Pat Yale is a travel writer for Lonely Planet who lives in a restored cave-house in Göreme in Cappadocia. She has written A Handbook for Living in Turkey. "It unravels the mysteries of being a foreign
resident…navigate the Turkish education system…and examines daily
life…with practical ideas, word lists… (and many other resources)." Here's her column in Today's Zaman.
Monday, October 12th, 2009 was a deeply thrilling day. The President of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, came to Meliksah Universitesi in Kayseri to officially open our school with a red ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Before his arrival, walking to work that morning, I could see that the construction crew and cleaners had worked around the clock throughout the weekend. Myriad improvements had been made since Friday. I noticed streamers on the street lamps, streamers cascading from the corners of the university building, giganda bright red Turkish flags toweling down the buildings as well as full-color banners of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and President Gul.
Overnight, large silver sculptural letters adorned the buildings proclaiming their names and the faculty (college) designation. Standing sculptural elephant tusks bordered the path the President would walk.
Looking out my office window at mid-day Monday, I observed a colony of ant-sized people scrubbing, sweeping, hauling potted trees in, and on and on. Throughout the day, men or little boys ran up carrying these huge faux floral tributes that looked like American funerary displays, tripled in size. An obligatory red carpet swam its way between the red velvet rope lines.
Dozens of police and presidential guards (in glorious black and red) scrutinized the campus, clearing the building where the president was to speak, and whisked in a subdued, diligent German Shepherd to ferret for bombs. Around 4 pm, all the faculty were summoned to don blue and orange robes the tailor had sized us for a week earlier. Outside the building, masses of suited men waited. I asked where the women were for the president's visit and got this jocular response from a colleague: “His purpose is not to pick up a woman today.”
Gul, who is from Kayseri and a PhD academic by training, is the first devout Muslim president in modern Turkish history. He was controversial when he assumed office in 2007, because there was some question whether he would be able to pledge support for the very secular Turkish Constitution, which demands separation of mosque and state. Gul's wife, whom he married when he was in his late twenties and she was 15, wears a headscarf in public. Whether women should be allowed to do that at work and at school is a matter of intense debate in Turkish society. (See Wikipedia profile of Abdullah Gul.)
The president arrived with a battalion of men – guards, staff, and hundreds of nearly all-male supporters in the audience -- while the media rigged up the live feed.
In the university website picture, I am looking nervously at the photographer, another teacher. He had courageously jumped over the velvet rope line to take the picture. It made me uneasy because of all the police and secret service (or Turkish equivalent to the secret service) . Alas, because Turkey is still a military state to some degree (according to my friend), the beribboned, bemedalled, very serious-looking Chief of the Armed Forces accompanies the president everywhere. I thought it best to sit very still, and not make any sudden movements, so this other teacher's movements alarmed me. Obviously, he was more experienced attending events with heads of states than I was.
Men Holding Hands
One of the oddest things I saw - and typical of Turkey - was two Secret Service types with curly wires coming out of their ears and looking very macho and fit (as their American counterparts would) whispering together while holding hands. To my American sense, this was so strange. Turkey is not a place where you would ever flaunt your gayness. Contrarily, boys and men hold hands, walk arm in arm, sit together with one's head resting on the other's shoulder, etc. That’s the way it is here and, being an American, it’s new to me.
Stirring Opening Anthem and Inspiring Conclusion
Before President Gul spoke, the crowd stood up to sing the national anthem. It was deeply stirring to me – all these somber, black-suited men singing, conjuring images of a baritone-voiced Russian men’s chorus from the days of the Czars, or for the Turks, the proud days of their beloved founder, Ataturk.
After the president’s speech, various university contributors were announced and came forward to shake his hand, to speak briefly, and receive an award. A very old man, introduced as “Professeur Docteur...”, came up on stage and shook another honoree’s hand before being redirected to the president. One of my Turkish colleagues translated his speech for me. The Professeur Docteur spoke of when there were so few universities and professors, that he would teach at 10 different universities within the same week. One day’s example began with a class in Istanbul, boarding a plane for the next class in Trabzon on the Black Sea, and then boarding yet another plane to teach a third class in Ankara that same day. My colleague said that was why she loved listening to stories from older Turks – so much has changed so rapidly.
Alex, Lucia, and Jim, just before the ceremony, and with Eileen Walter (below, photo by Arzu Dogan).
Turkey's service-sector is more "service-oriented" than you'd ever, ever run into Stateside. Both at Alex's school and the university, neatly dressed "tea boys" will bring you a tray of tea and sugar several times a day. That's certainly not my experience at the University of Maryland or Montgomery County Public schools.
If Jim or I go somewhere with other faculty, the chauffer-driven university car will take us though he loves to floor it any given chance. At the apartment, our doorman, Teyfik, is a dream. Nothing like him at any apartment complex I've lived at. He gives us directions, hand-delivers mail to our apartment door, and orders home-delivery food for us in Turkish when we request it. There's a woman in our building who irons clothing for 68 cents per piece of clothing. We feel very cared about and cared for by them all.
“Why Kayseri?” is one of the most common questions asked to me by neighbors, students, and other Turkish friends, including residents of Kayseri. With ocean front and cosmopolitan cities like Istanbul, Izmir, and Antalya, and even a bustling capital in Ankara, my students are always curious how I ended up in what many people view as a kind of no-man’s land. The simplest and easiest answer to this question is, “It wasn’t my choice..."However, this comes off a little harsher than it should. Although it’s true that I had no control over where I would be placed, I’ve enjoyed my year in one of Turkey’s fastest growing cities....There is no question that Kayseri is conservative, at the outset...Imagine a foreigner coming to live in the US, and their destination is Utah or Mississippi. In the eyes of many, that’s the equivalent of my move to Kayseri.,,,But, living in the city, particularly at the university, has led me to see Kayseri in a different light. Yes, religion is practiced more in Kayseri than in Istanbul. However, this isn’t special to Kayseri, and in fact, most Turks I’ve met in Anatolia (Turkey’s Asian plain) have been more religious. But, they’ve also been respectful and tolerant of differences....
"Good travelers strive to get out of their comfort zone. And the hallmark of a great travel experience is that when a trip does get us out of our comfort zone... we actually find ourselves in it. When we travel, like that balloon lifting off a wild Anatolian field, we are — at least for a while — free from the bonds of our culture and ready to experience our world with a different perspective. What becomes of that freedom and perspective after our balloon touches down is up to each of us." -- Rick Steves, concluding his 2011 trip to Turkey.