When I first came to Turkey in 2012, I promised myself to participate in the actual experience of fasting during Ramadan. I decided this for various reasons: To deepen my understanding of Islam from a practical/experiential point of view rather than purely academic and to show my respect for my Muslim friends and Islamic tradition while being in a Muslim country during Ramadan.
Joining the fast would also give me more of an insider's perspective and appreciation of Islam and further my spiritual development. This is my personal point of view, and I prefer to be open by expressing my pure feelings. I myself never judge anybody by what they believe in. I respect all, no matter where they come from, what they belong to or what believe in.
Before coming to Turkey, I understood the meaning of Ramadan from a theoretical point of view. Ramadan is the holy month that marks the period when the Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad is God's last messenger who, through the revelation of the Quran, embodies the final completion of God's message to humankind.
What I did not know before was the deeper meaning of fasting during Ramadan - the conscious denial of food, drink and temptations to understand the meaning of hunger and thirst and to be kind to the poor and to recognize our appreciation for daily commodities, which we so easily tend to forget. The daily fast is a communal activity, without distinction of one's economic, educational, social or political background. We are all one, equal, unaware and uncaring of hierarchical positions, the same as with daily prayers where everyone, rich and poor, line up together to worship God.
I did not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset during my first Ramadan. The fast began an hour or so before the sun rose.
The first week was the hardest, but I tried to get used to it. My throat became parched and dry and it was difficult to swallow. I licked my lips to have the sensation of drinking. My friends teased me, tempting me with delicious food and cool drinks, but I persevered. I had never fasted in my life before that Ramadan. I was going to sleep full and wake up hungry and so thirsty, it was torture. I learned that it is a mind game, and that I should not think about it and it would be easy.
I cannot describe how much I enjoyed my first iftar meal. The shock of the cool water coursing down my throat enhanced my awareness and appreciation of the simple act of drinking water. Moreover, I became vividly aware of how others, less fortunate than me, suffer from lack of necessities. This was also a vivid act of instant awareness and mindfulness, experienced each night when I broke the fast.
I quickly fell into a daily routine of waking up at 3 a.m. for sahur, the pre-dawn meal before fasting, reading some selections from the Quran and going back to sleep at 4 a.m. My sahur was simple, with Ramadan pide, eggs, cheese, tomatoes, olives, honey, nuts, water and ayran (a yogurt drink). At the daily iftar, the fast-breaking meal, I ate simit, which I adore, soup, rice, chicken and salads, and of course tea.
I had a great experience during my first Ramadan, going to a mosque for iftar with a friend of mine. Men and women ate in separate areas in the dining place. The imam led prayers before we ate. This iftar was the simplest I had but, in its special way, one of the most meaningful.
To be honest, I heard about Ramadan years ago and had been intrigued since then. I could not believe so many people would come together and participate in something so amazing in thename of faith and devotion. I could not believe that the evening iftar meal, after sunset, turned out to be a huge feast when Muslims break their fast with family and loved ones.
So what is Ramadan?
What I loved most was the atmosphere that changed so much during Ramadan. People were much nicer, and I noticed more giving, sharing and helping. I will never forget many things I saw during Ramadan, like walking through the streets right before the call to prayer and seeing people give out drinks to the bus and cab drivers or giving food to the less fortunate. Or when I broke my fast in Sultanahmet Square, I found it so amazing that everyone shared their food and sat down waiting for the call to prayer to start eating together.
The end of Ramadan was the best feeling of all. It is called Eid al-Fitr and is when you break your fast for the last time and enjoy the celebrations over the next three days. Istanbul turned into a huge place of celebration. It was chaos, and yet, something so beautiful.
My first Ramadan was one of the unforgettable experiences I have had on the road. No, it was not an amazing sunset view or an amazing beach, but it was 30 days of determination to do something I had always wanted to experience. I respect all religions and I strongly believe that the key to understanding one another is partially to understand each other's religions. Participating in Ramadan let me discover how beautiful Ramadan really is and what it signifies to millions of Muslims around the world.
* Correspondent of Agora newspaper in Turkey