When Dany and I planned a vacation in Istanbul for the last days of September, 2006, we were unaware that our dates fell during the month of Ramadan, a time of prayer and fasting for Muslims. I knew that Muslims were expected to refrain from food, and drink only water, from sunrise to sunset each day. While working at our local high school Dany had helped a few Muslim students get through the day without eating. But we had no idea how this stricture might work for an entire urban population. Now we were about to find out.
As Christians, we could eat from limited menus in the largely deserted restaurants during the day. But as evening approached the restaurants changed. Signs advertised special dinners, and many of the better places shut their doors, booked up for private parties. Finally we decided to join a Ramadan dinner.
We chose a place we knew, a large open-air restaurant near the Sultanahmet mosque in the old walled city. Fifty round metal tables were shaded by leafy plane trees; a small stage, set up against an ancient wall, stood ready for the evening’s entertainment. By the time we arrived, at 6:30, the place was packed. But a waiter recognized us and found us a couple of seats with a local family. They were what the Turks sometimes call “light Muslims,” a yuppie couple in Western dress with a dark-eyed teenage daughter whose only concession to Islamic dress was a head scarf. We had no language in common, but smiles and expressions of mutual regard were all the chitchat we needed.
A pre-dinner dervish show was already in progress. As daylight began to wane, a thin, piping melody from the flute-like ney, weaving sinuously to the crisp beat of the tar, put the dervish into his trance. He stood to one side, head bent and eyes closed. Then suddenly he leaped to center stage. Arms outstretched, his snowy white robe flying, he twirled a full ten minutes, as the hypnotic rhythm built to a frenzy. Abruptly the music stopped and the dervish retreated back to inner contemplation.
Meanwhile, the waiters had been frantically piling the tables with food. The evening's menu was fixed: a salad of shredded carrots and lettuce, tender lamb kabobs with diced potatoes, and a baklava-like sweet of semolina, honey, and pine nuts. The drink choice was water or Coca-Cola. A delicious aroma of spices and barbecue filled the air.
The plates sat there but nobody touched a bite. Then, precisely at 7 o'clock, the muezzins cried forth. “There is no god but God,” wailed across the city from a hundred minarets, resonant baritones rising and falling in a colossal contrapuntal chorus. At our table, under the shadow of the largest mosque in Istanbul, the effect was deafening. As the last ringing syllable died away, everybody started eating—diners, waiters, dervish, everybody. The girl at our table waited a few seconds to make a silent prayer; meanwhile, an entire city tied it on.
By 7:30 it was all over. The diners sat back with satisfied sighs and the waiters started clearing dishes away. It seemed that the whole day had been a build-up to this moment. Was that the meaning of Ramadan—days of denial to justify evenings of partying? Self- discipline is one thing and special dinners are another; for me, they don’t connect. However, I’m not Muslim, so maybe I just don’t get it. At least now I understand the mechanics of feeding a million people in thirty minutes, even if the reason for doing such a thing seems obscure.