How was their first Ramadaan
Ramadan 1981: A journey through Turkey, Islam and self
The summer of 1981 was hot in Turkey -- one of the hottest by far, many told me. I arrived not knowing what to expect, and since I knew basically nothing of Islam, I was unaware that my first visit to the country would coincide with Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish).
The purpose of my trip was to go to Konya and pay my respects at the tomb of Mevlana, the Sufi mystic, scholar and poet. I had been reading translations of his works for years and something resonated deep inside of me. Feeling it was time for a change in my life, I arrived looking for where life would lead me next.
The year before my journey I had met an elderly gentleman and his wife from Konya when they visited the United States to attend their son’s wedding. We felt an immediate warmth and closeness and they referred to me as their American daughter. Lovers of Mevlana themselves, they asked me to come and visit them in Konya, where they lived. How, I thought, could I pass up an opportunity like that? So, I quit my job in Texas and arrived on the heels of the military coup the previous fall. The country was still under martial law, with nighttime curfews in effect. I came with a touch of trepidation because the films “Midnight Express” and “Lawrence of Arabia” were the only films depicting Turks at that time. And Islam, well, I knew even less about that, except that Muslims in Iran were still holding American hostages. In spite of the misgivings of friends and family, I felt drawn to come to Turkey.
Since the couple I had come to see had a very small house and I did not want to impose, I stayed at a hotel near Mevlana’s tomb. Each day I would visit the tombs of Shems-i-Tabriz and Mevlana and then proceed to their tiny house nestled next to the cemetery walls. We spent the day talking about Mevlana and drinking endless glasses of tea. One day, though, Dede said: “Tomorrow is the first day of Ramazan, our month of fasting. You, of course, are not obliged to fast since you are not Muslim. But you might want to try fasting, to see how you feel. All religions have fasting. It is a way to purify your body, and to help you focus away from the material world. While fasting you learn to be more tolerant, more patient, and, inşallah, your faith will strengthen.” He then quoted from Mevlana: “The month of fasting has come, the emperor’s banner has arrived; withhold your hand from food, for the spirit’s table has arrived. The soul has escaped from separation and bound nature’s hands; the heart of error is defeated, and the army of faith has arrived. Fasting is our sacrifice, it is the life of our soul; let us sacrifice all our body, since the soul has arrived as guest.”
At the hotel I asked the desk clerk to have sahur delivered to me the following morning, and each morning I was there during the month. Surprised, he said: “But you are American. You are not Muslim. This is a very difficult thing you want to do. Inşallah you will benefit from it.” And so, each morning I ate before dawn, then went to visit the tombs and then to see Dede. The first couple of days were difficult, especially not being able to have any water in the heat. But soon I became used to it. One day, about halfway through the month, Dede decided that I should return to İstanbul and visit a friend of his there, explaining that there were more people in İstanbul who spoke English and who could answer my questions about Islam in more detail. I sadly took my leave of Konya, but knew that I would be returning again after Ramazan.
The bus to İstanbul left in the late afternoon. I knew that since I was traveling I was exempt from the fast for that day. I was surprised, however, when the bus pulled to the side of the road at sunset to allow passengers to share their iftar together. Men and women rose, pulling bags of food from the overhead storage bins and began passing back and forth up the aisle different tidbits to sample. An elderly woman sitting next to me made sure that I had a taste of everything that passed our way. Finally, the driver was satisfied that everyone had eaten their fill, and he started the bus on the journey again. I was very touched by the communal feeling of this particular iftar, with everyone joking, talking and sharing, even though most had never met before and would probably not see each other again.
After arriving in İstanbul I met with Dede’s friend, known to me simply as Efendi, who welcomed me like a long-lost family member into his bookstore near the Grand Bazaar. Each day I sat with Efendi in his bookshop, filled with questions that he answered through a translator. Before becoming a bookseller Efendi had been an imam, so any and all questions I had were patiently, and expertly resolved. I also read several books that he gave me that explained Islam, hadiths (saying of the Prophet Mohammed), and the prayers in great detail. Every evening, just before sunset, men and women would gather in the bookshop and then go together to a small mosque nearby. Sitting at tables in the mosque garden, everyone would wait in silence while men served the food -- dates, olives, home made soup, mounds of fragrant rice, tender bits of meat, and piles of pide, the tables were soon completely filled with food. Waiting for the ezan to signal the end of the fast, everyone waited, inhaling the rich aromas teasing the noses. After the main meal, desserts would arrive -- baklava, fresh fruits and pastries.
After the meal I would sit and talk with the women, listening and learning as I observed their roles within the group. Several were well educated and held professional jobs -- doctors, lawyers, professors, business women. Others were less well educated; some working outside the homes, some staying in the house tending to their families. In spite of the economic and social differences, all the women were equals here, and everyone treated each other with respect. A sense of camaraderie pervaded.
It was in this nurturing environment that I learned about Islam all through my first month of fasting. By the end of the month the fasting was relatively easy. After the studying I had done and the seemingly endless questions that were so patiently answered for me, I felt that I had in fact found what I had come looking for. At the end of the Ramazan Bayramı I went to see Efendi in his bookstore, sat before him, and embraced Islam, a religion that had seemed foreign and almost threatening just a few short weeks before. Thinking back on what had brought me to Turkey, I reflected on Mevlana’s words: “Why should I seek? I am the same as He. His essence speaks through me. I have been looking for myself.”