Those unfamiliar with Turkey do not realize how fantastic the holy month of Ramadan is there. Because the country is politically secular, some Arabs believe Turks do not fast, and that Ramadan is no different to any other month in Turkey.
Every year in Turkey, Ramadan is like a festival that brings joy and shows a different side to the country. One can feel, see and taste the signs of this holiest month when walking around the streets, from the colorful shops to the festivities at Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul, the special lights around mosque minarets and large crowds in front of bakeries.
Turkey tries to maintain Ottoman customs during Ramadan. After sunset, mosques turn on their special lights and writing such as “welcome to the holiest month” glitters between the minarets. Special entertainment is organized such as Karagoz-Hacivat, traditional Ottoman entertainment with two puppets.
Iftar, the fast-breaking meal, is a celebration. Restaurants prepare a special Ramadan menu that both locals and tourists, Muslims and non-Muslims enjoy. Turkish families set rich dinner tables around which they gather and spend long hours together. Iftar is a chance to enjoy quality time with family. In recent years, going out for iftar has become popular even among non-fasters. It is almost impossible to find seats at popular restaurants.
Traditionally, Ramadan is a time of increased hospitality and generosity because it is when people come together and feel grateful for what they have.
Every night iftar tables are set up across Turkey for the public, free of charge. On one side are large crowds of people eating and drinking together, on the other side theater shows, concerts and performances mostly on Islam and Sufism all night long.
At the end of iftar comes the popular dessert baklava, which goes back to Ottoman cuisine. In Turkey sweets symbolize happiness, and Turks never end an event without them. We even have a proverb: “Let’s eat sweet, let’s talk sweet.” This is especially true in Ramadan, during which Muslims refrain from bad words. Sweets are the main part of every iftar, and an important indicator of hospitality to visitors.
Traditionally, Ramadan is a time of increased hospitality and generosity because it is when Turks come together and feel grateful for what they have. When you visit Turkey at this time, you could be invited by anyone for iftar, so do not be surprised and do not hesitate to join them and share their enthusiasm. Another popular activity is smoking shisha (nargile) with company until sahoor (the meal before the fast begins), talking about politics and daily life.
Then there is tarawih, a non-obligatory extra prayer specific to Ramadan, performed at mosques. People will even pray on streets in front of mosques because of the greater number of worshippers during Ramadan. The historic Blue Mosque and Eyup Sultan Mosque, both in Istanbul, are the most symbolic spaces for these prayers. Drummers walk the streets to wake people up for sahoor. Waking up people with drums and poems is a centuries-old tradition, but is sadly disappearing.
Unlike some other countries in the Middle East, in Turkey restaurants are open during Ramadan and people are not forbidden to eat in public. Though most Turks fast, an important portion do not, at least not regularly. The best part about Turkey is the way people respect those who fast and those who do not, because Ramadan is not just about fasting but about tolerance, respect and goodness. So I say: “Ahlan wa sahlan (welcome in Arabic) Ramadan!”
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz.