We arrived in Istanbul, at 7am, the morning rush hour. Ignoring the tour companies who lunged at us, we made straight for the subway, joining the throng of locals at the start of their day. My first observation was the silence, everyone was so subdued, lost in their own thoughts and prayers, it being Ramadan. My attention wandered out of the train windows, to the skyline, and the sight of airless concrete buildings, the result of industrialization, side by side with graceful Ottoman monuments, beset with domes and arches would be just the beginning of the many contradictions that modern day Istanbul grapples with. After resting a while at our hotel, we made our way uptown, expecting little more than great architecture, and tourists. Reality far exceeded our expectations, for everywhere we looked, we saw Turkish families, each and every women in a head-scarf more beautiful than the next, spread out on their picnic mats in the lush gardens outside the Sultanahment (Blue) Masjid. I don’t know how to describe the atmosphere, except to say, it was Islam. Surely the Ataturk must have been turning in his grave.
Lost to the locals, due to the drudgery of everyday life, is the charm of old Istanbul, for most of the year, but come Ramadan, and Sultanahmet, the famous district which houses the Blue Masjid, Ayah Sophia and Topkapi Palace all within a stone’s throw of each other, is teeming with observant Muslims, patiently and cheerfully awaiting the sunset. For this one month, the Turks reclaim their history, and their culture. Food stalls line the roads, and a party atmosphere ensues, albeit a non-alcoholic one! We passed the day marvelling at the traces of the bygone era, the beautiful, although somewhat too opulent for my liking, masjids, churches and palaces. With our tummies rumbling after the very long day, we settled down under a tree, outside the masjid, like everyone else, laid out our food, and waitingly prayed.
And then the Adhaan, that melodious song, a gift for every fasting person, rang from hundreds of minarets across the city, each one echoing the other, all coming together in a harmonious symphony of devotion to Allah. Families gathered around their picnic baskets, and quickly gobbled down fresh vegetables, cheese, olives and bread, a palatable delight in relation to the oily fare, of samoosas and spring rolls that I am used to!
Inside the masjid, the prayer had already begun and upon entering the courtyard, the sounds of the festival outside are drowned by the Imams’ magical voice. The maghrib prayer was not as full as expected, but that’s because most families were still eating, and would come to offer their Salah at their own pace.
Back outside on the street, the music (drums, nasheeds, Qira’a) is turned up a notch, and we feast on an array on Turkish delights that I have no names for! Doner kebabs are sold by the hundreds, if not thousands, and we partake as well, relishing in the thought, that Turkey is not at all a lost cause! Ofcourse the food sellers try to catch an extra lira or two out of us newbie’s, but righteousness triumphs.
Visible now, between the minarets of the masjid, is the mahya, a message woven in light, prevalent from times Ottoman. Today it reads, “welcome to the month of Ramadan”. Again, the Adhaan drifts through the air, Isha now, and how beautiful it is to have the day structured by prayer. The masjids’ vastness is quickly brimming, and this is surprising, considering that the streets are still full with merry makers too!
I get a place on the upper balcony, with 360 views of the breathtaking interior, and for the first time in my life, I witness that more space is allocated to women worshippers in a masjid! Yes, you’ve read correctly, more, not less, not equal, more, and rightfully so, for women make up two thirds of the musallis tonight, and in my mind, I salute these Turkish women, for opposing secularism, in the face of Hijab bans and other such ridiculousities! I cannot communicate to them my feelings, but “the language of the universe” prevails, and they welcome me into their folds, so side by side, we pray the taraweeh.
Here, the emphasis is not completing the whole Quran, as it is in many places, garbled out incoherently, just for the sake of a “khatam“. No, here it is all about enjoying the Quran, as each delicious syllable slowly and tauntingly melts into the next, making the heart soar and the spirit rejoice. Tonight the Imam chooses surahs from the last part of the Quran, so the prayers are over in an hour. After every four Rak’ats, congregational Salawat follows, and taking my cue from my sisters around me, I join in, sending salutations to our beloved messenger, as I have never before. The beauty of hundreds of voices, united in love for Muhammad is overwhelming!
Its back to the street party after prayers, for some more delicious treats, of who knows what, and then back to our room, for a good night sleep, before Suhoor. Before dosing off, I think, that the Ottoman extravagance and debauchery might have begun their religious downfall, and Kemalism might have subdued their religious fervour, but in the month of Ramadan, Islam is still Islam.
What a day!