This Ramadan has been challenging and it has nothing to do with hunger, thirst, or heat. There is something intangible missing—namely that collective common spirit that I’m accustomed to feeling in either the wider consciousness of a Muslim country or the intentional consciousness of a dedicated minority. Still trying to figure out how to comprehend life in secular Muslim Turkey, being here feels like its own dimension. I see signs of Ramadan—donation requests, iftar buffets, Ramazan pide breads for sale—but I can’t feel it. Seemingly more the exception than the default, fasting feels like a secret only shared with an unknown few. Obviously, fasting is a very personal act of devotion that need not be publicized, but when you’re invited for lunch or offered food and drink in the middle of the day, it starts to feel a bit like the Twilight Zone.
Lil’ Z is taking gymnastics lessons at a great academy that happens to be housed in a large shopping mall. If she wasn’t enjoying and progressing well in the class, I would find a way out of frequenting my least favorite destination four times a week. I thought the usual shopping mall annoyances might be turned down a notch for Ramadan, but it was business as usual. Diners, coffee drinkers, and smokers were doing what they always do, but one particular young lady really made me pause. While waiting at a bus stop, she came supported by two young women at her side. Because she put no weight on her bent legs, I immediately thought she sprained her ankle or was injured. But when her friends attempted to sit her up, I realized that she was passing in and out of consciousness. Her head dropped and eyes rolled back. Drool ran from her lips quicker than her friends could open their moist towelette packets to clean it. Though her entourage seemed calm and collected, I had to intervene, fearful that her condition was worse than they perceived. I thought that perhaps her blood sugar was low from fasting or she was severely dehydrated but, to my shock, one of the young men told me in unmistakable English, “She is drunk.” Having lived in a college town for eight years, I’ve seen drunk before—loud drunk, belligerent drunk, staggering drunk. But on the verge of black out drunk in daylight–I’ve never seen. Again my mind goes back to Ramadan.
Many of the irreligious Turkish friends I’ve met here have made reference to a grandparent who prays. I can understand that a person may consciously reject a choice for themselves, but there seems to be this total unawareness and disconnect from the lives their forefathers lived only two generations prior. Yes, there are many religious Turks as well, but I’m disappointed by how seemingly clueless young people are about Islam. Almost as if a cloud of amnesia descended a few decades ago that reduced Islam to not eating pork and calling God “Allah”, which I hear often. “Ma sha’ Allah” when seeing a cute child, “in sha’ Allah” when speaking of future happenings, or, my favorite, “Allah Allah” for any reason ranging from a spill to a near car accident. I see beautiful mosques all over the city, amazing modest clothing lines, prayer beads for sale in the streets, but I can’t seem to access what Islam means here in Turkey, or at least in Ankara. It’s a discussion I’d like to have, but being religious seems to be tied with supporting a particular political party, so those conversations are muted for fear that an innocent inquiry will turn into a partisan debate.
As with any reality in the outer world, I’m forced to look inward. Whether fasting as one in a small crowd or one in a million, I need to peer through the fog of my confusion to see the lesson awaiting me, the Teacher beckoning me, and the service demanding me. Ramadan is not something happening to me but rather within me. For more than a decade, even with its challenges, Ramadan is the internal housecleaning that I look forward to every year. Both in and outside of Ramadan, fasting heightens my awareness of God, refines my inner vision, and tempers my connection to the temporal world. As with Islam in general, it’s such a treasure that I hate to see people forfeit or belittle. Our little family is doing what we can to keep our own Ramadan fire aflame because I can’t rely on others here to fan it. With about half of the month left, I have to seek out some virtual love to pull through this month of mercy, so I can end with the cleansing and spiritual recommitment that I always find awaiting me in its last days.