Monday, January 7, 2008

Unfinished Diatribe about Turkey

Clara and I have decided to head back to India. We have absorbed a lot of Pakistan, and the 5 bombings and one killing by the Taliban in the City where we had dinner tonight, along with the multiple emails from Clara's mother has swung the pendulum back towards the worlds largest democracy.

We have a dinner invitation from Fasi Azir in the Capital of Islamabad tomorrow. He is a "minor celebrity" in his own words, and a national newspaper columnist whom we met with earlier after I emailed him. Looking forward to more of his insights from this Rhodes Scholar into his native land.

Until we get to post more, here is an unfinished work about my thoughts on Turkey:


First of all, Turkey is a real place. Not just another border arbitrarily drawn on a map, but a place with an identity, a culture, a feel, a look and especially a history all of its own.
It is a place of many stereotypes, with constantly surprising exceptions. Most of all, Turkey is a success, not a perfect one, but an evolving one: a secular Muslim country set
up by Ataturk bridging Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam, the past and the present,
unlike any other place in the world.

Turkey is:
Arabic calls to prayer 5 times a day
Ubiquitous Red Flag’s with crescent, on flagpoles, cars, doors, windows
Full of Smokers
Rug salesmen
Turkish delight
Chai Tea
Insane drivers with no training
Corrupt officials
Turkish barbers giving a close shave
Overseen by the military for better and worse
Full of Fisherman, spending days catching sardines & other things
Middle aged men with prayer beads
Proud and Nationalistic
Growing and polluted
Beautiful coasts
Evil Eyes
Ceramics, markets and historic ruins
Veiled women, hairy men and mustaches
Crooked noses
“Merhaba” and “Teshe Koller” (hello and thank you)
The Bosphorus
Olives, nuts, apricots, fresh fruits and vegetables
Late night clubs, Turkish music, and street vendors


Turkey is not:
A place for a woman to kick someone in the groin
A place to buy without haggling
In the EU. Yet.
Cheap Gas
Easy to Describe

To describe Turkey you have to start with Ataturk. Ataturk is the father of modern Turkey, equivalent to Americans of Washington, Adams and Jefferson all rolled into
one. He was warrior, statesman, humanist who seems to have foreseen the problems
of the modern world decades ahead of his time. He was an army officer who came to prominence when he led the Turkish troops in their repulsion of the superior English, French, Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli in the First World War. Even at that point he showed compassion for the fallen of the enemy saying to the mothers of the dead that their loved ones were at home in Turkey, equivalent to the loss of the loved ones of the Turkish mothers. After the War, the victorious powers tried to carve up the remains of the Ottoman Empire, but Ataturk took over from the Sultans, expelled the foreigners militarily and set up the modern Turkish state. He foresaw the problems of fundamentalism and set the country up as a secular democracy, with the military overseeing the nascent country allowed to step in and dissolve the government if it believed the elected powers were not being true to the fundamentals of the state. He famously said “Peace at Home, Peace in the World”. He is revered in Turkey and virtually every business has a prominent picture of him in their front lobby. Turkish flags with his face are flown on flagpoles, from balconies, in the rear window of cars. There are statues of him in every town and he is more revered even than Bolivar in Venezuela.

He forbade the wearing of head scarves in schools and business, and it was fascinating to see the pictures of his funeral procession, with hundreds of thousands lining the streets with nary a head scarf to be seen. But yet you can pick up a paper today and see articles about a high school girl being in trouble for wearing a head scarf to receive an award, and certainly will see Ataturk’s name and his ideas known as Kemalism throughout the news.

As an American it is hard to truly get a feel for what it is like to be Turkish. Americans live in fear of perceived enemies thousands of miles away around the world. Turkey has borders with the Europeans whom have invaded for millennia, the Greeks whom they have fought for millennia, the Armenians whom they have fought with for centuries, the Russians are just across the Black Sea, the Persians in Iraq who are Shiites and at odds with Turkish Sunni’s, Iran with a defacto Kurdish state harboring separatist terrorists, and Syria a conduit to the Arabs who abhor the liberal secular society in modern Turkey. Who can blame the Turks for being a bit defensive? But, unlike America which seems to be able to have wars with countries like Japan, England, Germany, and Vietnam and put the past behind us, it seems as if Turkey has a harder time burying the hatchet. To be fair, however, it seems as though they are not the only ones in this part of the world with that problem.

