Photo: Tressler.

The other evening my wife and I took our son Leo out for a walk. We were both tired, having worked all day (Ozge’s parents, thankfully, are staying with us and look after Leo while we’re at work), but Leo insisted on going outside.

At the bottom of the hill, we reached the center square of Uskudar. The sun was going down over the Bosphorus, bathing the whole city in gold and purple, and the distant skyscrapers were all in attractive silhouette. During Ramazan, and especially on these fine spring evenings, it is common to see lots of people out in the evening. Having fasted all day, they are eager to not only enjoy their iftar, but also to sit in the nearby park and chat while the ships in the Bosphorus pass.

We noticed this year something different. The municipalities have been offering free meals (usually rice, bread, tea or water). That in itself is not particularly striking, for the month of prayer is also about giving charity the poor. What is different this year is how many poor there seem to be, at least where we live.

“Look at all those people!” I exclaimed, as we neared the area where the free meals were being dished out in foil containers. The line of people, of all ages, stretched down nearly 100 meters. There appeared to be several queues, or the same long queue wrapped around itself, it was hard to tell. A rough head count could have easily produced several hundred, if not more.

We were on our way to the nearby park, so we just politely cut through the line, past the hungry people and crossed at the light.

The sight of all those people really drives home the reality of the country’s soaring inflation, which some say is as high as 60 percent in recent months. All I will say is that everything costs more, a lot more in some cases. Even a loaf of pide bread in our local bakery, specially baked during the holy month, costs 7.5 lira this year, at least twice what it would normally cost.

The soaring costs are mostly attributed here to the country’s debt, which comes mostly from all of the big projects in recent years, like the new international airport, the third span bridge, the Marmaray, and other massive infrastructure projects. This debt, combined with other economic woes, have driven the lira to historic lows against the dollar (the exchange rate is currently about 14-1; when I arrived in 2009, the rate was about 2-1 to give you an idea).

And of course, one wonders how the war to the north, just over the Black Sea, is also affecting the economy, given Turkey’s strong economic ties to both Ukraine and Russia. Thousands of refugees have also recently arrived, mostly Ukrainian, and some or many of these arrivals will no doubt be in those free meal lines around the city.

With this inflation, people are seeing their landlords abruptly and unceremoniously jack up rent prices. One of the American teachers at my school told me his landlord increased his monthly rent by 60 percent (“İs that even legal?” I wondered aloud. “Well, it is if it’s the inflation rate,” a colleague replied, with a rueful shake of the head). Of course, I don’t feel too badly for my American colleague. He lives in a one-bedroom furnished flat near Taksim Square, in the heart of the city’s cultural center, and was paying far below what you would expect. Even with this recent increase, it’s still a steal.

Plus, those of us with university teaching jobs can’t really complain all that much (although as a rule, all teachers love to complain, especially about pay). With our recent raise, we are doing comparatively well in this era of hyperinflation. But what about all those people standing outside on the sidewalk, patiently waiting (and many of them have been fasting since sunrise) for a free plate of dinner? It reminds you of how desperate some – many – people are in the city, the country, these days. It reminds you that the poor, the working poor especially, are hit hardest in tough times, and that my wife and I are relatively fortunate in that we aren’t forced to wait in that long line.

“Not everybody who is in the line is there only for the free food,” says one of my Turkish colleagues, when I told him about it later. “Some also go for the social atmosphere, to experience the collective feeling of having iftar together. I myself have stood in line for one of these meals (a few years ago). Of course, I had money to buy a meal, but I wanted me and my family to have that experience.”


Indeed, we saw some of this social atmosphere when we arrived in the park. Lots of people, mostly younger people sat in the grass, in circles and groups. Some of them had the free meals, while others had bought fast food (one group had McDonald’s, we noticed. That’s something of a luxury nowadays, believe it or not. A Big Mac menu will cost you about 50 lira, when it used to cost about 20 not so long ago).

Others, more sensibly perhaps, brought prepared food from home. All around, the meals lay untouched in front of the faithful, as they were waiting for the evening call to prayer. That must be the hardest part, I often thought, the last few minutes of the fast, with the meal and refreshments spread out in front of you, mouth-wateringly near. But as tradition dictates, everyone must start eating at the same time, so I suppose that is why the line was so long – people had to arrive early and start getting their meals so that all could be served in time for the call to prayer.

We let Leo out of his stroller and he ran to one of the swings, demanding we swing him as high as possible. You could tell he missed us during the day, now that both of us are working. As working parents, it’s sometimes hard to muster the energy and enthusiasm to keep a fast-growing 2-year-old happy, but we did our best, taking turns with swing duty.

I watched as the boats passed in the Bosphorus, the waters a dark wine color as the sun went down more and as the skies faded into evening, the sound of the call of prayer came loud from the nearby mosques.

The people in the park, taking their cue, began to eat, enjoying their long-awaited repast and sitting closely together in the gathering evening. As always this time of year, I marveled at the resilience of these faithful, to go without food or even water all day long, and as they went about breaking their fasts all around us in the park, I wished them “afiyet olsun,” or bon apetit.

For the millionth time, I forced myself to be thankful for the life, for the relative comfort, that my wife and I enjoy, and that we are able to give our son, despite the costs going up every day. And that, unlike many of the city’s most recent arrivals, we have a place to call home.


James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul.