Confession: before we started planning this trip, I couldn't name the capital of Turkey. Can you? Hint. I thought it was Istanbul, and I was incorrect.
I knew enough not to call a Turk an Arab, but many of my friends did not know this. They had a very vague sense of where Turkey was on the map. For myself, I certainly could not name the eight countries that border Turkey. On a good day, I might have been able to name the seas that surround Turkey, but I couldn't name its major rivers, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. I certainly could not name the seven geographical regions of Turkey, nor the eight major empires that Turkey was a part of since antiquity. I didn't know about the Turkish war of independence, nor when the modern Turkish state was established. I'm ashamed to say I had only a vague idea who Mustafa Kemel Ataturk was.
The Turks I later met found it impossible to believe that "educated" Americans like myself could really be this ignorant of a major country like Turkey, but the longer I lived abroad, the more I realized how insular the United States is.
In preparation for the trip, I spent hours each day online learning about Turkey; I checked out a stack of books and videos from the library, and started reading everything I could find about my soon to be "home."
First stop was Wikipedia's page on Turkey.
"The Turks must be the most hospitable people on earth," I reported in a phone call home. "They've welcomed us with open arms."
"I've heard that about the Arabs," my relative replied. "They aren't Arabs," I laughed. "They're Turks." Records of the Turkic peoples harken back to at least the sixth century, and maybe as far back as 1328 BC in China. The Turks comprise about 190 million people worldwide, compared to about 300 million Arab people worldwide.
"I've heard that about the Muslims," my relative corrected herself, generalizing about the world's 1.3 billion Muslims from my brief experience of Turkish hospitality. That's kind of like a foreigner thinking that Americans and Christians are one and the same. Not all Turks are Muslim, just as not all Americans are Christian. There are plenty of secular or semi-secular Turks, just as there are plenty of secular and semi-secular Americans.
If you had asked me in March, 2009 what's the capital of Turkey, I would not have given the correct answer. The capital is Ankara, not Istanbul. I was almost completely ignorant of this enchanting land and its people. I had seen the nightmare movie, Midnight Express, about a 19-year-old American thrown into a Turkish prison that it turns out was highly sensationalized and inaccurate. I vaguely remembered that the James Bond movies, From Russia With Love and The World is Not Enough were filmed partly here.
I knew Turkey was Muslim, and I was vaguely aware of where it was located, at the bottom of Europe, and on the border of Asia and the Middle East. Now, after researching Turkey, living here for four weeks, and reflecting on the questions I have received from Americans, I laugh at our (Americans') naivete and ignorance of Turkey and of the diversity in primarily Muslim societies.
The Turks have got to be the most hospitable people on earth. I walk into a neighborhood restaurant, the owner sends for his nephew who speaks English, to translate the menu for us. He sits with us while we eat and chats about life here and in America. I mention that I need a dry cleaner. He says he will drive me to his dry cleaner, and translate for me. The dry cleaner doesn't know quite where my apartment is, so he says he will take my dry cleaning back to the neighborhood restaurant. The young man refuses to take a tip for this service. Of course we try to return to his restaurant once every two weeks or so. He also friended me on Facebook.
That same evening, I walked into a pastry shop to use the bathroom. After using the very clean facility (with, thankfully, Western toilets, and toilet paper, not just a hole in the floor for squatting, and no toilet paper but a sink to wipe with your hand), In gratitude for the very clean and modern WC, I feel I should purchase a pastry. So I look for the cheapest pastry, point to it, and motion that I want to buy it. The owner asks me in broken English where I am from, I say "America." He touches his heart and gives me extra pastry and refuses to take money for it.
I have experienced at least a dozen incidents like this.
On the bus coming back from Cappadocia, the fellow next to me struggled to speak English. "America...beautiful!" he said. Then, "Obama....beautiful." He reached in his bag and gave me an apple. "Obama... peace prize!" he exclaimed.
"No more English," he said. Then, another phrase popped into his mind. "I love you," he said, waved, and stepped off the bus.
I have been playing charades with students at a local private school. They love American movies and TV shows, even some that are not worth loving and that are in my view polluting their culture.
I ask the head of the English Department at Alex's school why Turks are so hospitable. "You are a guest in our country. We treat our guests well. In some parts of Turkey, if you go to a village where they are struggling to have enough food to sustain themselves, they will give you their food. It's just the way we are as a people." They take great pride in their hospitality.
