With the start of the holy month of Ramazan this past week, many Turks have been fasting and praying. It’s not easy, especially in summer, when the days are long and hot, and people have to work. Since Turkey is a somewhat tolerant Muslim country, not everyone is expected to fast. In fact, most of the people I know aren’t fasting. Or some only fast part of the week, or on the weekend, when they aren’t faced with the demands of the workplace, traffic, etc. In other words, there is some flexibility in regards to fasting here in Turkey, at least in the west part of the country (the east can be a different story).
Having said all that, I’m still somewhat confounded, and bemused, by one of my acquaintenances. The story of this man’s fast – I’ll call him Gökhan – is a strange one, and perhaps it offers some lessons, or insights, into this fascinating ritual.So – Gökhan, he’s in his late twenties, and for much of the time he is unemployed. He tends to drift “between opportunities.” His family are said to have been once-wealthy (some mining interests in Kazakhstan, I’m told), but a dispute or some mismanagement – the story changes, depending on Gökhan’s mood – it’s my understanding that this once-impressive wealth has also since drifted, in search of other opportunties.
But that’s not important to this story. For Gökhan, every year Ramazan brings some new twist. When I first met him, some years ago, it was during Ramazan. Since I’m not a Muslim, I was in a bar in Kadikoy, enjoying a few pints of Efes beer and watching the sun go down over the Bosphorus. Mehmet was sitting at a nearby table. Much of the bar was deserted, so we naturally fell into conversation. He was just 23 then, and trying to finish university before his parents cut off his allowance.
Gökhan was an engaging, knowledgeable fellow, with excellent English. I soon learned that he had studied in America, and was also quite big on all-things Americana, from “Pulp Fiction” to GnR, from Jack Daniel’s whiskey to tasty burgers.
Upon hearing the last part, I asked if he was in the mood for a whiskey. Mehmet politely declined. “It’s Ramazan,” he said.
“Oh, right –“ I said. “So you’re fasting.”
“Well, yeah—“ my new acquaintence said. “Sort of. I mean, this year I decided I’m not going drink whiskey. Or eat any fast food. I mean, it’s a time of sacrifice, right? So, I don’t go what you would call ‘all-out.’ But I do try to give up something. This year it’s no whiskey, and no fast food.”
“I got you,” I said. I was still relatively new to Turkey then, but it was my understanding that under the strict rules of Ramazan, an observing Muslim is not allowed, from sunrise to sunset, to allow anything to pass the lips – not even a glass of water. In fact, I do know those who practice this , my driver for instance. I always can’t help but feel pity when, under the hot summer sun, he’s sweating, with headaches, because he’s hot and dehyrdrated, yet uncomplaining.
So in this context, Gökhan’s sacrifice –no whiskey or fast food – seemed a bit trifling. Out of courtesy, of course, I didn’t say anything. He seemed to read my thoughts.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he insisted. “I mean, I get it. You’re supposed to not do anything. Like, not even have sex. That one’s pretty easy, actually. I haven’t been laid in months! But I don’t see why you have to be so strict about it. I think if you can just choose something you really like, then go without it for a month, it makes the same point. You know? We’re supposed to be fasting so that we feel the pain of the poor people of the world. Hell, I’m poor, too, man! So – that’s what I’m doing, giving up something. I really could go for a burger, too, man! It’s not so easy.”
“I see,” I said. I thought: Still, it seems rather … well, I mean, for that matter, I could just say, for one month I’m not going to have any gin-and-tonics. But that would be easy, since there are lots of other things to drink!
But I didn’t say anything. We bought another round of Efes, and passed the rest of the evening talking about books, something we both had a passion for.
As the years passed, I saw Gökhan not infrequently – usually at the bars in Kadikoy. We always, in our hyper-verbal way, would toss politics, the universe, literature, and other weighty topics about over pints of beer.
When Ramazan approached, fasting always became a topic of interest: What was my friend going to give up this year? There was fast food that first year. The year after, it was using profanity, especially the ‘f’ word. Then another year, it was alcohol – except beer, of course (Hell, beer! It’s really more like piss-water than alcohol). Then, it was junk food, and still another year it was “not spending more than 10 liras per day (he later amended it to 50 liras, to allow for a few beers).
Of course, you’ll qualify these sacrifices by saying that he could still indulge his habits after sundown. After all, even the strictest of Muslims does not give up food and water entirely during Ramazan. They fast only during daylight. But Gökhan – give him credit – was steadfast in his abstentions, no matter what they were from one year to the next.
Sometimes, I ventured to make suggestions. What about no smoking? (Nah, he tried that one year, he said: made him too grumpy.) What about no Internet? (He chewed on that suggestion, but ultimately ruled it out: “Dude, we live in the Information Age.”)
Eventually, having run out of “new opportunties,” my friend moved. Last I heard he was either in Kazakhstan, or perhaps Azerbejan. I’m not really sure. I still think about him from time to time, wondering whatever became of him. And I wonder what he has decided to sacrifice this year.
Well, I’m sure he has found something. Though others may find Gökhan’s method of fasting strange, I think he has a point. It’s all about giving up something that is, in some way or the other, important to you, in service of God. Isn’t that what Ramazan is all about? While I’m not a Muslim, I would say that his heart seems to be in the right place.
James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher. He lives in Istanbul.