It was 4pm on Thursday afternoon. Our Turkey guests were reveling in their first cold glass of cheap beer at Old Edgar’s in the park. Low taxes and a a green sunlight-filled afternoon.
Two tables over a bespectacled man in a crisp button up shirt and buzz cut overhears their chatter and calls them to his table beneath the eaves. Redfaced, he’s already had one whisky. In two hours he drowns four more before lumbering off, though not before rambling off a list of entertainment options in Bishkek. Some of the places he names (like Retro Metro) are downright seedy, hangouts for lecherous looking men with big business bellies pushing their sweatstained shirts and much younger local girls.
It’s the first day of Ramadan. The man enlightening our guests to the city’s establishments is none other than the cultural officer representing a prominent foreign embassy from a mostly Muslim country.
Kyrgyzstan is also mostly Muslim. But the capital isn’t completely closed during the month-long annual holiday. Ramadan both is and is not visible.
For those who are unfamiliar, Ramadan (here Ramzan) is, in essence, a month of daylight fasting. From dawn to dusk neither food nor drink is to be consumed, except by the very old, young, or physically weak. During the month believers are also supposed to abstain from such sins as fighting, false talk, unsanctioned fornication, and drinking (which, as one friend pointed out, Muslims ought to abstain from all the time anyway…). Considered as one of the five pillars of Islam, observing Ramadan is supposed to secure one amplified spiritual awards. In many cultures it has also turned into a month-long religious festival, with great feasts at night sometimes stretching until the first light of dawn. Others stick to the traditional dinner after sundown and small feast around 3 am. If you want to think of it in American cultural terms, it’s a bit like Lent, yet with everyone eating (but not drinking) like college kids.
In Bishkek the proportion of people who fast truly varies among different sub-demographics. Some people fast out of religious conviction, some people fast from community pressure, some people don’t fast (but also don’t openly eat around people who are), and some people alter none of their eating habits.
The Kyrgyz, I’ve found, are generally less strict when it comes to Islamic strictures. This may be in part, as many have suggested before, representative of their pragmatic-minded ‘nomadic’ adoption and interpretation of Islam. Whereas many Uyghurs in Urumqi won’t even eat in restaurants run by non-Turkic Muslims (specifically the Dungan/Hui, whose Muslim credentials they seriously doubt), most Kyrgyz don’t seem to quibble over halal, and I’ve seen not a few people here order pizza with pepperoni. Food is far less political; it seems to have always been less of an issue between Kyrgyz and Russians than, say, Uyghurs and the Chinese. Kyrgyz have adopted a lot of Russian dishes to cook in their own kitchens; Uyghurs won’t touch Chinese cuisine.
So, some people fast; some people don’t. I think one or two people (out of twenty) are fasting in the office, the kitchen is definitely open, and every hand in our weekly meeting held a cup of coffee. On the other hand, at the university (which has a slight majority conservative population), those who don’t fast are quiet about it, and take care not to eat in public during daylight hours. This may change over the next few years, as conservatives in the home country no longer hold the same consolidation of political power and popular support.
And some restaurants close, though not many. Some, again, out of religious conviction; some out of fear of backlash from conservative customers; and some because they won’t make much money during the holiday (namely bars and cafes with mostly Kyrgyz clientele). Korean restaurants, Russian restaurants, cafeterias, coffee-cafes and franchises are still open during the day, with little show of concession.
Apart from the closed restaurants, there aren’t many street-level indicators of the holiday. Restaurants are a little fuller after dusk – though that’s generally true all summer, as people spill out onto the patios and stock plates with shashlik only after the midday heat subsides. Nights don’t light up with fast-breaking festivities. In fact, the two Ramadan dinners we attended were very quiet affairs spent in small conversation and not a little white wall-staring. Coming from China with it’s late-night street food and open market culture, it’s a little dissapointing.
One thing you will see on the streets – particularly in grocery store parking lots – are hordes of young boys who swarm every customer chanting for Ramadan money. I’m not quite sure where this custom originated. In Turkey, the last three days of Ramadan are known as “Sweets Holiday” (şeker bayramı) and are spent visiting relatives and friends who load visiting kids with candy. But banging on your car windows or blocking your path demanding money? Nope, not sure where that comes from. Considering that, the moment they get enough money, they run into the store to splurge on sweets and ice cream for immediate consumption (regardless of the time of day), I’d say these kids are more oportunistic than devout. If you are feeling charitable – please, please refuse them and spare us. (Two hours after writing this post we went to Harodnie and were immediately swarmed by boys of eight to ten with their clamorous chant. One of them was licking an orange ice cream cone. I interrupted their clamor with, “It’s Ramazan and you’re eating right now. How are you asking for religious money?”. Sheepish, woops, and then they went to bang on another car.)
So, we both have and do not have Ramadan in Bishkek. Outside of the city I think every community will be different. Some areas in Kyrgyzstan have growing religious groups; others are far more relaxed. If traveling, I would suggest you not depend on being able to find an open restaurant during daylight, but it probably won’t be much of a problem.