Lucia and I have both observed independently that we feel that in Kayseri, we have traveled back in time, to a simpler place of our childhood memories -- in her case, Indianapolis; in my case, the tiny town of Wagram, North Carolina, population 500. Here, we find a strong sense of a tight-knit community, everybody knows everybody's business, nearly everyone goes to worship, and nearly everyone is religious, a believer or pretends to be. Except the religion, of course, is Islam, not Christianity.
Crime seems almost non-existent, certainly compared to America, and the vast majority of people adhere to strict standards of behavior (no drinking, no drugs, no youthful rebellion). Students are generally respectful of teachers, and we've been impressed by the close relationships that develop between teachers and students, almost as important as parents.
The traditional family seems to be the dominant cultural aspiration for everyone, and almost no cultural awareness of diversity in that realm -- no multiple marriages, no blended families, no homosexuality. Most women and men expect to marry in their early to mid-20s. There are very low rates of divorce. Women function primarily as housewives, mothers, volunteers in the schools, and caregivers to elderly parents (who live with them). Some housewives even become obsessed with afternoon soap operas, just like the stereotypical American housewife of the 1950s.
Turks have a strong sense of patriotism, nationalism and militarism -- every Turkish male must serve in the military, even if only for six months. I've heard a number of students, teachers and young professionals question this requirement --
Families, mosques, private charities and the wealthy feel some religious obligation to take care of the poor, given that the social safety net of government benefits barely allows for anything better than subsistence survival, if that. As far as I know, you don't hear many complaints among Turks about "welfare chiselors" or drug addicts on welfare.
To tradition-minded Turks, television, movies (particularly American movies), and the Internet should be used only in moderation. American mass media, they fear, is too frequently an assault on their values, exposing their children to nihilistic humor, narcissism, impulsivity, irresponsibility and unrestrained anger, too much sex, drugs, heavy metal music, rap, and rock and roll.
In Kayseri, there isn't much cultural, religious or ethnic diversity. It is like America before the civil rights movement, before the women's movement, before women rose up en masse to express their desire to become serious professionals in the workplace, before the sexual revolution, before the rise of religious skepticism if not agnosticism and atheism, definitely before the rise of multiculturalism or thousands of advocacy groups and cause-related marketing.
Turkey is also like America before the rise of an environmental ethic. I can remember as a six-year-old thinking nothing of tossing trash out the car window. I didn't become environmentally conscious until later, after the first Earth Day in 1970. Likewise, I have been shocked to see Turkish students and TEACHERS toss trash out a car window, throw wrappers or bottles on the street, and to see fields littered with trash. One of my students tossed a wrinkled paper airplane out the classroom window. I told him that in America, he'd get a $50 fine for doing that. His Turkish teacher made him go fetch it and put it in the trash. Turkey, I hope is beginning to develop an environmental ethic.
For America, there is no going back to the lifestyles and innocence of the 1950s. The genie is out of the bottle. It will be interesting to see whether Turkey becomes more like America. Certainly, Turkey seems to aspire to more democracy, more respect for cultural differences and more individual freedoms, and that could unleash the kind of cultural revolution that America went through in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet Turks seem to value their collective consciousness more than Americans do, so I doubt we'll see the kind of fast-paced cultural change and rise of individualism that America experienced.Underside to 1950s Cultural Innocence
Americans have come to value transparency and openness more than other cultures, of "letting it all hang out, telling it like it is, no matter how bad or sordid," and don't put as high a value on "saving face" as do peoples in the East. I'm sure that in Turkey, underneath the surface, as in all societies there are the things that America media obsess about: infidelity, child abuse, spouse abuse, betrayals of friends and colleagues, police brutality and loss of religious faith, even if it is not talked about as incessantly as it is broadcast and written about in American media.
I'm sure that for some Turks, the pressure to conform, to stay in loveless marriages or unchallenging jobs is what freedom-obsessed Americans would call a cultural straight-jacket, leading to depression and occasionally even suicide. For others who adapt well to an assigned role, the pressure to conform gives them a purpose and direction in life. There isn't the American excess of too much freedom, of too many young people feeling lost and aimless, spiritually bereft, stuck in prolonged adolescence, constantly going through "identity crises" and "it's complicated" not-fully-committed relationships that many Americans complain about.
I'm sure some women and minorities experience discrimination in the workplace; I'm sure there are bored and frustrated housewives in Turkey who feel their talents aren't put to good use, nor are they adequately compensated. I'm sure some religious and ethnic minorities feel oppressed in Turkey. Like in all societies, I'm sure there are bitter rivalries, grudges, prejudices, and injustices in the legal system. Like in America, there is abject poverty here, misery and political corruption, though America in my observation has less poverty and more transparent government. No society that I'm aware of has eliminated human shortcomings.
Turkey is at the crossroads between East and West, both a geographical crossroads and a cultural crossroads, and in the midst of enormous change.
With a rapidly growing economy, I suspect we'll see the influx of more women into the workplace. That will probably unleash changes in the roles of men and women both at home and at work. My guess is that there will be a growing women's movement in Turkey. Rates of divorce will probably rise, since not all families will be able to adjust to these changing roles, This could cause more Muslims to question religious strictures. Women and men are already starting to marry later, or not at all, meaning that sex outside of marriage may become a less taboo topic of conversation. Other minorities, too, will seek more legal redress and cultural respect for individual differences.
So, in those respects, I see Turkey inevitably moving West. Yet, I'm sure it will retain some traditional values and in some respects move East, developing stronger alliances with other Muslim countries, perhaps leading an Islamic reformation not unlike the Christian reformation of a few centuries ago. As one of my students declared, "All Muslims are brothers." How the Turks continue to walk the tightrope between East and West will remain fascinating to watch.