Istanbul Rising — Merry Christmas, from a Muslim city

Meghan MacIver’s latest post in her Istanbul Rising series gives us a unique take on the holiday season…

It’s Christmas time in a Muslim city, and while normal life is largely unaffected, there are signs of the season. Some neighbourhoods have been decorated with lights and statues of snowmen and snowflakes, they have put up some gorgeous trees, and people are buying gifts (like a Christmas/New Year’s mix). Social life is vibrant: meeting up for tea and cake at cozy cafes, for live music at funky bars, for mulled wine at popular hang-outs, and for shopping, everywhere. Crowds hum through the boulevards and little side streets under tiny Christmas lights that are strung above to make everything looks pretty, people sip gingerbread lattes at Starbucks under glowing heat lamps and tourists flock inside festive-looking shops illuminated with multicoloured glass lamps. In many ways, it certainly looks like Christmas should look, but something is still missing. But I’d wager it’s not just here.

While Thanksgiving is an easy holiday, Christmas is hard. People blame commercialism, but, unfortunately, I believe it’s something more complicated. The uncomfortable truth about Christmas is that people are deeply awkward about their own sense of spirituality, so they want to push past the one time of year that reminds us of this part of life. I’m not talking about baby Jesus, I am talking about mystery, unity, and spirit. This is why Christmas can feel weird. Because deep down we know it’s more than just shopping, decorating our house, looking at festive lights, or getting together for food: Christmas is the knock on your spiritual door that invites you to contemplate miracles, faith, and connection. It asks you to acknowledge we are connected to something bigger than ourselves and unfortunately, without the rituals to do that, Christmas speaks to the void in people’s spiritual paths.
Years ago, a friend asked me why I loved Istanbul and I paused before responding with, “The call to prayer.” Unlike most young people I knew, my friend was a practicing Christian. He went to church and had a religious community. For some reason, I knew that he could handle this response (unlike my more often stated response of, “Because it’s fun,” which it was, but wasn’t really my reason).
When I was there as a backpacker, I explained to my friend, I remembered staying in the tourist area, where all the big mosques and churches and bazaars were, and where there was this one bar street. Everyone hung out on it, it was the place to meet up with people, drink beers and swap stories. But every time the call to prayer went off, the bartenders would go inside and turn down the music. They would just turn it down for three or four minutes, out of respect for the call to prayer. And this was remarkable to me. Not just that they did it, but that it didn’t take away from our fun. That respecting prayer even while all of us could be chatting and carrying on, didn’t diminish our experience.

My friend smiled knowingly: “A lot of people think religion is an oppressive force and that acknowledging something bigger than themselves will diminish their personal experience.” But the opposite is in fact true, and by not acknowledging it, our human experience is actually reduced.
To me, now, the call to prayer is a daily reminder of something truly magical: that I am connected to an experience that is bigger than myself. I love that in Istanbul I can experience it. Sometime before sunrise, somewhere between the last and first still moments of the city — just after the last soul has tumbled to bed and the city is clamouring awake, the call goes out; echoing over the water, across the city, ringing through the grey, cobblestone streets like a spiritual alarm clock. The call reminds us all of our greater experience in something other than the individual; that there is no need to feel afraid or feel alone. You don’t need to be a Muslim to understand the call to prayer. It is a call for us all, whoever we are, whatever we’re doing.

I know I’m lucky to be able to connect with a greater sense of belonging in a practical, daily way here, and that it’s harder to do so in the West. But the reaction to pull back, hide out or ignore Christmas is futile. We need to face it, for what it is: a time to honor spirit. Whatever faith you come from, let Christmas-time remind you that we are connected to each other and the universe. Dwell in that. Whether you meditate, join a yoga class, go for a walk in the woods, or attend a church service, this is the time of year to connect with your higher self and contemplate the divine. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go shopping, or spend time with friends, or enjoy holiday treats. But this is the time to dig deeper, and let yourself be touched by the Christmas spirit. Let love into your heart, and feel joyful. You can start by saying Merry Christmas. Let it be your call to prayer, your own way of saying, we are one.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Meg in AlcoveMeghan MacIver is a Canadian writer and Kundalini pre-natal yoga instructor who lives in Istanbul. She has had a love affair with the city for nearly 14 years, and she is deeply excited about the opportunity to finally write about it in a spiritual way. When she is not writing or teaching yoga, she can be found exploring the city and contemplating life’s little intricacies. Her other work has been published in The National Post, CBC, RNW and ROOM magazine, amongst others.

Feature photo by Y0$HlMl, used with Creative Commons license.

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