“… I was living in Kayseri in central Turkey for my next Turkish Ramazan. It was 2002, and winter once again. The cold made me permanently hungry so food was of paramount importance. Knowing most of my colleagues and students would fast, I took a sandwich with me to work on the first day. Used to the warm and hearty meals served at the personnel yemekhane I hoped it would suffice, along with a hot drink from the tea room. This was run by a woman with a penchant for washing the crockery in so much bleach that the smell permeated the taste of the tea, and an annoying habit of rearranging everything on your desk when she cleaned it, no matter what you told her. Nonetheless she was loudly cheerful and friendly so I was upset to learn the tea room was closed for the month. Not only would I not have tea, she wouldn’t earn as much money. I made do with guiltily ordering weak Nescafe from the school canteen which surprised me by remaining open. Kayseri was a very conservative town and few people wanted to be seen to be eating.
Going into town on the first day of fasting I noted one or two restaurants bravely advertising lunchtime specials. By day three they had posted notices in their windows saying they would only be open for the evening meal. The supermarket where we gamely bought our alcohol had removed every bottle of wine, beer and rakı and replaced them with Ramazan packages. These are large cardboard boxes containing household staples necessary for the iftar meal, including rice, lentils and sugar. People often buy these as gifts for less well off relatives and neighbours. The contents are boldly listed on the side, complete with illustrations, which is vastly different to the way alcohol was furtively sold. If I bought a couple of bottles of wine they were always placed in an opaque black plastic bag, rather than a white see-through one. I know the intention was to protect my honour but it made me laugh because people could still hear the bottles clinking.
Classes finished at 3.15pm but the students’ ability to concentrate usually ended well before then. Darkness fell at 4.30pm and the closer we got to the last bell, the more they thought about food. One day in particular they were madly overexcited because we were all going to the home of one of the students for an iftar meal. He was in my reading class, and unfortunately, on the day in question the text we were studying was all about the nutritional value of broccoli. When I told them how much I loved broccoli and that it was now available at a supermarket in town, they didn’t care. They begged me to change the topic, but conscious of the pop quiz coming up the following week, I made them finish the chapter. It was all I could do to keep them seated and as soon as the bell went we all raced out the door and piled into the waiting minibus. The boy lived in a suburb on the outskirts of town. As the name of the suburb meant ‘White Palace’ in English I was looking forward to seeing it. Sadly it turned out to be a disappointing misnomer. Like many Turkish towns and cities it consisted of large breeze block apartment buildings, with few trees, gardens or other attempts at beautification.
However, looks in Turkey can be deceiving. Once inside the building we were warmly greeted by his smiling mother, two aunts and three sisters. They were sorry to tell me his father couldn’t be with us. He was a truck driver and on his way to Germany. The aunts, who lived on the same floor, slipped away after giving us a quick greeting. They had been cooking all day in readiness for our arrival and there were still some things to put on the table. While we waited for them to come back the sisters found slippers for all twenty six of us. As a teacher and a foreigner too, I was the honoured guest so I was given the best pair, white high heeled sandals that in no way matched my all black outfit. We were then ushered into a huge salon, the Turkish name for the combined dining and loungeroom usual in most homes. The three piece lounge suite that would normally take centre place had been pushed against the walls, and I also counted 18 individual upright chairs. This was clearly a house that saw a lot of visitors. The empty space had been filled with mismatched tables set out in long lines. The surfaces were simply groaning with delicious looking Turkish food, and I couldn’t imagine we could need any more. Nonetheless when the aunts returned, along with two neighbouring women from downstairs who had also cooked for the occasion, they were bearing enormous plates of rice, pasta and salad.
As soon as it was time everyone slowly ate a date, and then silently and methodically worked their way through a bowl of lentil soup, a bowl of mantı (small envelopes of pastry filled with mince), a large piece of layered pastry called börek, then a plate filled with rice, köfte (meatballs) and salad. No one rushed their food and if I hadn’t known they had been fasting all day, nothing in their behaviour would have suggested it. Once the main course was finished, and only after I had been asked and had given my permission, did the students who smoked, light a cigarette. I still smoked back then and there was quite a competition to get me to choose one from the many packets held out to me. After a reasonable pause we were plied with plates of baklava and endless cups of Turkish tea.
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