You will find quite a bit of boastfulness or national pride around here. A Kurd we met let us know that the best doctors in the world are Iraqi, that his town had the best food in all of Iraq as proclaimed by none other than Saddam Hussein, and that Kurds actually invented Turkish Delight. A Turkish tourist brochure let us know that Turkish food is one of the three most important in the world. A nightclub in Bodrum assured goers that it was the loudest (and wildest, with the most bubbles!) in the Mediterranean. Plus there is the national statute known as 301 which vaguely outlaws any act or gesture against “Turkishness”.

On the one hand Turks will go out of their way to tell how open they are to all cultures, for example: a centuries old British Fort with a St. George cross in the rock had a description that proclaimed that the fact that the Turks hadn’t ground the granite flat showed how tolerant they were of other people. Many conversations went along the lines of “we don’t have a problem with the __________(Greeks, Kurds, Armenians,….), it is they who have a problem with us. We never did anything, or hardly anything, to them.” For those of us in America a bit dubious of hearing from our leaders about how other countries hate us although we’ve Never done anything to them, starting down this path without objectivity seems potentially divisive. However, scratching beneath the surface and getting to know locals is to find people who really are very tolerant of others, welcoming to all, and perhaps most important: dismissive of the many intolerants around them.

Our last night in Turkey we even discovered that one of our local friends was Jewish and that her family had lived in Turkey for generations, although they don’t go out of the way to advertise it they go about their lives without fear. Make no mistake, this country is 98 percent Muslim, with the calls to prayers being heard from anywhere in the country 5 times a day, with women covered in veils and burkas, men moving their lips and fingers in conjunction with their prayer beads, feet washing at mosque’s and roadsides, and prayer rugs directed at Mecca being used in tiny windowless rooms in businesses everywhere. This, to me, is clearly the success of Turkey: comfortable with their relationship with Islam and showing a way forward in this part of the world where tolerance and acceptance trumps the dictatorial fanaticism elsewhere. As one attractive, sexually liberated, highly educated, well traveled woman told us: “the Persians hate our secular government, the Arabs don’t think we’re Muslims, but we just laugh it off and don’t take them seriously.”

As I was falling asleep last night I thought that Turkey was the closest country in the world so far to the United States. There are rich and poor, a strong middle class, a large minority population whom everyone professes to be friendly with, but warns you not to go into “their” neighborhoods. They have had waves of immigrants, coming and going and they have in the past been brutal to others not like them. They have an active political scene with strong liberals wanting to embrace European ways, and religious conservatives who want to dictate behavior to the masses. The cities are liberal, the countryside is conservative. They have a strong and active military, a growing population and a key part to play in world affairs. The three most flag waving countries in the world are Brazil, Turkey and the USA. Is it any wonder that I find the place so endlessly fascinating, even in the dead of a cold and rainy winter?

Random Observation: For some reason about 90 percent of the people traveling at the airport have burgundy bags. There seem to be a lot of religious travelers here, a high percentage of women in scarves and robes and men in towels and head knits, coming back from or going to their Haj.

The Turks are incredibly friendly, especially once you get outside of the tourist realm. Of course, everyone will offer you tea as soon as you walk into their home or business, but it goes much deeper than that. One tailor who charged Clara $5 to hem her burka, refused to accept payment when I came a week later to sew my rain suit and glove. People went out of their way to help us, to make us feel comfortable, and to just include us in their daily lives. We were invited to people’s homes for dinner, invited to see musicians at their shows, invited to places of work, and best of all to come and stay with them while we waited for our visas. We tried to repay as best we could, by fixing their motorcycles, planing their doors, making and buying food, but it felt like not enough and we really hope to host as many as we can some day back in the States.

