To eat or not to eat (2) – Ramadan


Mosque in Issyk-Kul region with obligatory aluminium ribbed roof

As I already mentioned in previous posts (see ByeBye MZB), the main religion in Kyrgyzstan with about 75% followers is Islam (followed by 25% Russian Orthodox). When I arrived in Bishkek, Ramadan was already about to begin. As you will probably know, Ramadan (Рамадан or Рамазан) is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and an entire month of fasting.  This year it coincided with the hottest time of midsummer. Interestingly in Central Asia, the exact days can vary in the different countries depending on the decisions of the муфтияти (Muftiates – special Islamic commissions or Spiritual Boards) that are responsible for the religious administration of a certain region and were installed already under Tsarist rule. In Kyrgyzstan this year fasting time (пост) began in the night from July 8 to July 9 and lasted till August 8. In short, Ramadan is about celebrating the time when Mohammed received the word of the Qur’an. Therefore, following Qur’an, all Muslim people should fast during this month (except for sick or elder persons, children, pregnant women, fighting soldiers and travelers), which means they are not allowed to drink, smoke, eat or have sex during day time. Every evening, the day is closed with breaking the fast – mostly this includes eating a lot and inviting neighbors (unfortunately my neighbors apparently weren’t following as we only shared cigarettes during day time ;-)) and relatives.

So, in the beginning of July, I was totally prepared for shops being closed due to Ramadan because people shorten their working days to have more time to concentrate on their religious duties. I was also ready to stop drinking on the streets in order to not offend people or disturb their fasting. But then – surprise: in Bishkek I almost didn’t notice Ramadan at all.

Except for some rare encounters (one nice national as well as one Turkish restaurant WERE actually closed during daytime) I was almost never confronted with the special spirit of the fasting month, but rather had to look for it and specifically ask for information about it. Actually, I would not say that Bishkek is in general a non-believing or non-practicing city. Rather, in my ideas about Ramadan, I should have taken into account that religion in former Soviet countries is still something that is more or less private. Since it was restricted during Soviet times it was mostly practiced secretly back then. Another aspect might be, that Bishkek and Almaty are widely considered as “Russian” cities. And, like in most European countries, also in Kyrgyzstan religious practice and tradition is much stronger in the countryside than in the capital.

Anyway, although I guess I was to some extend simply excluded from the real traditions, I’ve still learned some new things during that fasting month

Ramadan Caroling

I had read about it in one Central Asian newspaper before, but was still surprised to see it in the (in my newly opened eyes, largely not publically practicing) city-centre of Bishkek. When we were sitting in a national restaurant, some children approached the neighbouring table. They started singing without melody, like shy kids sometimes do, and the couple next to us gave them some money. Afterwards they were chased out of the restaurant.

This was Ramadan Caroling. Apparently, it happens every night during Ramadan and, according to a friend of mine, most of the boys do it while it is not considered appropriate for girls. It may be comparable to a declining German tradition we sometimes used to do as kids. You go ‘round your neighborhood and sing traditional songs for Saint Martin (a Saint that used to be extremely charitable: he cut his coat into half and gave one half to a beggar) and people thank it with sweets. In case of Ramadan Caroling, however, it is more common to give actual money. Now, according to that article I read, in Uzbekistan this has become quite controversial since several kids use to practice this custom for an entire month, always asking at the same houses for more money. The thing is, that you usually receive a nice, thankful song after donating some pennies to them. If you do not give something, however, they can curse you with their song. In this case, it is much more comparable to the US Halloween custom of “trick-or-treat” (whereby if not getting sweets children will perform some sort of mischief).

Anyway, while this might be a problem in Uzbekistan, it doesn’t seem to be that pressing in Bishkek, since no one ever came to our house. From a gender perspective, it is interesting that the cursing songs apparently quite often contain threats about the next-born baby being a girl …


One week before the end of Ramadan I finally got to meet a strictly fasting person. I just found out about that some days before when she canceled to accompany me to a party. I was quite embarrassed because I had no longer expected it – not even thought about Ramadan anymore for quite a while. So I was a bit nervous when we met and prepared not to drink something as long as we would talk. Of course I was already thirsty when I saw her (back then we had 38°C) – and surprised because she was carrying a bottle with her. After getting to know each other better, I asked her about it and she said that she took a break from fasting because she had her menstruation. This prolongs the fasting time even beyond the holiday. The rules seem quite complicated though, since there are lots of questions about them on the internet.  Anyway, I was quite relieved, bought a bottle of water, and we talked about the difficulties of fasting in midsummer time, like not being able to do sports, taking several showers a day letting the water into your mouth but never swallowing it and just being incredibly thirsty while having to serve drinks to people as a waitress. Respect! I actually think that fasting in such non-practicing surroundings, with people like me even forgetting about it at all, must make it much more difficult to follow the rules.


Орозо Айт (Oroso Ait)

The night of the 8th August fasting was over. Thursday was a National Holiday which was celebrated also by people who did not fast during Ramadan (like Easter). My colleague told me that she was completely exhausted because about 30 guests had come to their house and she and her mother had cooked all day. Nevertheless, I think it was a great time, they prayed together and ate and talked all night. Only drinking alcohol was still forbidden. DSC09283On Thursday morning, my friend told me she had encountered a bunch of men with carpets in the city centre (this was probably the tradition of praying on special squares called намазкана) and there were some special meals sold for the feast. I, for my part, just got into a big crowd in the supermarket on the day before (like it always happens to me before a national holiday … ) and could not get any shisha coal, because everything was sold out. In the actual night, I heard the prayers going on outside – longer and louder than on other days. I decided to go outside in the park next to our house to see whether I could still grasp some of the spirit.

Eventually, everything was as usual, with some guys strolling around, some drunk people (although, as mentioned: no alcohol on Oroso Ait) and many couples secretely kissing on the benches. I did not find anything special, but it was a nice, warm summer night and I decided to be alright with being a stupid atheist foreigner, and enjoyed my nightwalk to the singing of the muezzin.


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