Olives, dates or just a sip of water?

Olives, dates or just a sip of water?

This year the holy festivals of three faiths were lined in a row. After Pesah came Easter, and now it is time for Ramadan. The month of fasting for Muslims begins as of tonight; all who observe the religious rules of Ramadan will be fasting from  dawn to dusk. Starting from the first light of the day, one must abstain from eating and drinking till sunset. Fasting in summer months becomes quite a challenge; the longer days make the practice difficult to adhere to, while the summer heat makes one longing for a sip of water.

Breaking the fast is often done by taking a sip of water. Then comes the question of which morsel of food to choose first to eat. It could be any, but the usual practice in Turkey is a choice between olive and date. The former used to be the practice when I was growing up; the latter became more and more popular in the recent few decades. Both are blessed fruits as mentioned in holy books, including the Quran, but the reason behind the change is nothing about holiness but of realities of the economy and changing borders indeed.

In the Ottoman times, the best of the best of all produce would come from agar lands, all within the borders of the empire. The famed dates of Iraq were just local produce from an Ottoman province, so were the delicacies from Aleppo or Damascus. All the Middle East, Egypt and North African shores were Ottoman territories, and needless to say, dates were fruits of Ottoman lands, even if loads of dates had to travel long distances, it was in a way inland trade, but not import. In the declining years of the empire, many of these lands were gradually lost. When the new Turkish Republic was founded on the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, the country was shrunk in today’s borders, and the date growing regions were now foreign lands. In the early years of the republic, Turkey was warworn and poor, with no money to buy imported food, thus had to resort to a new policy to go self-sustained, relying only on local produce. How wise that was! Needless to say, dates would be of enormous luxury. And there was always the olive, another blessed food fit for breaking the fast, the choice of many in Anatolia for centuries. After all, even in Ottoman times, if dates came from the faraway corners of the empire, the destination would be the ports of Istanbul, or Izmir, but not the land-locked Anatolian towns. So, it was never a common practice to break the fast with dates even if in Arab lands it was an inevitable choice, considering that it was also the choice of the Prophet.

The olive, on the contrary, was humble and available. In Turkish cuisine, salt-cured black olive is omnipresent in breakfast, a habit that is strange to most foreigners who think of olives as a drink-accompanying snack. Even in non-olive growing zones, a few olives that go along with bread is essential for breakfast. Actually, iftar, the breaking of the fast, is a breakfast, the word coming from the root “ftr” in Arabic, meaning to break open or cut. In the old times, iftar was not like a full feast as today, but more like a simple breakfast. People would take a sip of water, eat a few morsels of food, maybe have a small bowl of soup, and later go for the evening prayer, and then return to have a full meal. I find another humble connection with the choice of olive and the Sufi tradition: In Mevlevi order, the break of fast is always with a pinch of salt, followed by a sip of water, and the read and salt duo is considered sacred. I see the humble single salty olive as a continuation of this Sufi practice, a very Anatolian way of interpreting Islam, focusing on humbleness and modesty.

Fasting is a widely practiced pillar of Islam in Turkey. It is one of the five pillars of Islam, apparently, the second most practiced by many. The foremost pillar is easy and done only once. It is “shahada” or “şehadet” in Turkish, which is considered as the initiation to the faith, simply by saying the requiring two sentences suffice for the assertion of becoming a Muslim. The only difficulty is one must utter these two sentences in Arabic, which translates as: “There is no god but God” and “Muhammad is the messenger of God.” As easy as it sounds, stepping into the Muslimhood is easy, but practicing other pillars requires devotion. The second pillar is praying five times a day; at dawn, noon, afternoon, evening, and night. These five daily doses of prayers take a certain time as each requires washing of face, hands and feet, finding a quiet place facing Mecca, and a set of physical acts including prostration to God. The time of prayers is announced by imams calling for prayer from minarets. In the hectic urban life, this pillar has usually gone missing, with many resorting to the Friday prayer alone or practicing only a few while skipping some.

Another pillar is giving a certain portion of income to the needy; “zekat” in Turkish, which is almsgiving or charity. Whether this practice is left to one’s own conscience is something where no one really knows who practices it to what extent. My pious grandmother did, meticulously calculating her income and distributing 2.5 percent from it to the ones in need. In today’s world, the rich are stingy in giving and not feeling the slightest remorse, though the poor tend to share and give away whenever they can. The pillars become more difficult when one thinks, as the last and fifth one being the pilgrimage to Mecca. This one is beyond the reach of many and will not be possible in the COVID-struck times. With such a frame regarding the five pillars, fasting, the fourth pillar of Islam, is the one observed foremost by the masses -- one month of a year of devotion seems the least that one can do.

Coming back to the question of whether to choose olives or dates to break the fast, to my opinion, a pinch of salt would suffice, but the first morsel of food to follow should be an olive. After all, it is both in line with the self-sustaining policies of early republic days and very much in line with the “yerli ve milli/local and national” approach of recent times.

Aylin Öney Tan,