Halloween, Christmas and Ramadan are my favourite religious holidays because they’re weird, fun and frightening.
I know what you’re thinking; I know it’s fun but what’s so scary about Christmas? Well, having to give birth in a manger for starters. If you’ve ever had to work on a farm, as I have, you would know that domesticated animals destined for the dinner table stink to high heaven. And need I remind you of King Herod and his slaughter of the innocents a few hours after December 25, 0000? They never go caroling about that come Christmas!
And why is Ramadan such a fright? First, consider its etymology, from the Arabic ramida meaning scorching heat, dryness. Also, it comes around once a year and lasts a whole month – 30 days of fasting, abstaining from sex, drink and tobacco from dawn until dusk. In certain Muslim countries if caught eatin’, drinkin’ or cussin’ you risk a heavy fine and even jail time.
I was stranded in Istanbul once during Ramadan. I wandered the city taking photographs and resting in cafés. I found myself outside the Blue Mosque where hundreds were gathered waiting for the sun to set. There was food set on the grass surrounding the mosque waiting to be eaten at sundown. I didn’t even dare light a cigarette while I waited. Finally, the sun went down and the muezzin announced the end of the day and everyone could now commence feasting and being merry again.
I walked away towards the Grand Bazaar where I would take a short train ride to the airport and be off to Stockholm come morning. Sitting at the edge of the park was a young woman furiously puffing on a cigarette looking like it was the last one she would ever enjoy.
The bazaar was closed so I decided to walk some more to see what the city was like where most Western tourists dare not tread. Not far from the market a young man staggered towards me. His clothes were ragged, his long hair disheveled. He was puffing on something in a makeshift pipe made from a large plastic bottle and there was this wild, lost look in his eyes. I recoiled when he nearly bumped into me. Still I kept walking.
The streets and buildings grew darker. At an intersection an old beggar spat at me as I passed muttering angrily in Turkish. Music blared from dark nightclubs and small gangs of loud tough-looking young men passed by me staring. This guy isn’t from around here they seemed to say. I thought to myself, get yourself out of here before someone slits your throat in the middle of the street and takes off with your valuables. I tightened my rucksack against my back and hurried to the next station and hopped the first train heading towards the airport and never looked back.
Looking back on that experience, I remember being frightened. There is a strange thrill one feels when one is afraid. Your heart beats faster. You grow more alert to your surroundings. Your step quickens. That thrill is why people watch horror films and like listening to ghost stories. But they know they’re safe in their living rooms with family and friends watching the latest fright thriller.
A word to the wise traveler: Avoid leaving the safety of the tourist traps in whatever strange city you find yourself in. Vaya con Dios.