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In parts of Turkey and Syria, Muslim month of Ramadan follows deadly quakes

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan opened with subdued celebrations this year in much of Turkey and Syria. That's where earthquakes six weeks ago destroyed entire towns, killing thousands and displacing millions. What are the rituals like amid the ruins? NPR's Fatma Tanis is in southern Turkey.

YUNUS DUK: (Speaking Turkish).

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Yunus Duk stands outside the 500-year-old mosque where he's the imam. It's too damaged by the earthquakes to allow people in. Part of the minaret has collapsed. So congregants gather around with questions about where Ramadan prayers will be held.

DUK: (Through interpreter) People are really anxious. They don't know what to do. We've never had a Ramadan like this before.

TANIS: Many here still can't go to their homes because of damage. Thousands are living in tents or with relatives. Most of the local mosques have been destroyed or damaged, too. And there are none of the usual decorations.

DUK: (Through interpreter) We would normally decorate the mosque, put beautiful lights outside. We would clean the inside and even perfume it. So we are really missing the ambiance this year.

TANIS: Restaurant and shop owners say they're functioning at 40% of their normal capacity because their staff and residents are scattered. And in this city, restaurants are a big deal.

DUK: (Through interpreter) When you think Ramadan, you think iftar and breaking the fast, which means food, and food means Gaziantep.

TANIS: The city is a core part of Turkey's gastronomic heritage. Usually, it attracts tourists coming for special Ramadan menus, but they're not being served this year. Thirty-four-year-old Duk says he's been telling his anxious congregation to focus on what they can do, and that's to help those in need. He expects charity to be the main focus this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TANIS: Music plays from a tent where hundreds of people line up for an iftar, the traditional way of ending the day's fasting with the community. Fatma Yasar sits with her family, waiting for the call to prayer so they can start eating. She tells me about how when the earthquake happened, she was in Nurdagi, a town that was nearly all destroyed. They were stuck under the rubble for several hours before they dug their way out.

FATMA YASAR: (Through interpreter) I still can't move on from what happened. It was terrible. So we decided to come here as a family on the first day of Ramadan, hoping that it will bring us some good energy, some joy.

TANIS: They haven't been able to do any of the usual pre-Ramadan preparations this year either.

YASAR: (Through interpreter) We couldn't feel any of the normal excitement about Ramadan approaching. We didn't do any shopping or anything. We're still grieving the relatives we lost.

TANIS: But she's been moved by how kind and helpful people have been to her family. She recalls the moment she stepped out of the rubble, shivering in the freezing cold with just her pajamas on, and a stranger gave her the coat he was wearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALL TO PRAYER)

TANIS: The call to prayer rings from loudspeakers, and people break their fasts, starting with water and dates. Seventy-six-year-old Hamdi Poyraz lost his home in the earthquake. Then his tent was flooded by the heavy rainfall.

HAMDI POYRAZ: (Speaking Turkish).

TANIS: "It's just been pain upon pain," he says. And this Ramadan, he's thinking about those who've had it worse, the thousands who lost family and loved ones. He says that's what this month is about, being grateful for what you have and thinking of and helping those who need it.

Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Gaziantep, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.