You may know it as Ramadan, but it’s Ramazan to the Turks. Ramazan is the Islamic holy fasting month, when Muslims refrain from eating, drinking (even water), chewing gum, and smoking during daylight hours. It’s meant to remind Muslims of the difficulties the less fortunate face, and to teach compassion and charity.
It can also have a bad rap amongst travelers: there are rumors that buses can be completely booked (true, but only at the tail end of the fasting month, when people travel celebrate the completion of Ramazan with their families), that people get snappy due to hypoglycemia and nicotine withdrawals, and that restaurants will close down in observance of the holiday, making life difficult for the non-Muslim traveler who flew all the way across the world to try some of that famous kebap.
All of this can be true (to degrees), but we found traveling in Turkey during Ramazan both fascinating and relatively painless. From our experience, there are two essential truths about this Islamic holy month:
- If you stick to the heavily touristed areas, you won’t be affected by Ramazan. Ramazan started while we were in Patara, and we traveled along the Mediterranean coast on through Cappadocia without even really noticing the holiday. Sure, there was the nightly drumming (see “Ramazan is LOUD” below), but we never had any problem finding food, and most restaurants were still serving alcohol. The only time we felt the burden of Ramazan was in the east, which brings me to my next point:
- If you get off the beaten path, you WILL be affected by Ramazan. As soon as we got off the bus in eastern Turkey, it was clear that we were going to have to change our public eating, beer-drinking, water-swilling ways. Restaurants were boarded up. Men were sitting around empty tables looking sad and listless. And not a soul on the street dared to smoke a cigarette (uncommon in this part of the world!).
If you find yourself in a town that observes Ramazan, there are a few things you need to know.
DO bring earplugs, because Ramazan is LOUD. From the local mosque ghetto-blasting the call to prayer several times a day, to the guy banging a drum in the wee hours of the morning…if there’s one thing that Ramazan is, it’s LOUD. Bring your earplugs, because otherwise you won’t get a wink of sleep.
During the fasting month, Turks wake up at the ungodly hour of 3 AM to prepare the morning meal before the sun rises. We were woken up every night in Cappadocia by the incessant beating of drums—the town crier trying to wake locals for their morning feast. It was obvious that Ayder had a smaller Ramazan budget—their human alarm clock had to make do banging some pots and pans together. And don’t think you’re out of the woods after the drumming stops—there’s the family of 6 staying in the room above you, making a huge ruckus as Mom starts preparing food and the kids are chasing each other around before their first meal.
DON’T eat in front of the locals if you are in a town that observes Ramazan. Again, we barely noticed it was Ramazan while traveling in western and central Turkey. But once we hit the east, we had to be more careful about eating and drinking water in public. It’s just plain rude to partake in front of fasters.
Buy, but don’t try (at least not in public). Kars’ famous cheese and honey.
Our attempts to stay out of sight while eating and drinking had us crouching in the back of an Ayder-bound bus, guiltily trying to Hoover our sandwiches before the aroma of fresh kebap could reach the passengers in the front. But try not to feel too racked by guilt, because:
DO realize that people will cheat during Ramazan (and DO try to find a restaurant BEFORE you get hungry, because it might take a while to find one). Most restaurants in Van (including their famous kavalti salonu—breakfast houses) were closed during the lunch hour while we were visiting. After wandering around for ages with our stomachs grumbling, we finally found a bakery that was open and asked the owner if he knew of a place where we could find a real meal. He walked us into a back alley, past a hidden room where Turkish men were drinking tea, into a shop whose windows were covered with newspaper, and our protesting stomachs were finally sated. Evidently this is where cheaters go for drinks and food when they’re desperate. I’ll be honest: cheating never tasted so good.
And I’ll never forget watching our friend in Cappadocia (who shall remain nameless, in order to protect the not-so-innnocent) crouching behind a wall, sneakily cracking nuts and drinking Fanta. Hey, even the devout get hungry.
DON’T worry that people are going to be cranky. We were concerned after hearing reports of impatient and hangry locals during Ramazan, but one look at our stories from Van and Cappadocia should convince you that nothing is the further from the truth. Fasting Turks can, however, be a bit listless. We saw clusters of old men sitting around empty tables on the street, looking mournfully at the spot where their tea glasses normally reside. Sad.
DON’T try to eat dinner at 6:30 PM. Here’s a rule of thumb: 6:30 PM is the witching hour in Turkey. This is the time that Muslims are allowed to break fast, so the restaurants are PACKED with people, the waiters are frantic, and you may not be able to eat unless you have a reservation. Show up and 7:30, and you’ll eat in peace.
DO try to make Turkish people laugh during Ramazan. Who knows? You might get some free baklava.
There’s no better way to understand Turkish culture than by observing it during Ramazan. We loved traveling in Turkey during the fasting month, and would encourage others to do the same…as long as you don’t mind a bit of drumming in the middle of the night.