ISTANBUL, Turkey — On a scorching June afternoon, a tired woman in her late thirties yawns as she steps into the courtyard of Sinan Pasha mosque in central Istanbul. Dressed in a grey business suit and a blouse with a wide and low neckline, she pulls some documents out of her handbag, shuffling through them before stuffing them back in. If she didn't stop to slip her feet into her shoes you might think she was coming out of an office or a bank. Though nothing about her is ostensibly Muslim, she's just finished the afternoon prayer. Her parched lips indicate she hasn't had a sip of water since dawn as she is observing the obligatory fast.
Seeing women in such clothing coming out of mosques isn't common in other countries, but commenting on it, Maryam Saad, an economics student from Nigeria,who's studying in Istanbul, says Ramadan is a time when she wants to engage in more religious deeds such as attending congregational prayer. It's made easier for her in Turkey because most mosques here provide prayer clothing for women.
"Maybe if I'm wearing pants that are too tight to pray with I can just put on a skirt or something," she says. "I find it very considerate that they do that knowing not all women dress completely decent here. It gives you the incentive to pray. I wish that was something they did in Nigeria."
Though Maryam finds such provisions an advantage, there are drawbacks to her Ramadan experience in Istanbul, a metropolis of 15 million people, compared to the three million of her home city. "Whatever you're doing, it's such a hassle. You spend so much time in traffic when you really want to be at home reading Quran. I also miss the dynamic of everyone eating together; not just laying in bed and ordering something online. I sometimes feel lonely here during Ramadan. At home,I don't have the choice of being alone."
For Abdel Kader, a former English teacher from Aleppo who left Syria behind 18 months ago and now works with Ata Textiles in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul, there is little to complain about. "I'm very happy. I had the chance to go and live with uncles in Belgium. I didn't go, for religious and cultural reasons. The experience of Ramadan is one of them."
He explains what he managed to escape in Aleppo. "We would spend all Ramadan without running water, not even for drinking or wudu [the pre-prayer ablution]. Some people were selling some [water which] was expensive. Normally after tarawih [a special Ramadan evening prayer] we would chill out in restaurants. During the war, though there is no fighting in Aleppo at the moment, you'd just try and get through the day .We lost most of what we used to do. We'd see death all around us." Living here with his wife, he misses family back home but says he doesn't feel isolated as he's been invited to iftar [a meal or snack to break the fast] gatherings.
Bringing people together during Ramadan is taken very seriously in Turkey. Municipalities across the country organise free open-air iftars, open to anyone, often with capacity for hundreds of people. In addition to food, there is live music and recitation of the Quran. Sohail Mahmood, Pakistan's ambassador to Turkey based in Ankara, believes these iftars "promote the culture of sharing and strengthen community ties" and he says it gives Ramadan here a "special importance."
For Ahmed Rufai, a computer engineering student from Sokota, northern Nigeria, this initiative is a welcome contrast to Nigerian Ramadan tradition. "There, people invite others to their homes rather than public gatherings. I think it's really nice in Turkey they give out what they have." But he misses his mother's home cooked food. " I come from a family of 14 and we always eat together, except my father who eats with his friends". He laughs: "Men are not allowed in the kitchen in Nigeria but there are all kind of foods I miss: tuwo, yams, kosai and the drink, kunu. Better than ayran [yogurt drink]," he chuckles.
Missing traditional dishes is made up for in other ways.
"There is something in the city's air that is magical. You kind of feel the power of this city's history when it comes to Islam," says Mohamed Yusuf a Somali Canadian who studies political science in Istanbul and moved here from Saudi Arabia. Yet, being away from his family dampens the Ramadan spirit somewhat. He tries to make up for this with his friends but he confesses he's had a hard time socialising with local Turks.
"Most of my friends here are foreign: Egyptian, Libyan, Equatorial Guinean," he says. "We are all Muslims; that gives us a common bond. Turkish people are very hospitable people, but when it comes to religion, their understanding is very different from mine."
As he elaborates he hints at the social consequences of the republic's controversial secular history which in 1997 led to a "post-modern"coup that implemented widespread oppression of religious expression; something the current government has been slowly but successfully reversing with much popular support. Yet for him, the scars in the Turkish psyche will take longer to heal. "You realise you're not going to have any discussion about religion with them. They view religion more as a personal relationship with God. With my non-Turkish friends, we'll talk about religion several times a day; on several different topics."
For Crimean political science student Evelina, the attitudes of some of the country's extreme secularists deeply disturbed the beginning of her Ramadan. "Some of my friends who wear headscarves were attacked on the metro. A guy told them, 'You can't sit next to me when you are dressed like that.' When they challenged him, they were laughed at by other passengers and as they left the train, they were pushed around by other girls."
This incident hasn't held Evelina back from being spiritually enriched during Ramadan here. One of the major plus points for her is the architecture of the mosques. "When I first walked into one I almost had tears in my eyes. It's not something I get to see in my country. I feel very happy that I can walk easily into any mosque. In Simferopol, we used to have an Islamic centre, AlRaid. After the Russian invasion things became difficult and they had to shut down. The adhan [call to prayer] back home is not too loud. You only know the time of iftar by the Internet or sometimes they announce it on TV. Here there are so many mosques and the adhan goes off; it's beautiful."
There are parallels for her between the past treatment given to religion in her native land and Turkey. "Muslims are a minority in Crimea but they were not very religious because of the previous occupation of the Communist Soviets – they weren't allowed to practise. Now you see a lot of young people going to the mosque regularly.They avoid alcohol and such things.I also see, in Turkey, people are fighting for their rights to practise Islam even whilst holding public positions. It was just recently women were allowed to wear headscarves at work.That makes me happy."
Though seeing social and political progress makes Ramadan more enjoyable for her, she is overwhelmed by the little things. "Some of the restaurants here don't serve food before iftar. So people will come and sit and when the adhan goes off they'll all start eating at the exact same time. That makes me feel like I'm part of a big family! It's my fourth year here and when I first saw this it moved me. Every time I went home I would miss Istanbul for that. I would be in tears."
Maryam echoes this sentiment, but for a different reason: "In Ramadan the little things go a long way. My biggest regret is, after being here for four years, not learning the language. You see an old lady with shopping bags and you want to help her. You approach her and don't know what to say; it looks like you are stealing from her!"
Waiting for the sunset
The fast in Turkey is longer for some than in their native countries. For Ambassador Sohail Mahmood this isn't problematic. "The fast is about one hour longer than in Pakistan. This does not have any effect. In fact, due to a significant difference in temperature, particularly in these summer months, Turkey's cooler weather makes it easier even if the duration is longer."
Whatever the challenges foreign citizens here face: missing family, language barriers, getting caught up in the hustle and bustle of daily life, missing native cuisine, none can say that Ramadan in this unique country lacks excitement, adventure and some truly remarkable learning experiences.