It was always obvious that I was going to fast during the holy month of Ramadan. Diane, my wife, felt the same way. I am in Turkey to work, but also to learn things, and Islam is one of the things I want to learn more about. Ramadan provides a unique way to acquire this knowledge — not by reading books or by making observations, but by directly participating in a different way of life. Since you are learning with your body, you do not even have to know the language! After all, the instructions are pretty straight-forward: you eat early in the morning, refrain from food and water all day, and then totally stuff yourself after sundown. All my colleagues at work were doing it, all my students were doing it too, of course I had to join in!
I’m not a religious person and I’m certainly not a “spiritual seeker” (although both of my grandfathers were vicars in the Church of Sweden). However, I am very interested in what people do and why they do it. In particular, I’m interested in behavior that is difficult to explain in rational, means-ends, terms. In the Western tradition, rational thinking has too often been privileged at the expense of bodily practices, and as a result we have become increasingly opaque to ourselves. Moreover, once religion was defined mainly as a matter of beliefs, Christianity became vulnerable to attacks from secular society. Not surprisingly, in today’s Sweden there are very few religious believers. But Islam is different. Islam seems to me to be more about practices than about beliefs. Or rather, practices and beliefs may be the same thing — both founded in a human being not subject to Cartesian divisions between a rational mind and an irrational body.
So what happens when a quarter of the world’s population decide to synchronize their bodies and share the experience of going without food?
Sahur, for me, was right from the beginning a matter of oatmeal porridge. Oatmeal is the food that kept peasants working long hours in the fields back in agricultural Sweden. A gigantic bowl of porridge at 3.30 AM, topped off with a piece of chocolate, almost felt like cheating. No reason to feel hungry. In fact, “fasting” is surely something of a misnomer. It’s really more a matter of deferring one’s meals. I’m not sure I was eating less. I might have eaten more.
Although I never actually felt hungry, fasting gave a particular coloring to the hours after, say, 5 PM. It might best be described as a certain mellow feeling. The world suddenly slows down and you just want to sit still in one place. No reason to really do anything; yet you are pretty content. Surely GDP in the Muslim world must drop off during Ramadan. But just as surely, since people who fast are removed from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, they are returned to their bodies and to their selves. The result is a sense of calm — perhaps it could even be called “serenity.”
But instead of saying that people are returned to themselves, it might be better to say that they are returned to their communities. I noticed something strange during those mellow late-afternoon hours. We always used to watch Deutsche Welle before dinner. DW broadcasts in English and it is a very reasonable alternative to all those blaring Anglo-Saxon news channels. Yet once Ramadan started we stopped watching DW too. Perhaps it was only a coincidence, but it could also have been that fasting had lessened my connection to the German TV station and its non-fasting newsreaders. Their news stories suddenly seemed less relevant to me. I could feel the boundaries of my community being redrawn.
Instead we watched the iftar countdown on TRT. I love the way the fast-breaking schedule rolls by on the TV screen and one city after another suddenly lights up in red. We were counting the minutes, and people all over Turkey, and the entire Muslim world, were counting the minutes too. It was as exciting as New Year’s Eve, but during Ramadan every day is New Year’s Eve! “45 minutes to go now.” “Too long! I’m hungry!” “What are we going to do?” “Let’s talk about something.” Only 22 minutes left. Suddenly only 8. “Where are the dates? Surely we did not forget to buy dates?”
It is nice to share this experience with people you know, but it is even better to share it with strangers. All religions know that eating together is a powerful way to build a sense of community. Christians have their “last supper” after all, and not even Swedish Lutherans, in their excessive rationalism, have managed to abolish “the communion.” Yet it is a special experience to eat together with strangers after a day of fasting. You look at the people seated at the other tables in the restaurant, and although you know nothing whatsoever about them, you share an intimate sensation in your stomach. That is, the sense of community does not have to be visualized or imagined; it is founded on sheer physiology. Then, after the müezzin‘s call, and for about 15 minutes, everyone falls silent and focuses on eating. And when we are done, we look at each other again, and again we know exactly what the others are feeling. We are satisfied now. Happy and content. Today too we got to eat our fill.
Rima, my daughter, put it best. “It is all about gratitude,” she said. “When you finally get to eat, you feel grateful. You are grateful to the person who cooked the food, and grateful to the world that provided you with it.” In modern society it is rare to be grateful for food. We always eat enough — in fact we often eat too much. In modern society we take everything for granted and gratefulness is an uncommon emotion. Yet during Ramadan we are taught to be grateful every evening for a whole month. And perhaps, when our stomachs finally are full, we can spare a thought for people who are less fortunate than ourselves.
Fasting also taught me much about the political divisions, and the culture wars, of today’s Turkey. A week into Ramadan, I attended a workshop organized by my department and the IR department at Bilkent University. Since Bilkent was footing much of the bill, they were in charge of the schedule. Consequently the sessions started at 9 AM, which is way too early for someone who likes to sleep after sahur, and there were “lunch-breaks” in the middle of the day. But OK, there were many international visitors invited, and the Bilkent people may have been reluctant to appear as too “ethnic” in front of the foreigners. In any case, us in the Ibn Haldun contingent were just sort of standing around in the court yard of our madrasa while the others were eating. But it felt great. Very visibly, I found myself on one of the sides — on the right side — of the political and cultural gap which divides Turkey. That in a sense was when I finally joined the faculty of Ibn Haldun University.
I was on the right side again when I was showing my sister — visiting Turkey for a few days — the sights in the center of Istanbul. Around Taksim Square in particular there are always bouncers who come up to you with a menu and questions of “Where are you from, sir?” “What would you like to eat, sir?” But the assaults always stopped when I informed the assailants that “Ben orucum.” Instead of pestering us, many started congratulating me, shaking my hand. Maşallah! Maşallah!
Yes, I do realize that I have a very romantic — possibly an “Orientalist” — understanding of Muslim society. I always wanted to be someone different than myself, someone different than a Swede.
And yet, the whole Ramadan project came apart both suddenly and prematurely. We made the great mistake of going on a mini-vacation to the Aegean coast. That part of Turkey is not like Başakşehir. It is not like Başakşehir at all. In fact, it might as well be a different country. Where we were staying, people were wearing swim suits not only on the beach, but in the streets, and they were not only eating lunch, but they had beers to go with it. And even more surprisingly, our hotel did not even bother with sahur. We complained at the front-desk, but when asked, we had to admit that we were not Muslim. “So why are you fasting?” Yes indeed, why were we fasting? Once again I could feel the boundaries of my community being redrawn. Being a secular European comes easily to me, but that’s not why I am in Turkey.
At the same time, I feel sorry for people in secular society. They are missing out on something. All they have are their private lives and their first obligation is always to service their individual desires. That kind of a life is not good enough for a human being. If nothing else, it is really quite boring — our individual lives are rarely as exciting as we pretend. But now of course the fasting has ended for all of us, and we have all rather brutally been returned to our private lives. I miss Ramadan already. And I’m very much looking forward to next year.