It's a Ramadan Friday in Istanbul, just before midday prayer, and for 20 minutes or so, there's a crackle to the atmosphere, rather like backstage at a play the moment before the curtain rises. As azaans calling from the mosques compete for the ears of the faithful, the city's tempo shifts a bit, becoming at once more hushed and hurried, as men hurry to their neighborhood mosques and merchants head to back rooms in their stores and offices to pray. At the Yeni Cemii, nestled between the Bosphorus and the city's Spice Bazaar, wrought-iron coat-hooks, built into the fence above ritual ablution fountains, are full of sports coats and nylon jackets. In the marble fountains below, men do wudood, scrubbing feet, face, and hands before they go inside to pray.

In the mosque's courtyard, a few bored wives wait for their husbands: Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, led an emancipation drive in the 1920s, and at the turn of the millennium, Turkey indeed has a lively women's movement, but it's still rare for women to pray in public. One housewife chats softly on her mobile phone; another stares impassively at the latecomers scurrying in to catch the noon-day sermon. A third holds her husband's coat and stares at the pigeons strutting in the courtyard.

For all Turkey's attempts to keep religion out of the public space-Islamist political parties were recently banned, as are women wearing headscarves to university-Islam is everywhere. In Istanbul's cavernous covered bazaar, the chai shops now sell t-shirts and latte as well as tea, and the merchants have a slick tri-lingual line in tourist chat-up, but everything pauses for iftar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast.

Come the moment when it is too dark to tell a dark thread from a white one-the traditional way of telling when the iftar can be celebrated--business pauses. In the dark, domed labyrinth of the bazaar, merchants set up long tables with food to share. Shop assistants run through the crowd, bearing heaping dinner plates for their bosses. The hungriest merchants plant themselves at the low wooden tables, chatting, laughing, and looking longingly at the glasses of tea and steaming plates of kebab. When their watches and the bazaar mosque tell them that it's time to eat, they fall to with the intensity of the very faithful and the very hungry.

Outside, the darkening streets suddenly empty, as the city gets down to the business of eating. McDonald's outlets fill up. Taxi-drivers pull into service stations to buy chocolate bars to sustain them. My husband and I-two infidels left wandering in deserted dusky streets-suddenly feel very much alone. All day, we hadn't known the hardship of fasting. And now, we were left without the satisfaction of iftar. At the end of a Ramadan day, the rest of the city discovered food anew. Our ritual was the mundane tourists' hem-and-haw about which restaurant, picked out of "The Rough Guide," we wanted to try that night. It seemed a hollow and lonely rite.

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