Photo I took while exploring downtown Kayseri on Thursday, October 29, 2009. It was a holiday here in Turkey, as Republic Day was celebrated, the 86th anniversary of the formation of the republic in 1923, representing the formal end of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey recently survived a military coup attempt which was not a serious threat to the Republic, and is now dealing with the case openly in the media. Long A Victim of the Military Mindset, Turkish Public Now Maturing (Today's Zaman). The country continues to make progress in giving voice to minorities such as the Armenians and the Kurds. "Turkey's Many Voices Say Republic Should Strengthen Democracy."
Friday was also a holiday. Schools were closed in an effort to curb the spread of swine flu.
It is interesting that so many Americans keep repeating to me, "stay safe OVER THERE" (implied, perhaps even subconsciously, among all those violent Muslims). In reality, Kayseri, the city of nearly one million I live in I daresay feels far safer than American cities, including Greensboro, Raleigh, and DC. Crime seems to be virtually non-existent, in part I must say because there are so many devout Muslims and such a strong sense of community among them.
Also maybe because the police aren't noted for respecting Miranda rights.
The only crime I have heard about since arriving in Kayseri on October 1, 2009 is the mysterious disappearance of three children from the Kayseri suburb of Talas. When no solid leads emerged, people started to speculate that the children were kidnapped by the "organ mafia," who killed them and sold their body parts. This strikes me as a ridiculous and irrational "urban legend." Todd Leventhal of the US Information Agency long ago dispensed with the irrationality of longstanding "organ mafia" rumor.
About half of Turkish women, in my observation, wear scarves or veils in public. It's difficult for a Westerner such as myself to know the meaning of this. Is such headgear a statement of submission to Allah? A statement of submission to men? Or simply a fashion statement?
“The veil has become a clichéd symbol for what the West perceives as Muslim oppression, tyranny, and zealotry – all of which have little to do with the real reasons why Muslim women veil,” Jennifer Heath, editor of the 2008 book “The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics,” told The Christian Science Monitor. Westerners are particularly fearful of the Niqab, which covers not only a woman's hair but her face as well, because to Westerners a mask communicates deceit or that the wearer has something to hide. Women in Islamic societies have different opinions on whether the Niqab is appropriate in modern life. It is considered by many to be very different from a scarf.
The Monitor quotes a Muslim man who says he respects women who cover themselves because “we see that as a sign that she appreciates herself, that she has some dignity, that she’s not into that materialistic thing and trying to be a sex symbol.” But to him, whether a woman wears a head scarf is not a big issue. "At the end of the day, it's one small thing that represents the entire entity...of this human being."
On the surface, it may appear to Westerners that Muslim men dominate and boss their wives. But Turkish men have joked with me that their homes are their castles, but their wives rule the roost. One of my adult male students quipped, "I have the remote control (of the television), but my wife has remote control of me."
Another man I know joked, "Out in the jungles of life, I am a lion, the king of the forest. But at home, a tiger awaits me." His friend needles him: "Are you sure a tiger awaits you at home? Maybe what awaits you at home is a chicken, because you are hen-pecked. Notice that when my wife calls me, I tell her that I am busy now, I will be home in a few hours. But when your wife calls you, you say, 'Yes dear. Yes dear. Yes, dear. I'm sorry I'm late. I will be home in less than one hour.' "
A Muslim woman we know, who wears a scarf in public, complains that too many Turkish men have not sufficiently individuated from their mothers, which causes tension with their wives. "There are a lot of 40-year-old mama's boys," she observed.
And yet Turkish men and women seem to do a better job of taking care of their families, particularly older parents than we Americans who send parents off to nursing homes when they get old.
The Monitor has some insightful articles.
In America, libertarians (who mostly reside in Western states) complain bitterly about too many rules and regulations on the free market, and on business, particularly the building and construction trades, and too much concern by government for citizens' health and safety. The national government, they whine, goes so far as to regulate the size and height of toilets. The U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration should be abolished, they say.
American libertarians should come to Turkey! Many construction workers don't wear hard hats, welders don't wear safety masks, disk cutters don't wear protective goggles; and they don't seem to clean up construction sites when they finish work. I live in a new neighborhood in the Kayseri suburb of Talas. Three buildings remain unfinished nearby, and garbage from the construction sites is scattered throughout nearby fields. Tubes of Spackle and bags of leftover cement litter the landscape. It's quite an eyesore.John Laughland, writing in the Turkish newspaper, Today's Zaman, complains about low standards, unprofessional and sloppy behavior among tradesmen in the construction business. He has observed "heaps of timber shuttering with hundreds of protruding nails and working amongst those timbers men wearing flip-flops or old sports shoes...."
