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The article discusses the unique customs and traditions of Ramadan in Turkiye and the changes that are expected due to the earthquake.
Ramadan is one of the most sacred times for Muslims around the world. The ninth month of the Islamic calendar, which requires strict fasting from sunrise to sundown without any food or liquids, starts on March 23.
Although Muslims worldwide observe Ramadan in similar ways, with some minor variations, the practice teaches worshippers to empathize with the suffering of others. Turkish Muslims, however, are already experiencing immense suffering and grief during this year’s holy month, in the wake of the deadliest earthquake since 1939, measuring 7.8, which claimed 44,218 lives across 10 provinces. Kahramanmaras, Gaziantep, and Hatay were among the worst hit in the 6 February earthquake.
With 99% of the population being Muslim, the nation’s culinary and cultural customs normally give the holy month a rich, unique flavor and feel. However, residents and observers claim that this year’s Ramadan will be reduced to a shadow of its former self. Most people in the affected areas have either left or moved into tents with little access to basic necessities.
“Rent has increased exponentially after the devastating natural disaster struck the country, and the aid we received was not up to par with what we expected,” Yakzan Shishkaly, the co-founder of the Syrian-American nonprofit Maram Foundation, told Fanack.
“Life after the earthquake will never be the same, and Ramadan is certainly no exception.”
A glimpse into Turkish Ramadan
Pronounced as Ramazan in Turkish, the holy month is a time for spiritual reflection, self-improvement, and heightened devotion and worship.
Characterized by large meals for dinner (iftar) at sunset and breakfast (suhoor) minutes prior to the break of dawn, the season of fasting for Turkish Muslims is characterized by a number of traditions.
Like Muslims around the world, family and friends frequently visit one another during iftar in Turkiye. Charitable meals are also distributed to the less fortunate.
Among Turkiye’s unique traditions – dubbed diş kirası – is the distribution of pouches containing silver or gold coins to those who are comparatively disadvantaged.
Stemming from old Ottoman traditions, sultans were said to give red silk pouches containing gold or silver coins to their guests. As it is believed that feeding people during Ramadan will be immensely rewarded by God, sultans distributed these pouches as a way of expressing gratitude.
It is also customary in Turkiye to secretly pay off the debts of strangers in the local bazaar or traditional markets, where shopkeepers still use record books. These debts are settled without the stranger ever knowing who paid them off.
Furthermore, some restaurants and hotels would recreate the atmosphere of ancient Ramadan nights during the Ottoman period. Meals are served by waiters in traditional costumes while mystic tunes are performed by a local ensemble. The meals are normally accompanied by coffee or tea, with religious music playing throughout.
Mahya masters, who are known for displaying devotional messages on the soaring minarets of Ottoman-era mosques using string lights, illuminate the skies of Turkiye with glowing messages of faith.
As a whole, the month of Ramadan in Turkiye is one of celebration, family gatherings, and charity work. However, in the southeast, celebrations are tepid.
Sadness and loss
In Gaziantep, 27-year-old International Relations graduate student Ceren Alageyik recalls a holy month filled with joyous festivities and delicious food.
“The city’s main parks and cultural corners would host Ramadan festivals every day,” Alageyik told Fanack. “Children’s activities, puppet shows, book sales, food stands, and live music would be offered. Sufi music, poetry, drumbeat performances, and most significantly, Quranic recitations would also be featured.”
While children were entertained by theatrical performances and shadow puppet shows known as Hacivat and Karagöz, adults watched the events while enjoying iftar or suhoor meals and dancing to regional and traditional music.
In fact, Gaziantep’s mayor Fatma Şahin described the city in a 2022 tweet as “colorful and lively,” with photos displaying large crowds strolling through vibrantly decorated streets.
“But most people now live in tents or have left the city,” Alageyik said, noting that people are still grieving the loss of their loved ones – their suffering compounded by their inability to make ends meet.
“In the past, we would gather every day at different houses for iftar. But this year there are many people without houses that can barely access food and water.”
Changes to Ramadan
As Turkiye prepares to welcome Ramadan and spring simultaneously, Alageyik recalls a time when housewives would gather to prepare charity meals for the poor two weeks prior to Ramadan. Dinner tables would be adorned with Turkiye’s famous puffed bread pide, Ramadan’s famous fruit drink sherbet, and the country’s most popular dessert güllaç – traditions that will be scarce this year.
“In the past, charity organizations distributed aid specifically for Ramadan, but I doubt they will be able to cover everyone in damaged areas since the scope of the devastation is immense,” Alageyik said.
Despite the distribution of aid that followed the earthquake, humanitarian organizations reported that more assistance is still required on the ground.
Shishkaly also expressed similar concerns regarding budget constraints, citing his foundation’s reduction in mobile kitchens this year due to the spending on earthquake relief.
“It is imperative to have everyone’s support. We cannot leave people without the most basic provisions. They deserve a chance for a better life after enduring such trauma,” he said.
As well as food and water, shelter is a major issue. People were left freezing in tents without access to heating during the most recent storm in mid-March due to lack of housing alternatives, according to Alageyik. For instance, tents in the Malatya province perished in a flood of water as a result of a rainstorm.
Although 1.5 million people were reported to have deserted the earthquake-ravaged provinces of Hatay, Adiyaman, and Malatya, survivors were confronted with skyrocketing rent prices across western and southern areas of Turkiye as opportunist landlords took advantage of the increased demand.
“As for those who stayed, I’m certain they will fast and cook communal dinners as they did before – perhaps inside large tents – but in a reduced and budgeted manner,” Alageyik said.
Remembering the past
Since Male-Zeynel Koç, 51 started living in a tent with his seven children in Gaziantep, he struggles to wrap his mind around the life they are currently living.
“We rarely prayed at home. We always did it at the mosque,” Koç told Fanack. “Whenever we had iftar, we would invite neighbors over. We are so shaken right now that we are unsure of what to do.”
In his village of Nurdağı, he says 38 members of his tribe and six of his neighbors have perished. This Ramadan, the remaining residents may not be able to go to the mosque.
“Ramadan used to be good, but this year everybody is grieving,” he said. “I don’t know how I will be able to prepare suhoor or iftar for my children… tents are not equipped with gas stoves.”
“This year we will face many challenges since everything has changed, and we must rely on assistance to feed our families. If aid continues to be distributed late into the hours of suhoor, we will eat, otherwise we will not,” he added.
For Hava Ekikolu, 35, who has five children and lives in a tent with her 90-year-old mother, the ritualistic iftar get-togethers will now take place in tents.
“Traditionally, after iftar, the neighborhood observed Taraweeh prayers together, after every evening’s last daily prayer. We may have to move them to tents this year,” she said.
Like Koç, she says that suhoor will be the most challenging meal to prepare due to adverse weather conditions at night and the lack of cooking supplies.
“The tent is small and narrow. The beds are on the ground, and there is no table. I know this is the will of God but I am not sure how we will be able to eat at suhoor,” she said. “Either way, we will remain steadfast in our practices.”
As she and the families around her attempt to cope with their daily lives, they turn to their prayer for support.
“We used to gather during Ramadan to read the Qur’an, but now we do the same thing inside the tents,” she added.
For Alageyik, memories of previous Ramadans still haunt her, as she recalls the long lines outside kebab shops during suhoor – now completely destroyed – and the glistening lights and smiles that decorated the streets.
“People were instructed to fast during Ramadan in order to empathize with those less fortunate; now they are the less fortunate individuals, and they are suffering beyond measure,” she said.
Maaz İbrahimoğlu contributed to this article