Turkey~ one country many faces

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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.

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Anadolu’nun kokusu… Scent of Anatolia

Huzurlu, sessiz bir akşam…Uyandırdın hayallerimi ve büyülü bir fikir dizisi boyandın sonsuz aynanda. Unutulmuş hatıraların ülkesine bir seyahate götürdün beni, Anadolu kokusu getirdin bana. Sevgilerle… Elazığ’dan

Peaceful, quiet evening… you have waken up my dreams and painted a chain of magic thoughts on your endless mirror. You took me on a journey of forgotten memories. You brought me the scent of Anatolia. With love… from Elazığ.

Photo credits: MYA

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Harput kalesi

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Photo credits: MYA

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“Soğuk” stories VI: “Urfalı” for a day

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And here’s the prove that I was an Urfalı kız (girl from Urfa) for a day 🙂 Girls love dress-up games 😛

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“Soğuk” stories V: One night in Urfa

Thank you Nicéphore Niépce for inventing photography! When memories start to fade away in our overloaded “hard disk” pictures work like a “Refresh” button!

I sat cross-legged like a Turk and smiled to the camera as I knew that one day this picture will steal a smile and give me back my memories.

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And it did. It took me back to the summer of 2012. To my first traditional Turkish evening. In Şanlıurfa. And I decided to take you with me. I won’t hold your hand… but hopefully I’ll hold your imagination. Ready? Imagine yourself entering a 450 year old konuk evi (guest house) in Şanlıurfa. The perfect place for tarihi kokusunu arayanlar (those who are seeking the scent of history) as stated on the Harran guest house’s website. And I was one of them, proud and somehow overwhelmed to be in the place where diverse people, histories and identities meet, in Mesopotamia, the so-called cradle of civilizations… A strange, nameless feeling embraced me and made me realize that we don’t have enough words, and sometimes living our dreams simply paralyzes our thoughts. My introspection was interrupted by the tempting flavors. I must say that South-Eastern Turkey’s history smells delicious. And spoils your tastebuds with its domatesli ve patlıcanlı kebap (tomatoe and eggplant kebab), bostana (Turkish gaspacho), salata (salad), lebeni çorbası (youghurt soup).

dscn0857After dinner I found out that preparing  çiğ köfte (raw meatballs, yes the meat is actually RAW, is not cooked) requires artistic skills. It is believed that çiğ köfte was invented in Urfa in the time of Abraham. Nimrod (the king of those times) wanted to execute Abraham by setting him on fire and ordered to collect all firewood in Urfa for this purpose. As a result people didn’t have firewood to cook and ate raw food. One day somebody found a way to make meat tastier by adding bulgur, herbs, spices and kneading the mixture. I mentioned above that making çiğ köfte is not an easy task. See the aşçı (cook) in action:

dscn0863The best çiğ köfte is made by dancing on the rhythms of the davul (drum) or on the davul 🙂 .

dscn0871And here’s the result:

dscn0874Well, çiğ köfte is not my favourite, and not because is raw meat, at the time I didn’t even know what I was eating! Actually it doesn’t even taste like meat… It’s like a strange combination of herbs and spices worth to try at least once!

The hallucinating combination of flavours, the rhythm of the drum and the traditional Turkish music made the evening unforgettable.

img_2951And prepared us for the next level: Halay (Anatolian folk dance) which is quite simple:  people form a circle by holding each others little finger and the leading dancer waves a handkerchief.

img_2961Dancing requires energy, and the best ‘fuel’ to boost your energy are taltılar (sweets), elbette (of course)!

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Turkey through Zeynep.’s eyes

Now that’s what I understand by the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words”! I found Zeynep. on Flickr… I was so enchanted by her pictures that I couldn’t help but share them… I just love these people. I love the way Zeynep. catched the spirit of Turkey… She took me back to Turkey and made me miss it even more… You should definitely check her albums here. She takes really amazing pictures not just of Turkey but of other countries as well. Enjoy my favourites:270402454_bd97aa763d_o

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Zeynep.

Zeynep.!

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“Soğuk” stories III: Hasankeyf… my love!

dscn0633Oh, Hasankeyf! Forgotten cave town of Eastern Turkey…you are haunting my daydreams and memories. Testimony of the past, secret of the present … I was enchanted by your calls to prayer, colourful bazaar, rainbow spices, medley of flavours and smiling people…

How time flies, but still keeps our memories alive, held captive in a picture, an object, a flavour or a perfume… All we need is one look to trigger the sparkles of a false déjà vu…

It has been two years since I discovered this otherworldly place, which seemed rather the product of an imagined book written in a surreal time, between now and then. I instantly fell in love with its sunbathing hills, dusty paths, ancient rocks, mysterious caves and warm turquoise Tigris, which carries the secret of this place far away… to an uncertain future or maybe to a new, yet undiscovered past…

I fell in love with its playful, friendly children… whose dreams can change the future and memories the past… who know more than they can ever guess… but unheard stories pass away…

DSC00178surrounded by the children of Hasankeyf

Fell in love with the mystery of the around 4000 caves… some of them 12.000 years old… can you imagine what would it be like if these rocks could speak…?
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I fell in love with this bazaar… guarded by the proud minaret of the Rızk Camii… which has been calling people around to prayer for around six centuries… never loosing its unifying voice… its fate and hope…

 

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I fell in love with the Tigris river… so quiet… melting its refreshing water in the hot earth…

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Hasankeyf, I fell in love with you!

 

“Soğuk” stories II: “Cover up, look down!”

