Wild Ramazan nights in Istanbul

Prayer at the Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
Prayer at the Blue Mosque, Istanbul | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Todd and I were worried because our first days in Turkey would coincide with the last days of the Muslim holy month, Ramazan (also called Ramadan). We’ve been warned that people will be cranky from hunger, nicotine withdrawal, and even dehydration, since the most deeply religious won’t swallow anything during daylight hours, even their own spit. We’ve heard rumors that even if we can find food, it will be in hard-to-find speakeasy-style joints, or worse, in tourist restaurants.

But, since we’re starting off our time in Turkey in Istanbul — a sprawling, crowded, and increasingly Westernized city that literally straddles the line between Europe and Asia — we’ve found that don’t have to worry. Most restaurants are open all day, though long lines form for tables right before sunset (conveniently making it easy to figure out which restaurants are most popular with locals).

Better yet, our backpacker hostel is a few blocks from a nightly street fair that fills the Hippodrome, an open area just outside the Blue Mosque. The end of Ramazan is a family holiday and a lot of Turks have descended on Istanbul.

Pouring syrup on fresh Peynirli Künefesi, Ramazan street fair, Istanbul, Turkey
Making peynirli künefesi at Ramazan street fair | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Even before the sun sets, we’re surrounded by over a hundred vendors hawking doner kepap, fresh-made peynirli künefesi (a gooey confusion of hot cheese soaked with sugar syrup), sweetsour pressed-to-order pomegranate juice, Magic Corn, roasted chestnuts, some sort of Turkish variation on Fruit Roll-ups studded with pistachios, strangely soft rainbow-hued handmade lollipops, and so much more. The family entertainment factor is high with fire slingers, puppeteers, and a grand Turkish marching band taking the main stage.

One night, Todd is drawn to a temporary-looking building by the sounds of music and applause. The surroundings aren’t glamorous – on stage under fluorescent lights, a thickly mustachioed musician sings and plays the Turkish guitar, sitting on a folding chair next to a soda machine. A packed audience crowds around short tables on even shorter stools, alternately listening to the music and chatting, all the while sipping Turkish tea (made by Lipton). An oversize banner picturing nothing but the photo of a smiling bald man with an intense gaze covers one wall.

Istanbul musician in green | Art by Todd Berman

Since the art don’t stop, Todd takes out his markers and sketch pad and starts to draw the musician, standing just outside the doorway into the room. Before long, Todd and his art have been noticed and we’re herded into a seat, given tea, and Todd is encouraged to draw each of the night’s musicians and a few of the waiters too.

An hour later, Todd’s drawing hand has cramped, so we escape back into the lights and anonymity of the crowded street fair.