Being in Turkey and Egypt During Ramadan (My Experience and What I Learned)

Purification, cleansing, clarity, empathy, renewal, focus; these are just some of the words I have heard Muslims use to describe what their holy month of Ramadan means to them.

Ramadan is observed for a month in summer during which Muslim are religiously prohibited from eating or drinking anything from sunrise to sunset. One Ramadan I had the rather unique opportunity of experiencing this tradition in two Muslim countries, Turkey and Egypt, which are quite different from each other.

I was in Northern Turkey for part of Ramadan in 2015. I was already aware of it and its implications before it started, but once it commenced it took a little time for me to fully adjust. I had the habit of inviting my colleagues to join me for breakfast and lunch, which I quickly learned to stop doing, and my roommate was a little harder to live with for the first few days—but that phase, to my relief, didn’t last very long.

“It actually gets easier as time goes on,” my boss said of the fasting at our first weekly meeting during Ramadan.

Then the surprises started.

Shortly after Ramadan started, I went straight to the gym after I got done with work around 4:30 PM. I arrived a little bit before five and was surprised to find the place with the door open but the lights out. I noticed a couple of people, whom I assumed were customers, hanging around; however, the owner and the trainers were nowhere to be seen.

I shrugged it off, not sure what to make of it, and started my workout. About 30 minutes later, the owner arrived and turned on the lights as the place came to life.

The in-house trainer approached me and attempted to communicate something, but all I could really discern was the number “five.” Later, however, as I was finishing my workout I saw what I recognized to be a weekly schedule on the wall with a sentence above it that included the word “Ramazan.” I put two and two together and realized that the gym must have modified its hours, opening late in the afternoon to compensate for members staying up late at night to eat dinner and breakfast.

After this small bump in my routine, I went home, had dinner at my usual hour and then went to use my computer. I took my headphones off when I suddenly heard the echoes of drums from the street. I brushed it off as someone having a party, but early that morning, just as I was waking up, I heard it again. This same sound was heard at the same time the next few days, the beating of drums and shouting or singing in Turkish.

“Hey,” I commented one morning to my Tunisian colleague as we sat in the teacher’s lounge and prepped for classes, “someone’s been having a party outside our house the last few nights. Have you heard it too?”

“That’s not a party, dear,” she explained.

Apparently in Samsun, Turkey, the Iftar (meal right after sundown) and Suhur (meal right before sunup) are both marked by the sound of a drum. Someone is either paid or volunteers to walk up and down the neighborhood and beat a drum to signal when each meal is supposed to commence. My colleague even provided me with visual proof of this. She invited me to eat in a café by the seaside with her late that evening. As we sat and enjoyed the warm night, sure enough, I saw a man marching up and down the side of the street rhythmically beating a small drum.

My Turkish colleagues were all aware that I was not Muslim and nobody said a word to me when I sat and ate lunch with the students like usual. However, one afternoon, I finished my meal and, as I always did, went to put my dish in the sink. This time, though, as I walked into the kitchen, I glanced to my left and saw one of the Turkish teachers literally hiding behind the door as she munched on a plate of fruit.

The situation had the very distinct feel of catching a child stealing cookies from the cookie jar. I was still contemplating this moment when I arrived in Egypt to visit a friend.

When I told him about what I had seen, he helped clarify the situation for me. There are a number of reasons why a woman might break her fast during Ramadan, such as pregnancy, illness or menstruation. Whatever a person’s reason for refraining from fasting, my friend explained, it is simply “Ramadan etiquette” not to do so in front of others.

For this reason, he also gently insisted that I join him in his fasting so long as we were outside together. It is not a religious verdict, it is simply considered a courtesy to refrain from eating and drinking in view of people who have been abstaining from food and drink all day.

Egypt was also where I started to understand why it is such a beloved month by so many. During my previous visit to the country, the streets of Egypt had been a nightmare. The merciless honking and blaring of horns tortured the ears day and night. The sidewalks were messes of dirt and chaos. But during my visit over Ramadan, everything was, by my standard, quite normal.

When I went so far as to tell my friend, “It’s so peaceful,” he replied that this change always occurred during Ramadan. Fewer fights broke out, everyone was just generally nicer to each other “because they are focused on God.”

It made sense, really, the notion that the act of holding yourself from food or drink all day in the middle of summer wouldn’t leave much energy or concentration to focus on anything else.

My visit was short. One evening we went to a regular restaurant, ordered a large meal and literally just sat there and waited to hear the Adhan (call to prayer) signaling it was time to eat. Another day we strolled through the gardens across the street from my hotel and purchased simple food to ease our stomachs in. We took the food and sat under a palm tree within sight of the sunset and a small, austere mosque in the gardens. We watched the sun go down and waited for the call to prayer as always since the precise moment of sunset was not always clear.

What is Ramadan? For many, Ramadan is a time to grow closer to your fellow man by feeling what it is like for those who have no choice but not to eat or drink. For others, it is a time of renewal, a time to cleanse yourself of all that might be disrupting you and refocus yourself on your God and religion. For still others, it is a time of community, when each dinner becomes a celebration and each breakfast becomes a banquet.

For me, the chance to experience Ramadan helped me see how each human being has their own unique and special way of finding inner peace and building a sense of fellowship with humanity.

The opportunity to visit a Muslim country during this month to find out what it means for you is one experience that I don’t hesitate to recommend.

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I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and went to California to get my first bachelor's degree. I am currently living and working as a teacher in China while studying the University of North Dakota's online bachelor of Communications/Journalism program.

