June 18th marked the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan for those practicing Islam. This is a month of fasting, prayer, and giving to the poor.
Before moving to Turkey, I had decided that I wanted to participate in Ramadan while living here. Do as the people do, right? I thought that I would develop a better understanding of the people I am living amongst if I too could fast for 30 days. Due to the Ramadan dates overlapping with my summer vacation (boat, sun, and no water? I’m not that good…), I decided [before Ramadan started] to fast for only the first two days this year and committed to extending my fast next year. Ramadan moves up about 10 days each year.
For those of you who don’t know, Mormons fast on the first Sunday of each month for roughly 24 hours. Most choose to go from dinner on Saturday till dinner on Sunday, but it’s actually just “two consecutive meals.” Afterwards, we donate the money that it would have cost us to eat those two meals (or more if you are willing and able) to the church to use to care for families in need. We open and close each fast with a prayer and generally turn to prayer throughout the day. Very similar to Islam, I guess. We believe that prayer helps us fast with a purpose [otherwise you are just starving yourself]. Therefore, when we open and close our fast, we tend to pray specifically to overcome a personal trial we are facing, for the health of a loved one, or to better understand a spiritual concept with which we struggle.
I thought, “If I can fast for 24 hours, I can do Ramadan.”
Even though I only fasted for two days, here’s why I thought Ramadan was more difficult:
Very Specific Hours Means Less Sleep — Going from whenever you have dinner one night to roughly the same time for dinner the following night still means you get a full night’s rest as a Mormon. During Ramadan, you only eat after the sun goes down and before the sun comes up. In Istanbul, iftar (dinner) was at about 8:50pm and sahur (breakfast) was at…well… I had to be done eating by the first call to prayer which was around 3:00am. I ate iftar, slept, ate sahur, and then tried to go back to sleep. Since my night was interrupted, however, the few hours that followed the first call to prayer were not nearly as restful. If I only did one day of fasting, I don’t believe I would have recognized this challenge.
My First Iftar – I was told to break my fast with dates, eat soup and bread, and drink plenty of fluids.
I later learned that many of those who are fasting tend to stay awake and eat all throughout these hours. Given Turkish culture (a lot of night owls, these people), that did not completely surprise me. Others would eat a large iftar, load up on water, then skip sahur.
In some areas, drummers walk around neighborhoods to wake everyone up to eat about an hour before the first prayer. I never heard this at my apartment in Cihangir, but I did hear it when I was traveling in Pamukkale. As a musician, I found it charming. I imagine many don’t enjoy the wake up call if the are not fasting…
Sunday vs. Weekdays — Fasting on a quiet Sunday is VERY different than fasting during work days. As a teacher, I constantly use my voice. Teaching all day without water proved to be difficult, moreso than withstaining from food, and significantly more than on a day of rest.
Celebrations — The end of the school year is filled with BBQs and class parties. I was constantly surrounded by food and drink. When I fast on Sundays, I’m generally surrounded by people who are also fasting. Temptation to break your fast early is much lower. Being surrounded by those who were not fasting made me more aware of what I was doing and gave me more opportunities to reflect on what I was feeling.
As a Mormon, we believe in the power that comes from joining together in fasting and prayer. When I returned from my travels, I saw families and friends congregating in the grassy areas of Sultanahmet during the day to relax and enjoy each other’s company before sharing iftar. I believe that this sense of community is an important part of the experience.
Maybe next year I will know more people fasting, be able to join my neighbors, or find community iftars. My goal was to understand the local people better, but since I didn’t interact much with the locals that were actually fasting during Ramadan, I don’t think I can truly say I reached my goal.
My fast this year was just a toe in the water. Ramadan is a time to turn to God. It is a time to study the scriptures and give generously. I need to be better at all of these aspects next Ramadan… And everyday…
If You Plan to Visit During Ramadan:
While I was traveling, I found that there weren’t as many people fasting as I had expected. I heard stories from my colleauges that in Egypt and the UAE, everything shuts down during Ramadan. That was not the case at all in Istanbul or in the Mediterranean towns I visited during my travels, but I still observed those around me and tried to be sensitive when choosing to eat or drink in public. I don’t smoke, but if you do, the Ramadan fast also includes no smoking or touching of the opposite gender, so I encourage you to take note of those behaviors as well.
I’m really looking forward experiencing Ramadan again next year. Even though my experience was brief, it was positive and left me full of gratitude. As the Muslims finish Ramadan this week, I hope they are blessed for their efforts.
Have you ever participated in Ramadan or traveled during Ramadan? What were your experiences?