On the first night of Ramadan last month, thousands of people gathered on İstiklal Caddesi in central Istanbul. They laid down newspapers and tablecloths in a long line stretching nearly half a kilometer — then sat down on the ground to break their fast in the middle of the city’s busiest pedestrian boulevard.
Passing food and drinks from hand to hand, participants called out to people walking by, “Is anyone hungry? Is anyone thirsty?” and leaped up to distribute water, dates, baklava and other traditional fast-breaking items. As the meal wrapped up, young men toting large garbage bags chanted, “Trash! Trash! Trash!” as they worked their way through the crowd collecting refuse.
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A typical iftar table
The elements of the iftar meal in Turkey have changed relatively little over the centuries. Many people still have a date -- believed to be the preferred fast-breaking food of the Prophet Mohammed -- as their first bite of sustenance after abstaining from dawn to dusk.
"The iftar meal is traditionally served in two sections -- you start off with tiny little sauces, dates, olives, spoonfuls of jam and other bits and bobs to nibble to assuage your hunger," says culinary history writer Mary Işın. "Then you have the evening prayer, a little rest and maybe a smoke, and then the proper meal itself: soups, stews, roasts and pilav [rice]."
Sweets, especially baklava and the milky dessert güllaç, are also closely tied to Ramadan in Turkey because of their importance in Ottoman cuisine. The period following the end of Ramadan is actually called Şeker Bayramı, or "Holiday of Sweets."
“Ramadan used to be a time for community, for people to come together and get to know each other, but with rapid urbanization and the social isolation that’s come with that, people have started to [either] stay in their homes for iftar or attend expensive [fast-breaking] meals at restaurants or hotels,” says Abdurrahim Özer, a member of the Anti-Capitalist Muslims. This loosely organized group of pious activists has coalesced in opposition to what they see as the too-close relationship between religion and wealth under Turkey’s current government.
Two years ago, members of the group organized small public meals during Ramadan outside of luxury hotels where local dignitaries, business leaders and celebrities often host and attend lavish iftar dinners. Just one fast-breaking meal at a top hotel can cost nearly a quarter of the monthly minimum wage. Much food is often wasted during Ramadan, and many people (up to 25% of Turks, according to one recent news report) actually gain weight during the fasting month.
Ramadan “shouldn’t be about eating expensive foods; it should be about understanding and helping the poor, the hungry, the needy,” Özer says.
The ongoing demonstrations this year have reinvigorated the earlier effort to protest the commercialization of Ramadan, drawing people of various segments of society and levels of religious belief to share in the yeryüzü sofrası, or “earth tables.” (According to Turkish food writer Aylin Öney Tan, the “earth tables” hearken back to the original meaning of “sofra,” which comes from the Arabic word for a traveler’s provisions, eaten on a cloth or mat placed on the ground.)
Communal meals in symbolic locations
Following the first people’s iftar this year on İstiklal Caddesi, a thoroughfare that has hosted regular protests this summer, yeryüzü sofrası spread throughout the city, with individuals and groups organizing them each night in different locations — often places with symbolic importance due to conflicts in the area or threats facing historic heritage.
After a public forum related to the ongoing protests was attacked by people with sticks and knives in the Kocamustafapaşa neighborhood of Istanbul, a communal iftar was held in the area the next night, drawing more than 1,000 people. Another was organized inside the Yedikule bostan, a series of centuries-old market gardens around the city walls that are in the process of being razed to build a landscaped park with tea gardens and an artificial river. Outside of Istanbul, a yeryüzü iftarı was held along the banks of the Tigris River in Hasankeyf, an ancient town in Southeast Turkey that faces being submerged under the waters of a hydroelectric dam.
The people’s iftars are part of a tradition that predates Islam itself, according to Özer. “This goes back to the Prophet Abraham, who shared his food with other people who sat around his table,” he says.
During Ottoman times in Turkey, “rich people would open their homes for the iftar meal,” says Mary Işın, the author of the recent book “Sherbet and Spice: The Complete Story of Turkish Sweets and Desserts,” and a writer on Turkish culinary history who has lived in the country since 1973. “They made huge amounts of food, mostly for friends and neighbors and colleagues, but theoretically anyone could turn up and be fed.” The sultan’s palace may have done similarly, if reports by foreign observers documenting life in Istanbul at the time are accurate.
That tradition has morphed in recent years into massive municipality-organized iftar tents set up in central locations around Turkish cities to offer free meals to the public, but members of Özer’s group and their allies are critical of the way such charity has been commercialized.
“Outside Kocatepe Camii, the main mosque in Ankara, there’s a huge banner saying who sponsored the iftar that night. That’s not Islamic. There is a saying attributed to the Prophet Mohammed, ‘You need to give with your one hand and the other hand should not know about it,'” Özer says. “We believe that wealth comes from God and people who have wealth are obligated to share it. If they use that as a way of boasting, then it diminishes the act [of charity] in the eyes of God.”
Top photo: People gather on İstiklal Caddesi in Istanbul for iftar meal. Credit: Jennifer Hattam