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Elazığ

Ok, I agree! The title sounds a little bit like a stereotype, but I assure you, that was not my intention when choosing it… Actually, it may prove to be up to a certain point a myth debunker. I hate stereotypes and I try to be as open-minded as possible, imagining myself in the same boat with those whom I’m tempted to judge, finding “excuses”, explanations for everything and even ending up judged for being too understanding but…  Even though we try hard to avoid falling into stereotypical traps, we cannot deny that we all see the world through our unique lenses, reality being affected by our perspective. Frankly speaking, this whole blog shows you Turkey through my eyes, not Turkey “as it is”. Can we even talk about “Turkey as it is”, when “Turkey as it is” is decided by humans who are by definition subjective? Some argue that the best perspective is that of the majority. Well, I don’t agree with them! I think “Turkey as it is” is the sum of all the perspectives and in the same time each one of them separately.  What is reality when everything is relative? …. That’s a good question and an interesting topic, but given that the purpose of this post is not to debate the nature of and the reasons behind stereotypes, I’ll get back to my “soğuk stories” before getting into deep waters.

“Cover up, look down” is nothing more than an advice. And it’s a very good advice for those who travel through Eastern Turkey and don’t want to be misunderstood or find themselves in odd situations. Anyway, when you grow up in a country where everybody wears short skirts, dresses and pants during the summer and where people consider you shy  if you don’t establish eye contact with them, you might find this advice a little bit unusual, even if you did your homework before departure. And I did, I did a serious but mostly disappointing research… Actually you cannot even imagine how many stupidities I’ve read about Turkey! Rude men, dangerous places, unsafe for women blah blah blah… The icing on the cake was: if you are a blond you should either get your hair darkened or cover it. Really? I’m a natural blond and I was as blond as always when being in Turkey, without having any trouble because of that… No, no! Don’t rush to draw conclusions! The “cover up” part of the advice doesn’t have anything to do with covering your hair! It simply means you should dress decently, cover your legs and shoulders. It’s not even a rule, you can dress as you wish, but if you show too much skin you’ll probably draw attention to yourself, you can be misunderstood and even taken as an easy woman, and I’m sure you wouldn’t like that!

In Eastern Turkey (Note: Eastern Turkey! not the Western part of the country or the touristic places where you can see people wearing any type of clothes) people are more conservative, many women wear başörtü (headscarf) and you hardly see someone with bare shoulders or knees in the city. I’m kindly asking you to think twice before you judge someone by the way they dress. Wearing a veil is not a sign of backwardness, nor is wearing a mini skirt. I meet a lot of friendly and open-minded women having their hair covered, the same thing I can say about girls wearing short dresses. Of course, stereotypes exist on the both sides and all they do is separate us. We all have the right to dress as we like and the obligation to respect others and ourselves. And to respect others and yourself means that you should inform yourself and adapt to the host culture when traveling. And this way you’ll keep yourself out of troubles. You probably wouldn’t wear bikini when skiing in the winter, just as you wouldn’t go to swim wearing boots and jacket. So, why on Earth would you go in a tiny dress to a place where most of the women cover their hair?

Well, reality on the ground can be very confusing… No one (at least, I didn’t see anybody) was wearing short dresses in Elazığ, but… the shops were full of skirts, shorts and sleeveless tops. I could not understand why, until I went to a wedding. Many women wear short skirts, dresses at weddings or parties. And on holidays, as one of my friends told me. While wearing skirts or dresses in the campus was ok, I avoided to wear them in the city. It happened only once or twice at the beginning, and even though I was wearing knee-length dresses I felt uncomfortable, having the impression that people are gazing at me. The attention was also due to my “different” appearance, being one of the very few natural blonds in the city. But nothing bad happened. Of course, I had been approached by people asking me Nerelisin? (Where are you from?). I answered to some of them, others I simply ignored, pretending that I do not understand them.

The “cover up” unwritten rule “hit” me with the occasion of our trip to the cities near the Syrian border (more about in a following post), when one of the  coordinators informed me that I would better wear long pants, unless I want to get myself and the group into trouble. She presented me the worst scenario ever: I could put the group in the situation to fight for me if some man wants to take me away (!?). You don’t get everyday this kind of warnings! I did panick a bit. Ok, let’s chill out! There is a very very small possibility for this scenario to happen! Most likely, in such a situation you’ll be just watched in a disapproving way.  And that’s not really pleasant. I followed her advice and everything went well. What I learned from this experience is, that if you don’t put yourself in danger everything is going to be all right!

But what about the “look down” rule? Well, looking into the eyes of a Turkish men on the street can be considered a sign of interest, so it’s better to avoid holding eye-contact with strangers. I was a little “shocked” when my friend advised me to look down. I must admit that I had some troubles with this “rule”, even though don’t usually stare at people. But I do use to look at them when walking. It’s something natural, done unconsciously, and hard to change. Sometimes I like to guess what people think, where they go, what they do for living… Or, if someone is staring at me I do look at him/her in order to stop them. I’m like “Ok, I got you! It’s rude to stare at someone, don’t you know that? Now look somewhere else, please!” I’m sure it happened to me in Turkey as well but as soon as I noticed I looked away. If you cannot change your habit try to control it.

Just like in the case of the “cover up” advice, you are not bound to follow it. But if you don’t want to be disturbed by flirty guys it’s better to take it into account. Nothing bad happens just because you hold eye contact with someone or dress in a specific way (except when you exaggerate) if you establish clear limits from the beginning.

DSCN1642Me in Elazığ