Veggie soup and political bites

Breaking the Ramadan fast under a big tent in Istanbul offers a feast of postelection insights

Hundreds of men sit on low plastic stools with their hands folded, waiting patiently while the hot food before them, served in TV dinner-style aluminum trays, goes untouched.

Dusk falls. Cannons fire. A muezzin trills Allah Akbar – God is Great – many times over as the final confirmation that the first day of fasting for Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, is complete.

Only then do the faithful dig into their bread, creamy vegetable soup, and turlu – chunks of meat, gravy, and vegetables – after a chilly day's abstention from all food and drink. Muslims the world over usually like to enjoy their iftar – the fast-breaking meal – with family and friends. But here in metropolitan Istanbul, many workers are too far from home to get back in time for the meal. Others, unemployed or struggling to make ends meet, might not find such a hearty meal waiting for them.

It was with these fasters in mind that the city of Istanbul began throwing large iftar gatherings during Ramadan, serving a free, warm meal to anyone who wandered in to their tents. The public service began when the mayor of Istanbul was none other than Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of the Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party – or AK Party – which soared to power this week by winning enough parliamentary seats to form a rare single-party government.

The party is just three seats shy of having the two-thirds majority necessary to change Turkey's Constitution. Amendments to the Constitution could make it possible for Mr. Erdogan to serve as prime minister, an office he is currently barred from holding because he was convicted of sedition in 1998, after the public reading of a poem that a court said stirred religious hatred.

Since Sunday's election, Erdogan has sought to reassure the world that the AK Party will not try to reverse Turkey's pro-Western stance. But he has also been noncommittal on whether the US will be welcome to use Turkish bases in a potential strike against Iraq, and said that the treatment of Palestinians by Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon – with whom Turkey has a strategic military alliance – amounts to "terrorism," the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

Erdogan has not yet announced who would serve as prime minister. But at this iftar in the central Beyoglu district, one of 17 Istanbul municipalities each serving up to 2,000 meals a night – many say they are at peace with the thought of Erdogan taking charge.

"At least now there's someone in power we can trust," says Abdurrahman Demirkaya, a shoeshine man with a weathered face and a baseball cap.

"I'm happy that all the parties in power didn't get reelected. We have buried them in history," he says.

At the long tables sit men of different ages and walks of life - from day laborers to college students to policemen – while women, most in head scarves, stick to one row on the edge of the huge tent, which keeps out the cold November drizzle.

"Erdogan will do the things the others could not," says Oguz Yalcin, a 16-year-old who dropped out of school two years ago. His father's shop went out of business, so Yalcin started fixing cars instead of going to class. "Mainly, I want a job," he says. "I don't care that much about religious values. But I know that [Erdogan] has great respect for Islamic people and he will give them more support."

Alpay Camlica, a 20-something television editing engineer, did not vote for the AK Party. But he was still pleased at their victory. Turkey hasn't had a single-party government since 1987.

"I think that having one party is a recipe for stability. There will be no fights in the parliament," says Mr. Camlica. "This party has been seen as an Islamic party from the outside world. But ... Turkey and the other countries should give them a chance and see what they do," says Camlica.

Two cousins wait patiently nearby for 20 minutes, keen to be interviewed by a foreign journalist. They want the world to know that not all observant Muslims support Erdogan and the AK Party.

"They are not well educated. They may please the poor people in Turkey, but they will mess things up for us internationally," says Yildray Turk, an airport security officer.

His cousin, Metehan Turk, agrees. "No matter how open-minded they look, they represent the people who have lost hope and the people who are religious and mystical," says the economics major as he sips from a Coke can decorated with a special Ramadan holiday pattern. "If you look back, they're not some new party. They're totally a continuation" of the Welfare Party, a more controversial Islamist party which was pushed from power by the military in 1997.

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