Guns and Canon shots: Travelling during Ramadan in Anatolia

View over Trabzon with mosque and Black Sea
A canon shot signals the beginning of iftar (breaking of the fast) during Ramadan in Anatolia

In Trabzon, shortly before sunset, the streets are eerily deserted. In the distance we see someone rushing across the square, a parcel of two or three flat breads tucked under his arm. Every place in the restaurants is taken. People sit at richly laid tables, fill their glasses and play nervously with their mobile phones. Suddenly a cannon shot raptures the silence, followed immediately by the muezzin’s call. Simultaneously everyone starts devouring their meal. Ramadan in Anatolia.

By far most people in Anatolia strictly observe the Ramadan rules: no food, no drink, and no smoking during the daylight. As it feels neither polite nor enjoyable to eat while everyone else is fasting, we decided to join. We cheat by having breakfast long after dawn in our room and by drinking water during the day. But even so by the late afternoon we are also hungrily waiting for the canon shot.

Round mausoleums in Erzurum, Anatolia

Travelling through Anatolia

As you may know we started our journey through Turkey in Trabzon and went in a half circle via Mount Ararat and Lake Van to south-eastern Anatolia; all during Ramadan. Between Trabzon and Van, we practically never saw anyone except foreigners, travellers, and children eat during the day. Further south, we had expected even stricter adherence to the rules. To our surprise the Western fast food restaurants of Diyarbakır were busy at noon. “It’s a big city and far less fanatic than Erzurum or Van!” Ramazan, an official in the tourist information, was all too happy to answer our questions. Diyarbakır hasn’t seen many tourists in recent years due to the strong presence of the Kurdish resistance movement (PKK).

Arches of Rizvaniye Vakfi Camii in Sanliurfa, Anatolia

Eager for sightseeing in Anatolia

Despite having read several negative accounts of the area, we were eager to see the Islamic architecture. We got our first impression of the situation on the long distance bus. At the province border, soldiers collected the passports and thoroughly searched the bus and all luggage.

When we arrived, the city looked at first glimpse merely more oriental than other Turkish towns and reminded us of Central Asia. Then we noticed the police squads, the soldiers with machine guns, the fighter planes roaring overhead, and scores of very aggressive street children, many of them “shooting” around with plastic guns. Posters of stone-throwing children, gunmen, and of Ahmed Yassim are openly displayed in shops and stalls.

Theft and aggression – foreigners not so welcome

During the two days we spent in Diyarbakır we were once tricked into a wrong bus and experienced one attempted baklava theft by a child and one unpleasant incident with three young men who followed us on a country road towards the Tigris. Gradually they started to harass us, pushing, grabbing at our belongings and trying to block our way back. Yet back in the city, about 20 minutes later, two different shop owners refused to take money for their goods, and elderly men chased pushy boys away from us.

During the 1980s and ’90s many people fled the surrounding villages to escape the arbitrary harassments of the PKK and the Turkish army. A lot of them are still jobless and without perspective for the future, leading to immense social problems. Although the conflict is subdued today, we still felt the political struggle: On the one hand, a minority sustains the atmosphere of threat and instability that makes tourists feel unwelcome. On the other hand, “the vast majority of people here are embarrassed by the situation”, as Ramazan explained, and their hospitality is also a political statement against the conflicts of the past.

(P.S.: We did enjoy the mosques and caravanserais in Diyarbakır and the friendly people could partly counterbalance our bad experiences)

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