Since we're currently in the States, I'm pretty out of touch with life in Turkey. The other day a friend mentioned that Ramadan (Ramazan, in Turkey) started a few days ago. If I were in Turkey this wouldn't have come as a surprise to me. There would have been signs of it everywhere - from the posters at the grocery store to the man with a drum walking by to wake everyone up before dawn, to the cannon that blasts in the evening at sun down signifying that the fast is over for the day.
Ramazan is the yearly month of fasting in the Muslim world. All Muslims (with exception of the pregnant, the sick, children, and those who are traveling) are required to fast from all food and drink (and cigarettes too) from sun up to sun down for one month a year. Some people observe this rule more strictly than others. In the city where we were living, Ramazan was very strictly observed. We rarely saw people eating in daylight hours. We didn't want to offend anyone, so when we ate we always hid behind closed doors and curtains.
To be honest with you, I think it's pretty amazing that all these people can observe this tough religious duty. Do you know how much will power it takes to eat nothing all day long, and how much more it takes to keep yourself from drinking any water?! And I really like the community oriented "we're all in this together" mentality of it. But there are also things about it that I don't like. One is the fact that if I eat anything in public I get really really mean looks. If looks could kill then I would have been dead within the first few days of my first Ramazan experience.
James and I were living in Ankara, the capital. Ramazan had been going for a few days, which meant that we were extra tired due to a drummer coming around our neighborhood, banging on his drum around 3:30 am in order to wake everyone up. People get up well before dawn so that they can eat a big meal before the daily fast starts, then they drift back to sleep until they have to go to work. James and I would often be startled out of a deep sleep and then be unable to drift back off... and that's just not a fun way to start the morning, ya know?
James had an office downtown. He would go there to study Turkish and meet with a few college students he'd hired to give him language lessons. On this particular day, I came downtown to do a little shopping and then met up with him after his lessons were over. We were hungry and decided to find a restaurant and eat downtown rather than going home and preparing dinner.
I should insert here that going home and preparing dinner meant waiting up to half an hour for a bus, then getting on that crowded bus (often being forced into someone's armpit in the standing room that was left over), and riding 30-40 minutes home. Once home we would have to prepare dinner. Dinner in Turkey is no 20 minute deal. Forget about using a jar of prepared spaghetti sauce, or anything of the kind. Cooking in Turkey almost always means cooking from scratch. So you can see that if we had waited until we were home, dinner would have come at least an hour and a half later, but I digress.... back to the story.
We found a restaurant that looked good. Iskender (one of our favorite dishes which translated is "Alexander the Great") was advertised on a banner outside as the "Ramazan Special" for an amazing price. It was crowded inside which is always a good sign that the food is tasty. We walked in and immediately noted that no one was smoking. Since it seems almost everyone smokes in Turkey, and we weren't yet used to being in smoke filled rooms without feeling like we were about to choke, we were delighted to see that none of the people in the restaurant were smokers. What luck!
We walked up to the counter and said "Iki Iskender (translation: two iskender)" The man taking the money said a bunch of unintelligable words to us (remember, we hadn't been in Turkey long enough to understand much of anything). We gave him a blank look, held up two fingers, pointed to the picture of Iskender, and repeated, "Iki Iskender." He motioned around and said a bunch more stuff, then he asked us very slowly if we were from Germany (which is the first thing he said that we actually understood.) We said no, we were Americans. He said a bunch more that we didn't understand and then looked at us for a response. Again, we held up our fingers, pointed, and said, "Iki Iskender." Finally the man shook his head, picked up a couple of plates of Iskender, some lentil soup, and motioned for us to follow him.
We followed him down a staircase to a huge crowded dining room. He seated us at the one free table in the entire place (directly in the center of the room), set our plates in front of us, and left. I grabbed my spoon and started digging into the soup. All conversation from the room around us stopped, and I noticed icy cold stares from the rest of the room. James and I looked around and saw that no one else had any food in front of them. No one was drinking water. No one was smoking. The only table that even had a basket of bread was ours. Our eyes grew wide as we looked at each other. It finally dawned on us that everyone, EVERYONE in the crowded restaurant was waiting for the fast to break before they ate anything.
We wanted to crawl into a little hole. We wanted to get up and run screaming for home. We wished we could rewind time and start the day over (preferably with our brains turned on this time). We wished we were anywhere but in the middle of that dining room with everyone else staring at us as if we had a giant neon sign with the word "Infidels" flashing above our heads.
Instead of any of those options, we quickly discussed it and decided that the best thing to do was to eat our food as fast as possible and then get out of there. We thought about waiting for the fast to break, then finishing our food with everyone else, but we'd already started, everyone had already seen it. And, we reasoned, our food might be cold by the time the fast broke.
We tried to ignore the rest of the room as we shoveled the food into our mouths. Finally, just as we were taking our last bites, the call to prayer came over some speakers and baskets of bread started being passed around. Everyone took their eyes off us as they lit up their cigarettes, drank some cool refreshing water, and started their meals. And we got up and left. We walked out of the restaurant with our heads hung in shame, trying to avoid any eye contact.
Once we were on the almost empty bus home (empty because everyone else in the city was eating their evening meal), we laughed about how clueless we were. All the signs were there, including the literal sign advertising "The Ramazan Special." No one smoking. No one eating. The man behind the counter asking lots of questions. All of this pointed to the fact that, Hello! it's Ramazan! Everyone is fasting! But we were such unexperienced Americans that it all floated right above our heads until it was much too late.
After that experience we were much more careful about eating in public. After an experience like that, how can you not be??
Boy am I glad to be in America right now!