Ramadan at the Mall

Ramadan at the Mall June 18, 2015

They say Ramadan opens with a rolling worldwide cannonade: each locality keeps its own cannon, which its top dignitary fires off, ushering in the holy month with a bang. If the Turkish city of Bursa observes this custom, I missed it. Instead, I recognized that Ramadan was close at hand when the Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen in the food court at Zafer Plaza introduced a special Iftar menu.

Iftar is the sundown feast with which Muslims break each day’s fast. Popeye’s was clearly planning to fill pious empty stomachs as quickly and cheaply as possible, offering 15 nuggets, a chicken burger, a “Big Boy” steak fries, two “Middle Boy” drinks, and eight onion rings, all for the low price of 15.95 lira. Hoping to stay competitive, all the other restaurants in the food court were offering specials of their own. For the sake of seasonal congruence, someone had decorated the dining area with cutouts of Karagöz and Hacivat, the puppet leads in Turkey’s traditional shadow play.

As you’ll have gathered, Zafer Plaza is a shopping mall, one of five in Bursa Province and – at last counting – almost 350 in Turkey, where their proliferation has been a hot topic for years running. The ruling Justice and Development, or AK, Party can’t get enough of malls. Their number has doubled nationwide since the 2002 general elections, which AK swept. Along with fueling the construction boom that accounts for 20% of the country’s economy, Turkish shopping malls currently employ 385,000 people. They’ve attracted high-rolling investors, including Doğan Media Group head Aydin Doğan and Donald Trump himself. In 2012, Doğan appeared in Istanbul with AK Party co-founder (and current Turkish President) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to bless the grand opening of Trump Towers’ mall.

Of course, malls, being malls, pick up detractors wherever they appear, and Turkish malls are no exception. From 2005 through 2013, they’ve forced more than one million small businesses to close. The famous Gezi Park protests, in which an estimated 3.5 million Turks turned out to vent their anger at Erdoğan’s autocratic style, began with a sit-in demonstration against his plans tear up the local greenery and build a mall in the style of an Ottoman military barracks.

In the midst of a rant about Turkey’s impending “Dubaization,” novelist and pundit Ece Temelkuran writes that malls:

…create a new stereotype…A breed not necessarily consuming but filling his or her time…contemplating consumption. Since the majority of society is incapable of consuming the goods available for sale in the shopping malls, they just go there to see people consuming and be “there”, close to the warmth of prosperity. Especially youngsters, boys and girls from poor neighborhoods of the cities, form groups to organize daily touristic visits to the glittering life of the upper class.

Here Temelkuran shows a flair for melodrama. It’s true that some of Istanbul’s swanker malls, like Akmerkez, with its 250 stores covering 180,000 square meters, would have no cause feel embarrassed in the UAE. But plenty of provincial malls are humble affairs, no more monumental than Arizona Mills, Cris-Town, or anything else you might find in the Metro Phoenix Area. Since 2006, Turkey’s per capita income has shot up from $7,500 to $19,000, suggesting that fewer noses are pressed against the glass and more are buried in the merchandise.

It was shopping in these places, more than anything else, that worked the small miracle of domesticating Islam in my eyes. Aside from Istanbul Atatürk Airport, where my line to the passport control window turned into the worst human logjam in the history of migration, my first impression of the Orient was in Marmara Park, a shopping mall near Pertev’s home. Seeing women in hijab gush their way through Sephora or wrangle their bawling kids through Migros made the religion look, in practice, like a species of 17th-century Dutch Calvinism – a harmless, if slightly drab, jumble of marketing, consumption, hearth, home, family, and predestination.

With his full-throated support for mall construction, and his exhortations that Turkish families should have at least three children apiece, Erdoğan seems to be working from a broadly similar vision. According to the latest market research, the typical Turkish mallgoer is not, in fact, a noveau- or nouvelle-riche, much less a pie-eyed teenager. Instead, she’s a working mother with a high-school education, and she’s likelier to visit the mall to shop than for any other reason.

One afternoon during Ramadan, in front of Zafer Plaza, I caught a glimpse of her. Or rather, I saw a woman of about 30 with two small boys. Both boys were licking cones of vanilla soft-serve like thirsty pugs. From the woman’s headscarf and long coat – not to mention her sagging posture and burnt-out expression – I surmised that she was fasting. Watching her watch her boys eat, and noting the longing in her eyes, I realized I was witnessing a living example of what Muslims call the Greater Jihad — the daily spiritual battle that doesn’t, normally, involve taking a hançer to someone’s carotid. It certainly looked like martyrdom to me.

Turkey owes the greater share of its explosive recent economic growth to consumer spending – much of it, like the purchase of electronic goods and household appliances — the kind that takes place in malls. A good deal of this spending, in turn, is made possible by easy credit “so free-flowing in Turkey that consumers are even able to receive approvals for personal loans via text message and ATM machines.” Household debt has skyrocketed. The Puritans would not have approved.

When and if this bubble bursts, many more people are going to end up sitting in front of malls, looking glum. Having lived though the implosion of America’s ownership society, I can only wince in anticipation — and sympathy. That’s why, in my memory, the emblem of Ramadan won’t be the cannon I never heard or that godawful drum they bang at 3:00 AM to wake the faithful for suhoor. It’ll be that young mother, Merve Q. Public, quietly mastering temptation.

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