A Ramadan Saturday Night: Impressions of Istanbul

I arrived in Turkey enroute from Budapest, sleep-deprived, with one of my favourite songs, Istanbul Not Constantinople, playing on repeat in my head.

I wanted to dig deep and find out more about this fabled land where east-meets-west, so I purchased a 5-dollar PDF from the Lonely Planet web site about the history, architecture, and layout of downtown Istanbul.

I navigated directions to the area of temples and hostels near the hippodrome of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. Today it is a square named Sultanahmet Meydan? and features the Blue Mosque, built right over the site of the ancient hippodrome.

According to SacerDestinations.com, “the Blue Mosque was commissioned by the 19-year-old Sultan Ahmet I. It was designed by architect Mehmet Aga, whose unfortunate predecessor was found wanting and executed.”

And what a scene! I was absolutely transfixed and transported by the “cascading domes and slender minarets.”

Then music came out of nowhere, full of minor key intonations. What time was it? It was ezan time.

The call to prayer summoned the faithful to the mosque. The haziness of being sleep deprived added to the effect of the sacred intoning and I was drawn in.

Sometimes one forgets what one is searching for after 40-hours of overland travel, and a few prods and probes from late-night border guards in Serbia and Turkey. But those first few minutes at the Blue Mosque were transcendent. However, after several slightly disturbing gazes from nearby venders, I headed back in the world of everyday affairs.

I gave myself a self-guided tour of the temples of Sultanahmet and had a Turkish coffee outside the great bazaar. Then I found a hostel and befriended the man in charge.

He told me he was doing a masters degree in philosophy—focusing on the works of Immanuel Kant while chain smoking. He was a proud Turk, but didn’t think much of the “medieval superstitions” around him, making only a reference in passing to Ramadan. It turns out I had hit that cultural and religious jackpot: I was smack dab in the middle of the 30-day fast and feast, known as Ramadan.

People seemed a little edgy as dehydration and hunger took hold and sunset approached. The fasting portion of the day ends with a signal that the sun hath set; then feasting begins.

I remembered the previous week in Serbia; an American friend ribbed our non-practicing Muslim friend who was losing a pool game, saying Allah was punishing him for drinking Coca-Cola during daylight hours.

I went back to the park across from the tram I’d come in on, and quenched my own midday thirst with a cold beverage hidden behind my leg, as Ramadan events unfolded before my eyes.

Sitting alone, I was offered a bottle of water by a young girl for a fairly high price.

“No thank you” I said, but she kept at me….

“I’ve got water right here,” I repeated several times, perhaps irritated.

Then, she turned on me:

“Shudap!” she said, pouting at me with a facial gesture of superiority. What the hell?

She left quickly and I tried to understand what I had done.

Then she started fighting with an older boy, perhaps a brother, twisting her arm behind his back with tremendous force. I was reminded of many similar tug-of-wars in the schoolyard when I worked as a substitute teacher in Whitehorse. Then a father figure came over and slapped the girl. She scorned the father and ran down the street and disappeared inside McDonald’s with another friend.

It turned out the water-selling ploy was a ruse to get tourists in conversation, so they could be sold facial tattoos. I walked past the father to confirm this theory. He pointed at my face and gave me his card.

I didn’t get a slap or a tattoo, but stayed there as the sun went down and the park was packed with thousands of devotees. On a meticulously decorated stage was a balladeer on one knee, supplicating to his lover with what sounded like sacred music behind him. Judging by the audience’s response, he was making a Ramadan marriage proposal.

Next on stage were the whirling dervishes—the very manifestation of the Sufi mystic poetry of Rumi. It was good entertainment but they didn’t spin fast enough to put me into a spiritual trance. Perhaps I was too dehydrated. Or not dehydrated enough.

On my way home, young, drunk men smashed beer bottles on sidewalks beside me, and sprinted away. Then a happy-go-lucky group of female picnickers offered me a spicy snack of bulgur and lentils when they realized I was sitting alone—perhaps observing a Ramadan tradition of sharing with those less fortunate.

Heading towards the hostel, I thought about writing a variation on Stompin’ Tom’s Sudbury Saturday Night:

The girls are eating bulgur and the boys are getting vulgar. The sacred meets the squalor on a Ramadan Saturday Night.

I’m still working on it.

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