Ramadan in Turkey
As you may know we’re currently spending 5 weeks in Turkey. What you might not know is that 3.5 of those weeks fall during Ramadan. You may be thinking that going to Turkey in the middle of the summer, especially during Ramadan, might not have been the best idea…and you’d be right. So why are we here, now? Chalk it up to nothing more than poor planning.
The one advantage to our timing is it’s allowing us to learn a lot more about this important holiday. Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish) is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is observed worldwide as a month of fasting. Growing up Jewish I thought Yom Kippur was difficult, but Ramadan makes it look like a cake walk (maybe that’s not the best word choice). Similar to Yom Kippur fasting is obligatory for all adult Muslims, except for the sick, pregnant and breastfeeding, with a couple extras tacked on for those who are traveling or ‘going through menstrual bleeding’. Although it’s my understanding that if you have to abstain from fasting during Ramadan you’re expected to make up the days at some point during the year, so there are no free passes.
From dawn until sunset, observing Muslims refrain from consuming food, drinking liquids, smoking, and engaging in sexual relations. Some also take it one step further and refrain from ‘sinful’ behavior such as swearing and fighting. Unfortunately for Muslims in Turkey, when the month falls during the summer that means their fast goes from about 5:30am until 8:30pm. In regular temperatures I’m sure that would be hard, but in the summer heat it must be unbearable. (Read more about Ramadan here)
Knowing all this we wanted to pay special attention to our behavior to ensure we wouldn’t unknowingly offend observant locals. While we had read that non-Muslims were not expected to fast we didn’t want to be disrespectful and as a result were a bit overly cautious at our first stop in Amasra. We mostly ate in our apartment and reserved our meals out for dinner. We patiently waited until we heard the canon fire at 8:30pm, signaling the end of the fast, before heading into town to explore the seaside restaurants. As we strolled along the main drag we noticed that all of the restaurants were still mostly empty and the few that had patrons seemed to only be serving tea.
We figured we would just sit down at a table by the water and see what happened. Moments after we were seated a waiter came over. Promising. Unfortunately he just stood there staring at us. We asked for a menu but he just gave us a confused head tilt and offered two options “cay (pronounced chai = tea) or café (coffee)”. ‘Chai’ we replied in unison and he was off. ‘Maybe we just start with tea?’ I said with a nervous shrug. Thirty minutes later, tea drank and no waiter in sight, we decided to move on and try our luck somewhere else. We again walked along the water (at least the view was gorgeous) trying to figure out if food was an option anywhere. ‘I don’t understand, if I had fasted all day I’d be waiting for that canon with a hamburger in hand’ Adam said in disbelief as we observed all of the people sitting along the coast sipping tea.
At 9pm, frustrated and hungry, I decided to just dive in and risk embarrassment. I strolled up to one of the restaurants and asked the waiter at the front if he spoke English. He said no with a friendly smile which meant I only had one option, the universal language of charades. Yes, I might look ridiculous but it always does the trick and, as an added bonus, provides entertainment for all those watching. We were seated in no time and enjoyed a delicious, albeit very late, dinner of salad, sardines and meatballs.
So, when we arrived at our Pension in Safranbolu we wanted to try and understand the rules a bit better. Eager to enjoy a lunch out in town, but concerned about offending the locals we confirmed with our pension owner that because we were staying in the ‘tourist’ part of town all of the restaurants would serve food and drinks all day. Confident that we weren’t in danger of impacting Turkish/American relations we headed towards the main square.
As we walked through cobblestone streets (although they were more like boulder streets) we peered into the various cafes. They were all set for meal service, but the wait staff didn’t seem particularly interested in us. I never thought I would say this, but in that moment I missed the guerrilla marketing tactics from the other countries we had visited. Sure it was a little annoying, but they left no doubt in your mind that they were open and eager for your business. I tried baiting them, slowing down as we passed the doors, lingering while staring at the menu boards that I couldn’t read, but nothing seemed to work.
If we were here at any other time of year we could have taken cues from other patrons. When we were in Morocco and weren’t sure which restaurants were serving food (some didn’t start dinner service until very late) we would wander until we literally found people eating and just eat there. But here we had no such luck. Some of the cafes had people sitting at tables but again, NO ONE was eating or drinking. Finally, at 3:30pm, we found an eager owner. A plump woman in her 40’s noticed us peering into her café and ran out from the kitchen to wave us in.
We sat down and reviewed the small menu. Luckily everything was written in both Turkish and English and for the most part were items we recognized. Unfortunately the reason we were able to recognize them was because they were all traditional Turkish dishes, aka dishes I couldn’t eat. I knew that everything on the menu, with the exception of the saffron rice, had garlic or onions in it. While I was tempted to just order the rice, we were in Safranbolu after all, I knew it was probably not the most well rounded meal. I took note of a bean soup and lentil dish and crossed my fingers that one of them would work.
When the woman returned I immediately handed her my ‘I’m allergic to garlic and onions’ Turkish note card and then pointed at the menu with an expression that easily translated to ‘so what can I eat?’ She gave me an all too familiar look, the one that is a combination of concern, befuddlement and ‘you’re screwed’. She pointed at the rice and then at the toast and said ‘potato or cheese?’ Yup, I was back to my India options: rice or cheese sandwiches. I decided to mix it up and ordered the potato. Adam, worry-free eater, got to order the manti (Turkish ravioli with yogurt sauce), one of the many traditional dishes I had read about and longed to try.
Following our tasty lunch we decided to walk around town before heading back to our hotel. The afternoon sun was blazing and the tall, close set buildings prevented the breeze from providing any relief. So we figured the best course of action was to hunt down some ice cream. After trying at a few cafes we finally stumbled across Safran-Tat and ordered two chocolate cones. There wasn’t any seating so we headed across the small square to a shaded bench.
Just as we sat down we heard the Azan’s call to prayer. I’m not sure of the exact differences between the call in Turkey and Morocco, but I find the ones here to be much more beautiful. The melodies are soothing and the Azan’s voices all have a peaceful quality to them. The sleepy streets around us began to fill with men making their way to the mosques for the afternoon prayer. I noticed a number of them headed directly for us and was concerned for a moment that they were coming to reprimand us for eating on the street. But one by one they walked right by, turning just a few feet past our bench. I allowed my gaze to follow their path and felt instantly guilty. I turned to Adam, eyes wide, and exclaimed “Crap, look where we’re sitting”. Directly behind us, barely 30ft away was the entrance to a mosque. There we were, foreign jackasses, leisurely eating ice cream in the middle of the day basically on the doorstep.
We immediately stood up and began walking back towards our hotel. I thought about throwing the cone out, feeling embarrassed by our insensitivity, but decided to just enjoy the little I had left. After all, we had already committed the faux pas, we might as well finish the ice cream.