Despite having studied Turkish politics and culture and having traveled to the country for several times in the last three years my mind still cannot draw a simple, linear, mono-color draft to reproduce the essence of Turkish culture and identity. The closer I get to the “truth” the deeper I swim in confusion. The more I discover the less I know with certainty. The closer I sail to the heart of Turkey the farther I am being carried by its beats. It is never enough and, however, it is still always too much. Not enough to build up walls around categories, and too much for those categories to resist the new (and sometimes even the old) waves of understanding and metamorphoses. Turkey is one of “those things” that I am unable to conclude. Perhaps because there is no such thing as the conclusions I meticulously search. I have walked all the way back and forth: I have included my experiences in the frame of previously acquired knowledge, I had demolished and then replaced all the prejudices and stereotypes, shifted from books to opinions expressed by my Turkish acquaintances, to personal perceptions and vice-versa… And still, Turkey does not cease to surprise me. And I guess it will never do.
I discovered the country three years ago and I definitely experienced sort of cultural shock, a shock that I expected to have and I enjoyed, a shock without which I would have been disappointed. I have been always keen on discovering the “difference”, at such a degree that I was seeing it even in places where it did not exist. I am fascinated by different cultures, ways of seeing and understanding life, this attraction being reflected even in the books I chose to read, which, of course, deal with culturally rooted issues. Being gifted with a great amount of empathy allowed me to overcome even my most entrenched prejudices and tolerate the strangest and darkest point of views, looking always for the cultural or historical explanation behind them. My mind started to work on the “what if?” mood, questioning all the values and “truths”. Visiting and living for a while in Turkey sharpened these abilities, but instead of helping me to clear the image they dissolved all my mental sketches leaving me only blurred lines… Foggy pictures of different Turkeys.
Yes, there are many Turkeys in my mind and heart. Culturally speaking South-Eastern Turkey is very different from the Western part of the country. Try to compare Izmir with Mardin, and you’ll get what I’m talking about. It’s like speaking the same language (not always, as there are many Kurds and Arabs in the East), eating the same dishes (although in my opinion in the East the food is more delicious, while in the Western part of the country you can notice an invasion of Western foods-pizza, pasta) and listening to the same music in different universes. If you visit the former Ottoman capital you can catch the spirit of Turkey, Istanbul being a micro-cosmos which embodies both of the worlds: Taksim, Moda being a metaphor of the West, while the conservative neighborhoods reproducing traditional Turkey.
Seems easy, right? Well, I initially felt in the same trap. But reality is way more complicated. Although appearances encourage us to resume Turkey to the West-Orient axis, there is nothing more wrong. Turkey is more diverse than we can imagine, actually is the mother of diversity (or father?), showing many faces of the same reality. Shades you will discover only when talking with and especially listening to people, not before they trust you and feel free to express their opinion, being sure you won’t judge them. If in the beginning you had met the “Oriental” and “Western” type your brain and their pride (proud to be Western-alike, or proud of their traditions) encourages you to see, in the end you would have to recognize there are no such great difference but paradoxically there are many tones and sides of the same coin, making you understand that you would have probably thought and acted in a similar way if you had grown up in the same environment(s). You would be surprised to discover that the başörtülü (wearing Turkish veil) lady you met is more open-minded, funny and tolerant than many of her secular counterparts. Or that the guy who traveled half of the world and considers himself an atheist is strongly attached to the patriarchal Turkish society, and when it comes to marriage he prefers a traditional housewife to a modern, emancipated woman, and even lets his mother to make the choice. Of course, I’m not suggesting that Turkish people are not what they seem to be or that conservatives are more modern than secularists. We are those who see them in a wrong way, being captive in our stereotypical shells. What I’m saying is that a person’s character and cultural building is more complicated, especially if he or she was raised in such a diverse place as Turkey. There are as many Turkish sub-identities as are the Turks. So don’t rush to judge at the first sight or talk.
“To bargain” is probably the most suitable verb to describe Turkey. Besides being the activity which made the Turkish bazaars famous, negotiation is a necessary tool to resist the daily avalanche of apparently contradictory values and the continuous social and political changes (sometimes crises) the country faces. Most of the people (yes, including conservatives and strong secularists) are found in the middle, trying to negotiate and to conciliate their values and believes. And if opposite directions, extreme sociopolitical contrasts are clear and unquestionable, the middle way is subject to negotiation. And exactly this is the way consciously but most of the time unconsciously followed by many Turks. If politically speaking is quite easy to choose a camp, in daily life people are more confused. Turkey and Turkish people are somewhere in the middle, belonging to both West and Orient, but somehow in the same time to none of them.