Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Last Day of Ramazan

It's the last day of Ramazan, and I must admit I'm relieved. And not just because there's a short holiday (two days plus the weekend) and my husband is home.

Ramazan is a bad time to be outside here. However horrible Istanbul traffic is, and however insane and inconsiderate the drivers are is compounded by low blood sugar and sleep deprivation (people who are fasting get up before sunrise for a big meal before the fast begins). Traffic accidents abound, and when you look at them you can tell they were usually due to a driver getting mad and slamming on his accelerator. Even the most minor accident causes a huge traffic jam because, by law, the drivers must leave the cars where they are until the inspector gets there to determine the nature of the accident, so fender-benders sit and block the road for an hour while traffic is blocked on the other side by people stopping to have a good gape.

Going to the market during Ramazan is just stressful. The market is always packed, everyone grabs and pushes, and the bread and produce are sad and abused. A couple weeks ago I stood around for ages politely going 'Excuse me,' then finally giving up and shouting it at the butcher counter because the three workers were all too busy yelling at each other. Mahmut had decided he wanted to leave early because he was hungry, and the two women who would have had to pick up his slack weren't happy about it. They were hungry too and the argument had degenerated into name-calling before one of them huffed over to hack at the meat I wanted. And getting to the market on foot is harrying enough because drivers can't be bothered to stop or slow down for pedestrians-- they're in much too bad a mood-- and a terrible thing about LE's stroller is I'm forced to push it out in front of me. A few times I just couldn't deal with the market so I sent BE instead, who came back cursing and muttering 'Animals! Cannibals!' and 'I didn't get any spinach because they killed it.'

I used to teach at a very conservative university, and teaching during Ramazan was extra difficult. My job was mostly about keeping the students awake and getting them to stop griping about how hungry they were. Sometimes they grumbled at me that I was going to hell because I wasn't fulfilling my duty to God, though usually some of their classmates would come and apologise to me on their behalf, looking crestfallen because they knew I wasn't Muslim and so wouldn't be joining them in heaven. During Ramazan, out of respect, I refrained from drinking my usual coffee while teaching, but I usually started sneaking sips of water after the first week because my voice couldn't hold up from shouting over their whining and increased inattention for four hours.

It's not supposed to be this way, that Ramazan is everyone's excuse for turning into an asshole. It's supposed to be about peace and blessedness and thinking about God and those less fortunate. When they feel a pang of hunger, people are supposed to remember the religious significance of why they're doing this. At my old job at the conservative university, my co-workers seemed to understand this. They didn't feel good from the hunger and thirst, yet they all went around with pale faces, smiling and encouraging one another to get through they day. It got a little Bible Camp-y around there during Ramazan, but at least they seemed to get a spiritual benefit from it.

Not so for the average guy on the street. He fasts because he's supposed to, and damn anyone who gets in his way. In Istanbul at least, not everyone fasts. In some places you wouldn't even know it's Ramazan, except for the traffic and maybe your waiter is a little less obsequious. Restaurants and bars stay open, though an increasing number of restaurants won't serve alcohol. Smoking on the street is considered bad form during Ramazan, but people still do it. Many people don't fast at all, while others may just give up drinking or smoking for the month. A lot of young women seem to regard the fast as a way to lose weight.

Don't get me wrong-- this isn't an anti-Muslim rant. I try to respect their practices as best as I can. This is more of a rant about religious hypocrisy. This is more of a rant about selfish idiots. If people fast just because it's time to fast, but with no feeling behind it, then it's really just for show, and it's pointless. If someone wants to run over me because he's hungry, or lean on his horn and scare LE and make him cry just because he had to wait an extra ten seconds for us to cross the street and he was in a bad mood, then his fast is meaningless because all he's doing is making himself miserable so his neighbors will think more highly of him.

I get fed up with empty religious practice, and people who don't know their own religion. I heard a few really annoying stories in the news about this over this past month, all related to people knowing less about Islam than, apparently, I do. Islam doesn't make unrealistic demands on its adherents. For example, travelers are exempted from fasting and praying while on the road, where it might not be possible to do what needs to be done. Nonetheless, it was in the newspaper that some people on a coach made the bus pull over so they could pray. Other people on the coach didn't want to stop (they stop every two hours anyway, and the rest stops all have mezcits, which are like little mosques for travellers or workers for when there's no real mosque nearby), but they were argued down with accusations of being unbelievers. In another story, some passengers on a Turkish airline made a stewardess go ask the pilot to turn the plane towards Mecca so they could pray. The pilot refused, and they all got mad. Islam does not require people to risk their health for the fast. Old and sick people don't have to fast, nor do children, and nor do menstruating, pregnant, or nursing women. Still, I heard a story about a guy who nearly killed himself and his family, plus a few other people because he went into a diabetic coma while driving, and went off the road and crashed. He knew he was diabetic but fasted anyway. Clever. I'm sure God was very impressed by this.

So today I breathe a great sigh of relief. Ramazan is over. BE is home to complain at me for hogging the computer. The roads will be packed for the next few days as people go visiting friends and relatives, and then traffic will return to its normal crawl. The market will continue to be crowded and people will still think doorways are good places to gather and they'll still be unable to stand in line properly, but it'll all be a lot less ill-tempered and pushy. LE and I will go back to having at least one brush with death a week while crossing the road, instead of daily or twice daily narrow escapes. Things are looking up just a little bit here.


Jessica said...

Jessica here again ...

This post made me laugh, I can just see the scene now. You definitely have a way with words.

By the way, I moved my blog over to wordpress. Do you mind if I link you? Feel free to link me if you like as well.

Can't wait to read more stories from Istanbul.

Stranger said...

Please link me-- that would be really nice!

I'll link you too, but you'll have to send me the address-- Wordpress is still blocked here. I did a post about it September (, and I've know idea when/if we'll ever be able to access Wordpress sites from Turkey. It may have to wait till I go home for Christmas...

Thanks again for the link!