How are workers trained for construction trades in Turkey? Must they comply to any national standards, or do they learn only by apprenticeship with more experienced workers?
Construction workers aren't the only ones who seem to lack concern for safety. Parents frequently don't insist that their children sit in car seats or wear seat belts.
Some of this freedom from rules I find refreshing. Dogs seem to wander freely on the streets of cities and towns. (To be fair, I also observed this phenomenon in several European countries.) I don't mind because I like dogs. My son loves dogs, and is begging his parents to adopt a dog while we are living in Turkey, especially since he learned that you can set up a dog house on anyone's property without their permission. That certainly would not be allowed in America, where property rights are paramount and stray dogs are considered a public nuisance. The owners would be fined $50 or more. Dogs whose owners could not be found immediately would be sent to the dog pound, also known as Animal Control, and if no one claimed the animal in a few weeks or months, he would be put to sleep. Every county or municipality in the U.S. has an animal control division.
Libertarians from the American West who complain about speed limits and other rules of the road would no doubt admire the freedom of Turkish drivers. There seem not to be nearly as many cops patrolling the highways as in America. Hence, life on the highways in Turkey is quite a bit like the Wild, Wild West: lawless! One-way street? No problem. Ignore signs, and drive the wrong way down a one-way street in order to take a short cut to your destination. Sideswipe other vehicles if you need to. Continue reading.
I was teaching an advanced English lesson on "celebrities." My Turkish students looked at me rather blankly. "Except for Ataturk, we don't really have any celebrities in Turkey," one of them said. Athletes, musicians, actors, politicians, are just considered regular people, not superstars, in their culture, my students said. To complete the assignment in the workbook, they suggested to each other that they would each pretend to be each other's "celebrities." Their other "celebrities" or people they admire or look up to, are their parents, aunts, uncles or other relatives, they said.
In another lesson, high school boys were asked to name their heroes. Invariably, without any self-consciousness whatsoever, most said, "My father." I seriously doubt most American 15-year-old boys would voluntarily say in front of their peers that their fathers were their heroes, even if they secretly believed it, because such an admission would be viewed as "uncool," sad to say.
In an English lesson with middle-aged businessmen and women on romance and Valentine's Day, none of the students would admit to being romantically involved with anyone before they met their spouse. And "dating time" seemed to be shockingly short compared to America. Students reported that they decided to marry their spouses within a day or a week or a few weeks of first meeting. The opinions of parents about their spouses were extremely influential -- sometimes parents would call and say, "we've found just the woman (or man) for you," and parental opinion would seal the deal. Most of my students married in their early to mid-twenties; some married in their teens, and the marriages have lasted.
If spouses get in arguments, THEIR parents will sometimes (often?) intervene to maintain peace and harmony within the extended family, my students said. It is not uncommon in Turkey for parents to live with their adult children as well as their grandchildren.
In America, of course, families are much more "individuated." Grandparents, parents and children rarely live with each other, and parents certainly don't generally find spouses for their children. Deciding to make a "commitment" is a process that begins in one's teens and often extends into a person's thirties or even forties; multiple relationships and divorce are far more common in America than in Turkey. Might this contribute to America's reputation in the world as perpetually adolescent, and strong sense of individualism? The Turkish notion of immediately marrying the person approved of by one's parents would seem like a strait-jacket relationship to many Americans.
I do get some sense that these social habits are changing, that as Turkey becomes more affluent, young people are becoming more individualistic like Americans -- experiencing multiple relationships before "settling down"; investing in "romance"; demonstrating an interest in celebrities or pop culture; and taking time to "individuate" from parents by living on their own when they can afford to do so.
What do you think? Are my perceptions of Turkey as reported by my students accurate?
"I was astonished when my adult Turkish students told me it is not unreasonable for a friend or neighbor to ask to borrow your car for a week. One of my students has a new car, and I was joking with him that I would like to borrow it. He said, "Yes, of course, you can borrow my new car for the day."
Today's Zaman, Turkey's leading English-language daily newspaper, runs my article observing differences in Turkish and American outlooks on life.
Comments from readers on the Zaman site, as well as from fellow teachers and students I work with, emails and Facebook posts from friends and family members in America, have been illuminating. Here's a sampling:
The fascinating thing about Turkey is that it's so hard to label, peg, or characterize: Western? Eastern? European? Asian? Middle Eastern? First World? Second World? Third World? Secular or Islamic Republic? It doesn't fit into the comfortable categories or paradigms we like to place countries in. The truth is that Turkey is all of these, and yet it holds together to create a uniquely Turkish identity.
