It’s dinner time on Tuesday evening. I sit down to a heaping plate of the delectably aromatic Turkish meal I’ve been smelling from down the hall for the past hour, my stomach growling audibly. I fill my water glass, pick up my fork, look around the table at my dining companions and…wait. Five more minutes.
It’s Ramadan, which means Muslims across the globe are observing one of the five pillars of Islam—fasting. Every day during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar (June 17-July 17 this year), Muslims abstain from eating and drinking from sunup to sundown, then they break the fast every day with Iftar, the celebratory meal at the end of the day. Fasting is an act of obedience and devotion to God, and the ongoing hunger and thirst “open the door of deep contemplation,” according to the presentation at a Ramadan dinner held by the local chapter of the American Turkish Friendship Association (ATFA).
In addition to programs like Sunday school for Turkish children, language lessons and coffee nights, ATFA volunteers host public Iftars several times throughout the month of Ramadan. Iftar is meant to be shared and celebrated every day during Ramadan, and ATFA members take the opportunity throughout the holy month to share a meal with friends and strangers alike, while also teaching guests about their faith, culture and traditions.
Emre Çelik, president of regional organization Rumi Forum, which partners with ATFA to host cultural events like this one, said the goal of these open Iftars is to foster community cohesion.
“A very important social aspect [of Islam] is sharing a meal with family and friends, work colleagues and neighbors,” Çelik said. “But it’s not purely for the social aspect. We consider it a blessing and a privilege to be hosting people.”
I’m at a conference table in the ATFA office, surrounded by observant (and hungry) Muslims, UVA professors, students and community members who want to learn a thing or two about Ramadan over a plate of homemade Turkish grub. I’m practically salivating at the sight of Turkish meatballs, potatoes, rice, salad and yogurt, and the other non-observant guests at the table and I are told we can go ahead and dig in. The Turkish hosts, however, sit patiently, not yet touching their food and eying their phones. ATFA volunteer and UVA professor Ahmet Fazil explains that now the easiest way to keep track of Sahur (the pre-dawn meal) and Iftar times is with a smart phone app, which features a detailed Islamic calendar with countdowns, call to prayer notifications and other reminders and alarms. And even once the sun is down and it’s technically time to eat, Fazil says many Muslims choose to wait another few minutes before indulging in the meal—it’s one more display of discipline, self-control and devotion to God before breaking the fast.
Once it’s time to eat, I can’t help but notice how calm and composed everyone remains. Next to me, Fazil, who hasn’t had anything to eat or drink in about 17 hours, takes a small sip of bottled water before slowly cutting into a meatball, which is served with thinly sliced potatoes and a rich, spicy red broth. With a newfound respect for the tradition of fasting, I think back to the Bodo’s sandwich I ate earlier in the day and make a conscious effort to eat slowly and to savor every bite. It’s only been eight hours since my last meal, not to mention the subsequent snacks and glasses of water, and I have nothing but admiration for my dinner companions, who seem to eat with an awareness and thoughtfulness that I don’t often witness at mealtimes.
The meal features homemade classic Turkish dishes, like a bowl of spicy lentil soup, kofte (meatballs made with ground beef and spices), Greek-style yogurt with shredded carrots and a simple salad dressed in olive oil. Turkish food is a lot like breakfast food in my mind—nearly everything on the plate goes together, and the harmony of spicy, tangy, chewy and crunchy sends me back for seconds. For dessert we savor squares of kadayif, a sweet, gooey, honey-soaked Turkish dessert with crispy shredded dough and pistachios.
After dinner the hosts pass around cups of çay (pronounced “chai”), or Turkish black tea. Fazil apologizes for the paper cups—the traditional end-of-meal tea is usually served in a delicate, tulip-shaped glass with two sugar cubes and a spoon—and the group lingers around the table for another half hour. It’s a warm, comfortable (and tasty) way to end the evening, and everyone is full and happy as they get up to say goodbye to friends old and new, most of whom are preparing themselves for another day of fasting.