In Turkey, politics adds spice to Ramadan meals

Friday 26/06/2015
People prepare to break their fast near Taksim Square in Istanbul,

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.