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By Lisa Drittenbas

In Sultanahmet today, the carpet vendors and restaurant hawkers are moody. I walk by and no one says anything to me. Yesterday it was, “Hey, since you looked at his menu now you must look at mine!” “Where are you from? I'll bet it is a cold country. So is mine!” (This was in the winter.) In Istanbul, the hawkers get very creative to fight the boredom.

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Usually if they throw a bit of German, French or English your way they have covered all the bases and tourist ears can't help but prick up. Just for fun I reply in all the French I know, “Bonsoir.... Ça va bien.” and it's entertaining to have one believe I'm French for about 30 seconds. But he's not easily fooled. The Aussie tourists are the politest. “Thanks mate, we're just going to have a walk around, maybe we'll be back.” Turks simply don't respond. That's the way: If you're not interested, don't show interest. My North American politeness was a hazard when I first got here. A negative response to the carpet seller, the shoe shiner, the restaurant hawker, or the random man on the street only generates more interest. Don't say “No, thank you.” Just don't say anything at all.

It is Ramazan (Ramadan) about 6.30 at night in August. At the Hippodrome in Sultanahmet hundreds of wooden picnic tables have been set up. The sun is setting and every wooden table is occupied by at least one old lady with a colorful headscarf covering all her hair and neck. She is wearing a baggy sweater over her oval frame. Younger women wear a long khaki button-down trench coat for the summer, in the winter a long coat made of leather or wool. On her feet are stockings and black sandals. The only skin showing is her face and hands. She has claimed her spot and waits.

I find an empty table and sit for awhile but soon get drowned out by the noise of kids and loud conversation of the families she's been patiently waiting for. Its 7.30 pm now. Only ½ an hour more for sunset and the official beginning of Iftar, or evening meal during Ramazan, as it's called in Turkey.

I wait for about ½ an hour in line with my friend and enter the big plastic tent for the free Iftar evening meal. It is delicious: Aubergine, rice pilaf, traditional sweets (Tatl?) and exactly one olive and one date. Everyone eats in relative silence, except for the man across from me that says “Abe (uncle), more pilav?” He scowls at me and says something when I get up without finishing all of mine. The strict signs indicating “men's eating area” and “women's eating area” are thankfully ignored, and everyone grabs a seat wherever. There are all kinds of people there, including a table full of Japanese tourists. We eat and get up, unceremoniously dispose of our trays in a big metal bin and walk away.

Not everyone fasts during Ramazan. Those who do rise before the sun often hire groups of drumming boys to wake them up at 4am. Then take a morning meal, fast all day (including no water and no smoking) until Iftar at sunset. Many of my Turkish friends aren't fasting, but the ones who are don't seem to mind if I guiltily eat around them.

I'm told that the sponsored festivals and free meals at night during Ramadan in Istanbul are relatively new; it has turned the atmosphere into a month long festival at night, with music performances, games and carnival rides for children, and food vendors of every kind.

The summer night is cooling, there is live Turkish music playing. Hundreds of people have now accumulated, sitting on blankets in the grass, in outdoor cafes, walking around and purchasing food from the Kumpir (baked potato) and corn-on-the-cob and Döner (sandwich) vendors.

I walk around the shops and have a brief conversation with a carpet seller. I smile at the inevitable, “Come visit my shop! Drink tea!” and decline his offer, but then he informs me about all the interesting places in the area. Another short conversation with a shop owner: “I am from Van. This is my store...where are you from?” With small mouthfuls of English, my sporadic Turkish or Kurdish, and lots of gestures and smiles, I feel relieved getting past being a tourist. It seems that I'm finally blending in. I sit in the front seat with my grandfatherly Taxi driver and share my dried apricots as I try to direct him to my destination. Again, a silly, broken conversation, a mixture of Turkish and English. Of course we are both trying to say the same things – “Where do you come from? Where are you going?”

Continue to: Stoke on Trent By Lucy Corne

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