We are coming to the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan (or Ramazan as it’s called here in North Cyprus) when people fast from daybreak to sunset. Families fix up big meals first thing in the morning, then get real feasts going at the end of the day. Given that no food or drink is allowed during the day, I am amazed that people survive this heat in one piece. I know I’m swigging water all day and I can’t imagine not drinking as temperatures hover between 34-38C here on the coast, and 36-42C inland in Nicosia.
Be that as it may, Islam here is a very tolerant society. You see mosques in the villages and large centres like Nicosia, Famagusta and Kyrenia. You hear the call to prayer five times a day if you’re near to a mosque – we aren’t where we live. But everyone is free to pretty much practice whatever religion they worship, no-one forces religion down your throat, and if you want to be an atheist, well, it’s up to you. There is a great resistance to any attempt to introduce into North Cyprus any fundamentalist versions of Islam
The exception to religious tolerance is the Greek Orthodox Church which is not allowed to practice in North Cyprus. This is due to the bad memories associated with the Church because its leaders backed the extreme right-wing Greek Cypriot efforts to practise ethnic cleansing against Turkish Cypriots. Nevertheless, close to where we live there is a Coptic Church and village which reflects Lebanese Christianity and which is accepted as its members weren’t part of the genocide against Turkish Cypriots.
To be honest, I wondered what it would be like living in an Islamic society, that was, until I saw the condoms on sale at the supermarket checkout and noticed the large number of liquor outlets in cities and villages. Sort of gave a clue that Islam as practised here is very tolerant and freewheeling. Women wear what they like – young women tend to be very fashionable in short dresses, high heels, or leggings, whatever. Some have fashionable, Western-style clothing but wear headscarves. Within large towns and cities, you see women in traditional clothing of long skirts or dresses, long-sleeved tops and headscarves, and this tends to be more prevalent in the small villages scattered around where a more traditional life prevails. You don’t see young men here in board shorts, pants hanging down revealing their underdaks, or baseball caps back to front. Men dress casually but smartly on the whole, although in this heat, the older men are quite happy to wear white vests and baggy pants!
From tomorrow at the end of Ramazan and for three days the Seker Bayram festival commences, called Eid-al-Fitr elsewhere. It starts on the first reliable sighting of the new moon, which isn’t difficult here in North Cyprus because there are no clouds at all from day to day. In the lead-up to Seker Bayram, Muslims are required to donate to worthy causes, previously with food but more often now with financial donations.
The first day of Seker Bayram starts with special prayers. It’s generally seen a s a day for family celebration as the family unit is very strong in Islamic religion. Children are considered gifts of God. Gifts are exchanged and special meals organised, with the giving, receiving and eating of sweet things at the heart of the festival’s traditions.
We became well aware of this celebration this morning, Saturday, when we went to the local supermarket. Generally the car park is empty in the mornings and doesn’t get busy until the afternoon and late evening. But today it was packed and there was a real festival air when we went into Lemar. You could tell that Seker Bayram is an occasion to indulge one’s sweet tooth because all sorts of sweet goodies were scattered around the supermarket.The cake counter was unbelievably tempting, with gorgeously decorated cakes, pastries and lots of little pastries soaked in syrup. To die for!
And there were free-standing baskets around the shop piled up with chocolate goodies and other sorts of sweets, a real temptation (although I resisted – what a spoilsport!), and buckets full of bunches of carnations were at the entrance. You don’t see too many flowers for sale here so I indulged myself with a nice bunch of carnations for our dining table.
Banks and government offices are closed on Monday and Tuesday to celebrate Seker Bayram, and then it’s back to normal. But normal here means courtesy, consideration, friendliness, helpfulness and politeness. People will help you at the drop of a hat and it’s nothing for a whole crowd of people to gather all offering helpful instructions if you look as if you’re in trouble. Today, for example, I only had two items to buy in another supermarket and a Turkish Cypriot lady not only allowed me to go ahead of her, she told the young man ahead of her with a lot of items to let me go ahead. And she really beamed when I said: “Tesekkur Ederim” (thank you). I must say too that often I get called “Madame”, which is quite deliciously old-fashioned and it does give me illusions of grandeur!
If you’re wondering whether we’re glad we decided to move to North Cyprus ,I can assure you that we are delighted we took the risk of selling up in Australia and moving to this Eastern Mediterranean island. For sure things are done differently here and you need to be patient to sort out all the different rules and regulations when you’re settling in. But we are guests in this country and we are very content that we have been able to settle in a small slice of Paradise and been made to feel very welcome.