Most of what I see in Turkey on a daily basis -- modern buildings, cars and superhighways -- is first world, not all that much different from what I'd see in America. And yet if I turn my head into a different direction, I'm likely to see something of what I'd expect in the second world, or developing nation. And then, occasionally, I am surprised to see things I'd expect to see in an impoverished third world nation. On the one hand, Turkey's economy is growing -- has been growing since 2002 -- and survived the financial troubles that devastated other countries quite well. On the other hand, unemployment is higher than in the U.S., 13%, and one out of four Turkish households are said to live in poverty.
One Sunday we encountered what we in the United States would call a flea market -- citizens selling second or third hand goods. We weren't prepared to see pigeons and chickens and turkeys for sale on the street, or to see hundreds of people gravitating to these bargains.
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 --
I tweet: Turkish taxi driver in Kayseri volunteered to accompany me to police headquarters, acted as translator, and saved me from police bureaucracy.
Why were you going to police headquarters, a friend asks??
Residency permits. The police bureaucrat kept rejecting our applications for God knows what reasons -- first because they weren't typed, then because they weren't on the correct form, etc., etc. Four times he rejected them. The taxi driver recognized my frustration, led me to a Kinkos-type place across the street from police headquarters, told the clerk there to retype the applications correctly, and even though there were mistakes, identifying Lucia as my "mother," the police bureaucrat didn't notice that and finally accepted them. Now the taxi driver is a true "arkadas" (friend), and I will call him whenever I need a lift. He wouldn't accept much extra money for all the time he spent with me. His generosity is so typical of certain Turks. Hospitality to foreigners is a commandment to observant Muslims. They frequently perceive foreign guests as "angels unaware" who were sent by God to test their hospitality and generosity.
A friend in her eighties asks a question: "I know the Turks came out of the East in 1200 something to attack and conquer Constantinople. I believe the final capitulation was in the 1400s. At any rate, what is their national background as opposed to Arabs, ergo, why are they Islamic? I no longer have my dear old 1930s Encyclopedia Britannica purchased by my parents to enhance their daughter's education. What a loss to smarter living."
After consulting some books, some Turkish friends, Google and Wikipedia I came up with this answer:
Numerous tribes of Turks were here in present-day Turkey for hundreds of years before the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. You are correct that the Turkic tribes came from the east, from Central Asia. In their tribal and pagan roots, their rituals were very much like native Americans, and indeed some Turks believe that native Americans were Turks, in that they migrated from Central Asia across the Bering Strait to North America.
We have a wonderful doctor friend named Tarik Artis whose family roots are in Central Asia, in Kashi Xinkiang to be exact. He is proud to say his family was part of one of the original Turkish tribes. He has cousins in northwestern China. His family looks more Asian, almost Chinese, than Turk.
How quickly Turkish self-image has changed in relation to the rest of the world. In the mid-2000s, Turkey was considered a second-world country with a fragile economy and less than stable government, susceptible to military coups whenever the "democratically elected" government exhibited incompetence or overstepped the bounds of secularism. Historically, Turks have suffered from an inferiority complex in comparison to Europe and the United States.
Turkey's self-perception has changed dramatically since the global economic crisis of 2008-9. Turkey emerged from it quickly, relatively unscathed, because it had not engaged in the kinds of reckless borrowing that Western nations did. In 2011, the Turkish economy is one of the fastest growing in the world. Turks who immigrated to Germany in the 1980s are coming home to retire. Some Turks who immigrated are coming home because they now believe the business climate in Turkey is better than in Europe. And foreigners are flocking to Turkey, not only to invest, but to find jobs as English teachers and businessmen.
In her 2008 book, Culture Smart: Turkey -- Customs and Culture, Charlotte McPherson wrote:
"The wealthier sections of Turkish society will have traveled, and may even have lived abroad for education or work. The rest of the nation forms their view of foreigners through Hollywood films, foreign serials shown on Turkish TV, and meeting tourists. This gives them a selective view of what life is like abroad, and what foreigners are like. Many less well-educated lower-class Turks have the impression that the streets of Europe and America are paved with gold, and want to emigrate. They may find it hard to understand why one who has a sought-after foreign passport might wish to make the opposite journey."
In my observation and experience, this is no longer true. I know several Americans and Brits who have moved permanently to Turkey, confident that they can build a better life than in their home countries.
Turks are still at the point where they welcome foreigners in the most gracious way. But like most nations, if the secret gets out and they are deluged with foreigners who they perceive are taking jobs from Turks, I imagine they will start to have a different, and more negative perception of immigrants.