The summer before my freshman year of college I decided that I wanted to try something new. This didn’t come in the form of a belly button piercing or adopting veganism, it was fasting for Ramadan. I wasn’t sure if I believed in God or organized religion, but my teenage curiosity drove me to ask questions about Islam, the religion of my Turkish family.
I was lucky enough to grow up with a best friend, “A” who was also a Turkish-American living in a small Midwestern town. “A” also was curious about her religion, having grown up in the same sort of religiously secular household. We made a pact that summer that we would fast together. Together we would be a part of a tradition millions of Muslims around the world practiced. Gone would be the days of suburban cultural isolation and celebrating the normative holidays of other religions. Why were certain religious celebrations considered federal holidays but not others? We would make Ramadan our holiday.
Being a Turkish Muslim is not as black and white as the Islamic practices of other cultures. This is partly due to the identity crisis experienced by Turks stemming from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He was known for secularizing Turkey; freeing the country from religious rule. He believed religion to be an individual choice, not a decision for the government to enforce.
There is a joke that sums up the relationship Turks have with the religion that 99% of their residents practice:
A Turkish man boards a plane and sits in his assigned aisle seat. As the plane takes off and meal service begins, the man anxiously begins to question the flight attendant on the menu selection. He emphasizes that he is Muslim, and it is absolutely sacrilegious to eat pork in his religion. The flight attendant, accustomed to accommodating dietary restrictions, reassures him that there will be halal friendly options served. She lays a chicken dish on his tray and asks him if he would like a beverage, perhaps a soda? “I would love a Grey Goose” he responds, to her surprise.
Like their country that is spread out over two continents, many Turks have a piecemeal approach to which Islamic practices should and should not be adhered to. In Turkey, all meat is de facto halal. You will rarely find a pork product in the country. Even the American restaurants like Pizza Hut sell beef-only pepperoni pizza. On the other hand, the Bosporus is freckled with cafes and nightclubs full of residents sipping Raki, the nation’s equivalent of absinthe. Women equally wear burkas and miniskirts around the Grande Bazaar. At 5am adhan simultaneously calls followers to the morning prayer and notifies the clubbers of last call. It’s a nation of religious choice, allowing their residents to choose their level of devotion.
The way we practiced Islam in our family was different than other Muslims in our town. They had emigrated from Pakistan or Egypt, countries which practiced a more structured and conservative form of Islam. These practices naturally permeated into a day to day lifestyle different than our Turkish-American household. You practice the traditions you are raised with. Thus, we were primarily Turkish with a sprinkle of Islam here and there. We celebrated Christmas on and off. My father drank occasionally but vehemently rejected pork products. We vacationed in Vegas but donated significantly to charities.
Then around the age of seventeen, I began to question this way of life. It seemed that everyone around me was a part of a structured organized religion. Whether they actively participated or not, they still had the option of being a part of a community united under a common belief. By fasting for Ramadan, “A” and I would be like our peers fasting for Yom Kippur or abstaining from sweets for Lent.
The first night of Ramadan we had a sleepover. “A” came over to my house, just down the street from hers and we hoarded snacks as if we were preparing for war. I cleared out a shelf in my armoire for extra storage, stuffing every inch with Oreos and goldfish crackers. We needed to secure our evening food stash so our parents wouldn’t ask questions. Why the sudden surge in hunger from two teenage girls who barely ate?
Our parents were not aware of our plans to fast; they wouldn’t understand. To them, fasting meant stepping outside of their religious precedent. Not eating pork was one thing but fasting was extreme. It was natural for each generation to lose bits of the religious practices preceding them; but to go in the opposite direction was unfathomable.
That night, we felt like we were participating in something taboo. We stayed up all night snacking, preparing our bodies for what we thought would be oppressive hunger the following day. We gorged on Cheetos and Chips Ahoy like bears preparing for hibernation. We didn’t know how practicing Muslims spent the first night of Ramadan, so we created our own celebration. When the snacks turned nauseating, we turned to YouTube videos of Sufis (Whirling Dervishes), spinning in prayer. At some point in the early hours of the morning just before dawn, when Muslims around the world would be waking up to sneak in a meal before sunrise, we fell asleep.
Fasting that August perfectly fit into our teenage circadian rhythm. Every night, some together, some apart, we spent the whole evening snacking. If we were in our respective homes, we’d stay on the phone all night long, encouraging the other to eat more. And every morning, like clockwork, we’d fall asleep before dawn and sleep until the early afternoon. Our actions weren’t radically different than other normal teenage behavior, so our parents never suspected a thing.
