“Neighbours, friendship, and families. That’s what you see all around you,” said Mukhtar Seyit Ahmet Kanar of Fezi Paşa Neighborhood to IOM organizers at an iftar dinner in Nizip district just an hour outside of the southeastern province of Gaziantep.
Ramadan, a Muslim holy month when the devout fast daily, started on Monday, 6 May and ends on 3 June, when the new moon is sighted. Iftar dinners symbolize a time of togetherness and unity for many. Steeped in history and tradition, the way iftar dinners are carried out in Turkey has changed significantly over the centuries.
Famed Turkish literary figure Refik Halid Karay, well-known for his reflections on the iftar tradition, illustrated the atmosphere of iftar dinners in Istanbul during the Ottoman period, “One needed not to be an acquaintance to sit at the iftar tables of grand mansions…they were open to everyone. You would go into the one that was in your sight. No one would ask you who you were, where and how you’d met; no one would inquire your name or profession…people from the streets would eat at the mansions of strangers.”
As Turkey modernized, the time when total strangers would come to your door and sit at your iftar table became a thing of the past. As society developed and socioeconomic disparity grew, people became more detached to the solidarity of communities past. Increased migration into Turkey in more recent years has brought new strangers, making social integration even more of a challenge.
While instead of old mansions, in contemporary times, many iftar dinners are given at big hotels or chic restaurants in cities. Celebratory iftar meals at the end of each day have become part of national culture. Turkish municipalities and charities sponsor iftar dinners to provide free meals so everyone – rich and poor, Turkish and non-Turkish – can take part and enjoy the tradition.
These community-friendly dinners offer a down-to-earth alternative to the fancy Ramadan feasts at five-star hotels and banquet halls. For the organizers, including local municipalities, the Turkish Red Cresent, NGOs, schools, and community associations, these get-togethers reflect a return to Islam’s messages of inclusiveness and solidarity – bringing people back to the Ottoman traditions in Refik Halid Karay’s reflections.
For the past three years, IOM has partnered with municipalities and a host of other government and NGO institutions to bring community dinners to diverse neighborhoods with high populations of refugees and migrants across the country. “These dinners are an opportunity to support Turkey’s commendable integration efforts – to give all people a seat at the table no matter their background,” said Mazen Aboul Hosn, IOM Turkey’s Emergency Coordinator, speaking at the dinner in Karabağlar District, Izmir Province.
The dinners bring age-old traditions back to life such as storytelling, games, and shows to entertain the hundreds of families who gather during the magic hour, just as the sun sets and the call to prayer begins.
At the dinner in Iskenderun, a district of Hatay province close to the Syrian border, games like tug-of-war and musical chairs kept kids entertained well past their bedtime. In Nizip a “hakawati,” or Arab storyteller, amused the audience with old fables and “once upon a time” tales. At the dinner in Izmir, clowns, puppets, and action heroes delighted the children. Whirling Dervishes mesmerized the audience to close out the night.
Randa, a Syrian woman who attended the dinner in Iskenderun, said, “This is my first time attending an iftar event in Turkey, but I feel like we are one family regardless of whether we are Turkish or Syrian. As time goes on we grow closer together. I hope there will be more events like this so we can keep overcoming any barriers between our two communities.”
In a country like Turkey that hosts over four million migrants and refugees, efforts likes these at the most local levels can go a long way in bringing people together.
The IOM-supported iftar dinners organized by IOM’s Mobile Psychosocial Support teams are funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the United States Bureau for Population, Refugees, and Migration, and the Government of Japan.