The Turks are a happy people, comfortable in themselves. Laughter is evident everywhere. Turks greet each other with a kiss on each cheek, man to man, woman to woman, man to woman, and foreigner to friend. They go out for dinner, drink alcohol, smoke like fiends, have strong opinions, and are open to learning and new things. Most towns have a bazaar one or two days a week with food, clothes and other household items in abundance. Sellers hawk their goods from street corners, to shops, to restaurants. You can buy roasted chestnuts, mussels and smoked fish burgers on the streets. Every waterway is draped with fishermen catching anchovies and whatever else may come along.

There are many women with head scarves and burkas, many not. As Clara has observed, life for Muslim women can be hard especially in the tinier towns. They work the fields, they care for the children and the home, while the men seem to congregate at cafes to drink tea, talk and watch football. We see many women, hunched over from years of hard work. Many of the women seem to have grown into their burkas; it almost seems if they are not allowed to portray themselves in public they let it go to waste. Even when they are able to wear pants, they are the most unflattering we’ve seen yet with yards of extra cloth added for some unknown reason which would make even Angelina Jolie unfit for a seductive look. Women certainly are not completely free in this society, although the laws seem to be in place. Half the university students are female, and many of them work, have their own businesses and dress in a stylish Western way.

The roads are in passable to excellent condition. There is diverse scenery, wonderful sea sides, incredible historic ruins, fanatical soccer fans, friendly motorcyclists, and lots of dirt roads to get muddy and lost in. Super aggressive and untrained drivers are everywhere. Every motorcyclist we met had been in an accident, right up to our last night out where a gentleman who had bought a R1200GS for his first bike crashed after 3 months coming home from the California Superbike School, breaking both wrists. Food is good, although not in the 3 best of the world. Turkish delight is squishy, chewy, rich and decadently delicious. Too much will definitely get you sick!

SouthEast Turkey is a military zone right now. Our friends Alex, British, and Adrienne, Canadian, just got done with teaching English in Iraq for the last 6 months. They were in Kurdistan where they were welcomed and had an enjoyable time. They did not feel unsafe or threatened and in fact said that people everywhere went out of their way to be nice. There wasn’t much to do or buy, but it was a rewarding experience. Alex described the region as clearly thinking itself to be autonomous, with strange sights such as Kurdish Forts and Turkish Forts being opposite each other. The Kurdish Flag flying proudly, the Turkish fort unadorned as it is in Iraq territory. Clearly the truth about the area goes much deeper than the cursory reporting we receive in the United States.

There are many stereotypes of Turkey which are anchored in reality; however, there are seem to be exceptions to all of them. Yes, the large majority of Turkish men have black hair, many with strong mustaches and beards which seem to grow from morning to night but as soon as you think they all look that way you will come into a town and see a redheaded man walking down the street, or two light haired boys playing at a school. Just when you think every Turkish town looks the same, you will come across a whitewashed sea town like Bodrum, or a clean well laid out town in the center of the country. After being convinced that you can’t trust a thing or a price a rug salesman tells you, a gentleman will show you some beautiful samples, explain the business, and not negotiate with you. A young boy will come up to you and speak in proper English
to ask where you are from, and what you are doing. You will see hippie types smoking a joint on a beach, go out dancing till the early hours of the morning, see women dressed very sexily, and even have a local tell you “we killed a lot of Armenians”. Turkey is a diverse place, with surprises at every turn.

I think of all the countries we have been to that Turkey is the most important for the West to engage with. It is a country which is historically suited to trade, of products, ideas, and people. The world has much to gain from Turkey, and Turkey from the world. A strong, stable country at the crossroads of the world could be a beacon for all that peace at home and peace in the world is an admirable goal.


Anonymous said...

Where's a picture of dear Clara in her bhurka?

Also Kevin, I know you hate to hear this but ... your mother in law is right. Don't tempt fate -- get the hell out of there. Go India to China (Tibet?), Great Wall, Peking then down to Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and finally Australia (for a little croc hunting). If you have any trouble in China, tell them you are Sam Yoon.


Orestis said...

I gotta admit your diatribe (diatribe...what a nice greek word eh?) about Turkey is GREAT!
Stay well and happy!