“A” and I spent most afternoons together. She lifeguarded at her neighborhood pool a few days a week and I liked to keep her company while working on my suntan. The Midwestern humidity cut into our hunger and the overly chlorinated water kept us from fainting. We occasionally broke the rules and sucked on ice cubes stored in a cooler swiped from “A”’s house. By the end of the day, delirious with hunger we would lay in her bedroom wearing our swimsuits, blasting the AC, counting down the minutes for the summer sun to set. It was always easier fasting at “A”’s house because her parents often worked late. This ensured the absence of hawkish parents pressing us to eat dinner. We always planned out what we would break the fast with. If we could muster up the energy to drive, it would be a feast of Crunch Wrap Supremes and Nacho BelleGrandes from Taco Bell. Other times, we’d break into our snack stash, preopening each packet seconds before dusk, lining up the Teddy Grahams like drill sergeants, for immediate consumption.
Some evenings, we would have bonfires with our respective non-Turkish American friends. We were thrilled to share our news with the non-fasters. It was like we were a part of a special club exclusive to Muslims. We had never previously talked to our friends about our religious upbringing or lack thereof. They knew we were Turkish but beginning to explain our stance on religion felt complicated and unnecessary; they wouldn’t understand, we assumed. For years we had each hidden our religion for various reasons. When I couldn’t join my Catholic school classmates in taking Communion at Mass, I would claim I was Orthodox, an explanation they could comprehend. This time felt different, we had actively chosen to fast for Ramadan and wanted everyone to know about it. It didn’t matter that no one understood why we were doing it; it was our tradition.
We made so many mistakes that summer, blindly leading each other into a practice we knew nothing about. We had prayed with our grandmothers a handful of times, loosely celebrated Turkish specific holidays but had never even fully read the Koran or stepped into a Mosque. We didn’t know that women were forbidden from fasting or praying during the week of their menstruation cycle. We didn’t know the Ramadan specific foods one was supposed to eat like pita bread, kebabs, dairy heavy desserts; foods rich in fats to nourish you throughout the day. We didn’t know that adults were forbidden from participating in any sort of vices like drinking and gambling, elements that were already taboo in the religion. Above all else, we didn’t know that it was supposed to be a time of reflection of our privilege. What we did know was that it was something we could do together, as friends, as fellow Turkish Muslims living without a community.
Soon the month was over, and we proceeded to our college lives with a chip on our shoulders from successfully completing one of the pillars of Islam. “A” was entering her Sophomore year, I my Freshman year. I vowed to learn about my religion that school year. I selected an Islamic Studies minor and took more formalized Turkish lessons. I was riding the high from my first fast and I wanted more.
When next summer rolled around, things were a bit different. “A” and I would not be spending the summer together. She would be interning in our Midwestern town; I would be traveling in Europe. Would we be able to fast without each other? It proved harder than the previous year. For the first three weeks I was on vacation in Greece surrounded by family, friends, and a lot of incredible food. I somehow would survive all day secretly fasting, blaming my lack of hunger on the excruciating Mediterranean sun. On vacation and unprepared in a hotel room, I relied on the minibar to break my fast. Every night, as the sun plunged into the Aegean Sea, I would crack open a glass bottle of Coca Cola, allowing the sugary syrup to resuscitate my body.
Breaking fast with a Coca Cola became an oddly comforting ritual that summer. It reminded me of the sort of food “A” and I ate the previous summer. The reality was that fasting was not fun without “A”. Even if we were both fasting, time was against us. As she would be breaking her fast, I would be starting mine. How could she fast without me? How could I fast without her? If we couldn’t fast together, what was the point of fasting at all?
I left that summer full of self-reflection. Was I serious about leaning into Islam or was I attracted to the benefits that it offered? Religion can be a powerful source of support and strength; the millions of followers worldwide are a testament to that. I realized however, I was looking to reap the benefits of an established religious community without legitimately understanding what deepening my faith entailed. While I may have genuinely been curious about exploring the pillars of Islam, I actually wanted a sense of belonging, not a religious enlightenment.
I grew up hearing stories of how my paternal great grandparents journeyed on Haaj to Mecca, granting them the privilege of adding “Haji” to the beginning of their last name. Muezzen became Hajimuezzen. This privilege was short lived by their emigrating children who swapped out their title for a name Americans would be able to pronounce. Hajimuezzen became Omar. One pilgrimage added a title; the other changed the whole name. Both were transformative in their own ways. Each generation took elements from their ancestors and molded it into their own.
Although my lean into Islam was short lived, it’s still a fond memory I look back on. The act was more about deepening my friendship with “A” and understanding how I could build my own community. I didn’t have to follow the paths of my great grandparents, grandparents or parents. I needed to make my own with intention and apply the traditions that felt most meaningful to me. It took breaking my fast with a Coca Cola to realize that I had my own unique identity all along.