Couples sit beneath the reddening grape arbor, sipping tea in the garden beneath the minaret of the green Firuzaga mosque. On every corner, greasy doner kebabs slowly rotate in front of glowing orange heat panels, providing a quick lunch to doctors in white coats from the nearby public hospital. Tobacco smoke mixes with car exhaust on Sirasilever Caddesi. The casual observer of my Istanbul neighborhood might not know it’s the middle of Ramazan, Islam’s holiest month.
“Should we not eat outside today?” I asked my lunch companions, wanting to avoid offending those who are keeping the fast.
“Why not? It’s Cihangir! No one’s fasting here.”
Turkey’s polarized secularist-versus-Islamist political environment, some residents disregard their neighbors’ religious traditions without a second thought. As home to many of Istanbul’s artists, writers and free-thinkers, Cihangir probably has one of the lowest proportions of fasters in the whole city. For Istanbul’s secular elite, fasting during Ramazan is a tradition left to the pious.
But walk a few blocks downhill from Cihangir Square, into the warren of alleys threading between decaying wooden houses and decrepit Greek mansions perched on the hill above the Bosporus, the atmosphere changes noticeably. The number of headscarves and chadors increase. Most small cafes are closed because few eat in public during the day.
Iftar – the evening meal that breaks the daily fast -- falls at around 7:00 pm Aromas from the evening’s meal drift from open windows throughout the afternoon, dizzying to even those who haven’t eaten since, well, lunch. A line of men and children completing the final, pre-feast errand forms outside Ekmek Dunyasi (“Bread World”), the bakery that sells the best bread in the neighborhood. Their task is to collect the freshest, warmest Ramazan pide possible. No fast can be broken without the round, flattish loaf sprinkled with black sesame seeds. Ekmek Dunyasi stays open 24 hours a day during Ramazan to meet the demand.
As the sun sets lower, people scurry to get home and a hum of excitement comes from every apartment as dishes and silverware are hurriedly set on tables and cranky children bicker and squawk. When a short, choppy ezan calls from the city’s thousands of minarets, the alleys fall silent. Iftar has begun.
Even in Cihangir, there’s one time of day, however, that not even the most devoted Kemalist can ignore Ramazan: 3:30 am. That’s when the “Ramazan Davulcusu,” or Ramazan drummers, make their way up and down the hill, providing a free-wake up call for fasters who want to be sure they have enough time for sahur, the pre-dawn meal that will sustain them through a long day with no food. They do this every morning during the holy month of Ramazan.
The drummers, usually young men with booming voices carrying double headed drums (davul), are an anachronism left from the days when no one had alarm clocks. Because they are, to some, a nuisance, a few municipalities have banned them. Still, many Istanbullus remember them fondly from their childhoods or from their old lives in the village and are happy to give them tips.
Others give them tips to stay away.
Sometimes the davulcusu wait until 4:00 am to begin their rounds. Other mornings, inexplicably, they start at 2:30 am. They are expert at taking short breaks between staccato bursts of drum beats and mani (rhyming couplets), just long enough to allow me go back to sleep. Sometimes, it sounds like they position themselves for hours beneath my street-facing second floor bedroom window.
The davulcusu don’t discern between fasters and non-fasters. They wake the pious and pagan alike, gleefully rousting at 4 am the people who smugly sit at Cihangir’s outdoor cafes at noon, smoking and sipping tea.
The most unforgivably trite description of Istanbul is that it’s a bridge between continents, where east meets west. Not only is it a cliché, it oversimplifies the mix of cultures and attitudes that collide and co-exist, with varying degrees of success, every single day. In the spirit of Ramazan, when Muslims are supposed to examine their lives and reacquaint themselves with the virtues of compassion and forgiveness, Cihangir’s believers and non-believers have figured out ways to annoy, if not completely accommodate, one another. It’s a step in the right direction.
Let's agree to disagree