an opportunity for poor people to get a free meal.

A few years ago I walked up to Galata Square to do some shopping.  I walked up the back street to find it empty—no cars, no people.  Some friends have a literally hole-in-the-wall tea shop and as I passed by, they were ready.  The small table held a pot of pilav (rice), a salad, Ramazam pidesi, and a main dish.  They invited me to join their iftar meal, which I declined, just as the ezan, the call to prayer started.  I wished them “afiyet olsun” (good appetite) and walked on.  I realized that the places I wanted to shop would not be available, so I walked to the tea garden and sat down.  The tea men were sitting down to their iftar.  They invited me to join them, “buyrun”, but again I declined.  I smoked a cigarette and watched the tourists in the square until they had finished and were again serving tea.  Then I went to the fruitseller,  the crusty older guy who gives me fruit and teases me.  He was sitting in the doorway of the old building that houses his shop, eating his iftar meal with his brother.  They invited me to join them and again I thanked them and wished them afiyet olsun.  At one point he tore off a piece of the Ramazan pidesi for me to eat, but I told him thank you and passed on it.  All of these people were offering out of politeness but there was also a sincerity in it.  If I had actually sat down with any of them, they would have been very accepting and would have enjoyed sharing with me.  I was very touched by the whole string of invitations.

The mosques are really beautiful at night these evenings.  At the call to prayer for the iftar, the rings of lights around the minarets are lit up to let everyone know that it`s time.  Larger mosques with more than one minaret often have lights strung between them with a message such as “have a good Ramazan month.”  The skyline is lined with old mosques, so it is particularly beautiful at this time.

SultanAhmet is specially decorated for Ramazan.  The streets along the ancient Hippodrome are closed to traffic and they are full of temporary little shops and booths.  There are a few extra tea gardens and many people go there to stroll and snack and perhaps shop a bit.  Another place that people go is Fezhane, which used to be a fez factory.  Now the city owns it.  It is on the shore of the Golden Horn near the ancient walls.  At this time there are special shows for children, usually including the karagoz puppets, shadow puppets sort of like Punch and Judy.  Popular singers go there too to entertain the parents.

At Ramazan if a person sees the new moon that night, she can make a wish on it and it is more likely to come true, like making a wish on the first star.  Once I was with a  friend who saw the almost new moon (it was a day or two past) and still made his wish.  He held his hands up briefly in prayer and then wiped them over his face, as if to wash it.  Both of these are like part of the namaz, the daily prayer.  I made a wish too, but somehow it did not mean as much to me as wishing on the first star.

Beggars are out in force during this time.  The regular beggars are on the streets, but I have also seen other ones dressed in their worst clothes, usually accompanied by a child, doing their rounds.  They are often women.  For example, on my little street I saw a woman in a black charshaf, the black covering, that was so old it was turning brown.  She had her grandson with her, who was skipping along on this outing.  She stepped into the doorways of businesses and shops with a plastic box in her hand for people to put money in.  People are more generous during this time and of course the beggars count on that.  The other day I saw an older man being pushed in his wheelchair by his daughter or daughter-in-law.  They were both singing, I think along the lines of god will reward you for helping us.  The man leg’s were cracked and crusted with scabs; perhaps he had diabetes that was not being treated well.  Of course they had pulled his pants legs up so we could see them.  I gave them some money, as did several other people.

Also at this time people often give food packages.  There are ready-made gift packs you can buy in the supermarket or you can put together the things you want.  It usually includes a big bag of tea, some packages of marcaroni and spaghetti, a big bag of rice, a bag of sugar, a box of sugar cubes, a package of helva, a package of olives, a couple of packages of margarine, a bag of orange lentils, a bag of white beans, and  a big can of vegetable oil.  This is a lot like the company giving out turkeys or hams at Christmas time, except Ramazan moves through the year.

Another old custom in Turkey for Ramazan are the Ramazan drummers.  Each neighbourhood has its own, though they are banned in some neighbourhoods, as people complain that they have alarm clocks and don’t need the drummers to wake them up. However, I like the sound and if I hear the drummers, I wake up and then go back to sleep.  the drummers from my neighbourhood know to come to Molly’s Cafe to get their bahshish, their tip.  I also give them something to drink and eat.

ramazan drummer boys

I think people are more aware of their religion at this time, even the ones who rarely pray or go to the mosque.  It is similar to people who go to church only at Christmas or Easter.  This month brings people together in their religion and they feel more bonded.  At the same time, it does not make me feel particularly foreign.  Turks are very welcoming and in Istanbul in particular they are more open.  I am not Muslim and although they joke about me fasting, they don’t expect it.  I joke back and tell them I fast from evening to morning every day.  They laugh in appreciation. This holy month makes Muslims reflect on their religion and their lives.  Perhaps we should do the same.



  1. I loved sultanahmet and istanbul.
    Sultanahmet square is great.
    Hagia Sophia is fantastic.
    Great Palace Mosaic Museum is amazing.
    I will return.

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