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Being in Turkey and Egypt During Ramadan (My Experience and What I Learned)

Purification, cleansing, clarity, empathy, renewal, focus; these are just some of the words I have heard Muslims use to describe what their holy month of Ramadan means to them.

Ramadan is observed for a month in summer during which Muslim are religiously prohibited from eating or drinking anything from sunrise to sunset. One Ramadan I had the rather unique opportunity of experiencing this tradition in two Muslim countries, Turkey and Egypt, which are quite different from each other.

I was in Northern Turkey for part of Ramadan in 2015. I was already aware of it and its implications before it started, but once it commenced it took a little time for me to fully adjust. I had the habit of inviting my colleagues to join me for breakfast and lunch, which I quickly learned to stop doing, and my roommate was a little harder to live with for the first few days—but that phase, to my relief, didn’t last very long.

“It actually gets easier as time goes on,” my boss said of the fasting at our first weekly meeting during Ramadan.

Then the surprises started.

Shortly after Ramadan started, I went straight to the gym after I got done with work around 4:30 PM. I arrived a little bit before five and was surprised to find the place with the door open but the lights out. I noticed a couple of people, whom I assumed were customers, hanging around; however, the owner and the trainers were nowhere to be seen.

I shrugged it off, not sure what to make of it, and started my workout. About 30 minutes later, the owner arrived and turned on the lights as the place came to life.

The in-house trainer approached me and attempted to communicate something, but all I could really discern was the number “five.” Later, however, as I was finishing my workout I saw what I recognized to be a weekly schedule on the wall with a sentence above it that included the word “Ramazan.” I put two and two together and realized that the gym must have modified its hours, opening late in the afternoon to compensate for members staying up late at night to eat dinner and breakfast.

After this small bump in my routine, I went home, had dinner at my usual hour and then went to use my computer. I took my headphones off when I suddenly heard the echoes of drums from the street. I brushed it off as someone having a party, but early that morning, just as I was waking up, I heard it again. This same sound was heard at the same time the next few days, the beating of drums and shouting or singing in Turkish.

“Hey,” I commented one morning to my Tunisian colleague as we sat in the teacher’s lounge and prepped for classes, “someone’s been having a party outside our house the last few nights. Have you heard it too?”

“That’s not a party, dear,” she explained.

Apparently in Samsun, Turkey, the Iftar (meal right after sundown) and Suhur (meal right before sunup) are both marked by the sound of a drum. Someone is either paid or volunteers to walk up and down the neighborhood and beat a drum to signal when each meal is supposed to commence. My colleague even provided me with visual proof of this. She invited me to eat in a café by the seaside with her late that evening. As we sat and enjoyed the warm night, sure enough, I saw a man marching up and down the side of the street rhythmically beating a small drum.

My Turkish colleagues were all aware that I was not Muslim and nobody said a word to me when I sat and ate lunch with the students like usual. However, one afternoon, I finished my meal and, as I always did, went to put my dish in the sink. This time, though, as I walked into the kitchen, I glanced to my left and saw one of the Turkish teachers literally hiding behind the door as she munched on a plate of fruit.

The situation had the very distinct feel of catching a child stealing cookies from the cookie jar. I was still contemplating this moment when I arrived in Egypt to visit a friend.

When I told him about what I had seen, he helped clarify the situation for me. There are a number of reasons why a woman might break her fast during Ramadan, such as pregnancy, illness or menstruation. Whatever a person’s reason for refraining from fasting, my friend explained, it is simply “Ramadan etiquette” not to do so in front of others.

For this reason, he also gently insisted that I join him in his fasting so long as we were outside together. It is not a religious verdict, it is simply considered a courtesy to refrain from eating and drinking in view of people who have been abstaining from food and drink all day.

Egypt was also where I started to understand why it is such a beloved month by so many. During my previous visit to the country, the streets of Egypt had been a nightmare. The merciless honking and blaring of horns tortured the ears day and night. The sidewalks were messes of dirt and chaos. But during my visit over Ramadan, everything was, by my standard, quite normal.

When I went so far as to tell my friend, “It’s so peaceful,” he replied that this change always occurred during Ramadan. Fewer fights broke out, everyone was just generally nicer to each other “because they are focused on God.”

It made sense, really, the notion that the act of holding yourself from food or drink all day in the middle of summer wouldn’t leave much energy or concentration to focus on anything else.

My visit was short. One evening we went to a regular restaurant, ordered a large meal and literally just sat there and waited to hear the Adhan (call to prayer) signaling it was time to eat. Another day we strolled through the gardens across the street from my hotel and purchased simple food to ease our stomachs in. We took the food and sat under a palm tree within sight of the sunset and a small, austere mosque in the gardens. We watched the sun go down and waited for the call to prayer as always since the precise moment of sunset was not always clear.

What is Ramadan? For many, Ramadan is a time to grow closer to your fellow man by feeling what it is like for those who have no choice but not to eat or drink. For others, it is a time of renewal, a time to cleanse yourself of all that might be disrupting you and refocus yourself on your God and religion. For still others, it is a time of community, when each dinner becomes a celebration and each breakfast becomes a banquet.

For me, the chance to experience Ramadan helped me see how each human being has their own unique and special way of finding inner peace and building a sense of fellowship with humanity.

The opportunity to visit a Muslim country during this month to find out what it means for you is one experience that I don’t hesitate to recommend.

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