In Turkey, politics adds spice to Ramadan meals
Istanbul - As the sun set on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan, volunteers in Istanbul placed newspapers on the pavement of a pedestrian area near the city centre, creating an improvised table cloth of about 30 metres long. Several hundred people, many with bread, olives and other food as well as plastic water bottles, sat on the pavement along the paper strip to break the fast together.
“Dinners on the Ground”, as events such as this in Istanbul are called, offer a down-to-earth alternative to glitzy five-star Ramadan feasts in fancy hotels and banquet halls. But there is more. For organisers of “Dinners on the Ground”, the nightly get-togethers mark a return to Islam’s messages of inclusiveness, solidarity and humility. The dinners are also political statements and symbols of the anti-government Gezi protest movement that shook Turkey two years ago.
The first “Dinners on the Ground” this year were in the central Istanbul neighbourhood of Tunel and in a metro station on June 18th in Ankara. The recent one in Istanbul was near the site of the biggest “Dinner” so far, which convened on the city’s main shopping street Istiklal Caddesi shortly after the Gezi riots of 2013, drawing 15,000 people.
In a country with a predominantly Muslim population, celebratory iftar meals at the end of each day during Ramadan are part of the national culture. Turkish municipalities and charities sponsor iftar tents to provide free meals to the poor and organise fairground attractions in the hours after the daily breaking of the fast.
The “Dinners on the Ground” also provide a new and somewhat counter-cultural take on an old tradition. In their stripped-down approach, they also challenge what organisers say is a sell-out of Islamic values by a religiously conservative government.
Ramadan is big business in Turkey. Television stations feature highly rated shows with prominent theologians, one of whom was reported to have received the equivalent of $220,000 from a station during Ramadan in 2014. Big companies produce special commercials to be shown during the holy month while newspaper readers get expert advice about a healthy diet.
Since 2002, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power, iftar meals have also become state affairs in this secular republic. Erdogan broke the first fast during this year’s Ramadan with veterans and relatives of soldiers killed in battle.
Erdogan and the AKP are champions of a new middle class of observant Muslims. Their rise has boosted demand for elaborate iftar dinners that can cost $300 for a family of four in luxury hotels, almost the country’s monthly minimum wage for a worker.
Not everyone likes the extravagance. Ozcan Deniz, a well-known singer and actor, posted on Instagram that 2015’s Ramadan would again have rich people downing five-course meals and “hotels and restaurants throwing away the leftovers”. In contrast, supporters of the “Dinners on the Ground” stress simplicity. Water and homemade bread and other food take centre stage.
There is no corporate sponsor and no elaborate entertainment programme. Dinner guests are expected to gather waste and leftovers after the meal.
“You won’t find flambéed fruit here,” said Gamze Saglik, who has taken part in the organisation of “Dinners on the Ground” in Istanbul. Organisers stress that guests do not have to be pious Muslims to attend. “People of all kind are here,” Islamic theologian Ihsan Eliacik said as he sat down for the “Dinner on the Ground” on June 18th in Istanbul. “There are believers and non-believers.”
Eliacik is a co-founder of “Dinners on the Ground”, which started in 2011, and a leading thinker of the group Anti-Capitalist Muslims that has been organising the dinners. It and Eliacik are opposed to the Muslim conservativism and pro-business stance displayed by Erdogan’s AKP, which lost its parliamentary majority in June 7th elections.
The “Dinners on the Ground” became a focal point for discontent directed against Erdogan in 2013, when they received wide support from many members of the Gezi movement. That year, Erdogan ordered security forces to come down hard on the wave of protests kindled by government plans to build a shopping mall in Gezi Park in central Istanbul.
Although the Gezi movement was mostly secular, Eliacik says that was no problem as far as the iftars on the pavement were concerned. “It is not closed to anyone but open to everyone,” he told the Cumhuriyet newspaper. “You can call it a coalition of the street.”
Organisers and supporters of the “Dinners of the Ground” accuse Erdogan, who in 2014 moved into a lavish palace in Ankara, and the AKP of betraying Islamic principles by seeking grandeur and wealth, by favouring capitalism and by alienating all groups that do not share their own views.
“The meal where believers and non-believers, Turks and Kurds, Alevis and Sunnis, rich and poor, celebrities and unknowns are equal is Allah’s meal,” said a statement posted on the Anti-Capitalist Muslims’ website.