Tuesday, August 30, 2011

So many questions, so little Turkish!

Turkey has got it down.  Tilled farms or undiscovered hills and fields juxtapose clean cities with lively central squares.  Wind farms dot the horizon, and I hear of plans for hydro energy.  The men don’t stare, nor do the women for that matter, and they are eager to welcome me with an extra piece of gratuitous fruit.  God mostly stays in the mosque, the home, or the heart, and it seems that your faith is not decided so much by what you wear or how you love.  The government carries flaws, particularly in regards to censorship and human rights issues, but clean elections seem like a good place to start.

Travertines at Pammukale
Our journey led us in a crazy eight around Turkey’s landscape for almost the whole month of Ramazan.  We hopped from seaside village to city on the west coast, swimming in the Aegean’s tides and soaking up her salt while gazing upon Greek islands in the horizon's hot haze.  We visited sites brimming with history, including the Gallipoli Peninsula, where Ottoman forces bloodily fought back Allied forces in brutal trench warfare that eventually cost both sides 340,000 casualties in WWI, and Ephesus, where the legendary ruins truly allow one to visualize the ancient Greek/Roman city’s grandeur as a pillar of trade and royalty in empires of old.  We scrambled up limestone travertines shelved in the village of Pammukale, and climbed into rock chimneys converted into churches in Cappedocia, both in central Turkey.  We then headed east to Kurdish territory, where we paid a visit to the ruins at Ani, once the ancient Armenian capital, now on the modern nation’s border, as well as a volcano’s caldera on Lake Van’s shores in the southeast.  From Diyarbakır, capital of the Kurdish world, we flew to Ankara, where Atatürk, father of the Turks, established his state’s capital and an ostentatious mausoleum to himself.  We bid farewell to Turkey after 4 days in Istanbul, a magical world sitting on the most coveted waterway in history, gracefully spanning both Europe and Asia.  The city is a tantalizing mix of antiquity crossed with cosmopolitan sass, with aging Ottoman minarets cropping up from her cobblestone streets while the trendy meander her rich cultural life.  And so I irrevocably fell in love with another city.
Cappedocia, by friend Chris Opila 

Turkey had so much to offer that Egypt cannot.  The gastronomical odyssey we took was much too flavorful and lacked far too much oil for Egypt’s street food; we ate clay kabaps, herb cheese, clotted cream, Iskander, Turkish delight, and kumpir.  My roommate and I wore sleeveless and short things no sane woman would wear in Egypt.  Buses left on time and cars stayed in the lanes, both impossibilities in Egypt’s chaos.  On vacation from Cairo’s noise and pollution and traffic, my friends and I kept a never-ending list of things that were better in Turkey, and when we guiltily tried to make a list of the reverse… well, let’s just say we didn’t need more than one hand to count the few things we liked better in Egypt.

The most significant thing Egypt gives me that Turkey cannot is access to its people.  This trip reaffirmed for me how key language is to even scratching the surface of a society.  Without Turkish, there was only so much I was able to comprehend about Turkish culture, a fact exacerbated by my blinders as a tourist.  In Egypt, I have been painstakingly working at just this - accessing Egyptian culture - for years, and I am just now realizing how rewarding it is, aided in no small part by my ability to speak Arabic.

If I had spoken Turkish, I would have asked more Turks about Atatürk.  Do all see him as their savior and the guider of modern Turkey, as the mainstream national narrative puts forth, or are there those disillusioned by the government propaganda (such as Kurds and the array of other ethnicities in the east and south)?  One man in the small town of Göreme in central Turkey described to me feeling as though Atatürk was his father, even though the leader died over 70 years ago.  The notion of a nation and its founder feeling like parents is fascinating to me, and I hope to explore this national obsession with Atatürk more in an upcoming blog post, perhaps by comparing him to other revolutionary leaders such as Gamal Abdul Nasser in Egypt or Fidel Castro in Cuba.  If you care to know more about the man whose knickerbockers and fountain pens are on display in national Turkish museums, read M. Şükrü Hanioğlu’s intellectual biography of Atatürk, which I am currently in the process of devouring.

If I had spoken Turkish, I would have asked Turks what they most feared for their country’s future.  As I arrived in Turkey, a handful of top military brass stepped down in protest of the civilian government’s witch-hunt of military personnel accused of attempting to orchestrate a coup against them in the early 2000s.  It seems as if Prime Minister Erdoğan and his Justice & Development party, which recently won by a landslide in elections, have finally sidelined the Turkish military, long an overseer of the country’s politics.  I would have loved to find out Turks’ reactions to the news.  Or perhaps they are frightened by recent Kurdish rebel activity in the southeast, which resulted in 9 Turkish soldiers killed and a subsequent and ongoing Turkish incursion into northern Iraq to seek retribution.  A friend living in Istanbul recounted on her blog a protest she saw today downtown, in which Arabs and Turks protested the Assad regime in Syria - perhaps spillover from the Arab Spring is what Turks fear the most, in the form of both refugees and sentiment.

If I spoke Kurdish, I would have asked Kurdish Turks in the southeast how they felt toward the Turkish government.  Do they feel like equal citizens, are they now allowed to listen to radio in their own language?  Do they feel close to their brethren over the arbitrary border in northern Iraq?  Are they as outraged as the rest of the world seems at the Turkish military’s recent use of force?  What do they want a Kurdish state to look like, or has their allegiance to Turkey indeed grown?  As if to evidence my point about language, my travel buddy Mike had an interesting encounter with an imam in Diyarbakır - check out his tale here.

If I spoke Turkish I would have asked one of the women in the northeastern mountain village of Yusufeli what her dreams were, that farmer in the undulating eastern steppe about his daily tasks, and my waiter in Van when mutton’s head was traditionally eaten.  So many questions, so little Turkish!

Cairo is doing her best to remind me why I chose to study Arabic and not Turkish.  In all honesty, this city is challenging to readjust to, what with the sensory intensity (smog, heat, car horns) and the constant commentary from the male peanut gallery whenever I decide to step foot outside.  Egyptians are now celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, so the streets are relatively calm, as is the political scene.  I am looking forward to the fall's renewed political drama - protests have already been called for 9/9, and parliamentary elections will be in November.  I will also start intensive Arabic classes again this Sunday (a novel a weekend, yes, in Arabic, eep!)  The routine will be comforting, and I'll soon be reanamored with Egypt.  My new role as a Mami will also be fun - I am adopting 2 kittens tomorrow!  And thoughts of visiting home for the holidays keep me afloat, too - I can't wait to see you all!

Check here for more photos from Turkey!


  1. Yamila! What a wonderful trip! Your descriptions of the food, people, culture, and landscape all sound amazing. Interesting political reflections. It is indeed fascinating that Ataturk remains such a popular celebrity so many years after his death. It seems like even despite the language barrier you were able to get a deep grasp of the people and history of Turkey. Now I want to go!!!

    ...Can't wait to see you back in the Shire over the holidays :0)

  2. Yami, this is just a breathtaking and thrilling post. You are breathing life into critical questions! I'm curious about Turkish history and current politics now, too. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself -- your consummate intellectual curiosity, laughter, and your insight. And your heart.

    So HAPPY to read about your adventure, crossing my fingers that you'll have many more and in other new lands, too. I love you!

  3. Thrilled to see you devouring and relishing this experience. Looking forward to hearing all about it. ¡Buena suerte y buen viaje!
    David Alejandro