“I don’t understand Turkey”, I said, when I finally came up for air. The hotel attendant’s apperently simple question: “What do you think about our country?” had hit me in the gut and left me dumbfounded. He threw back his head and laughed: “No one understands Turkey, not even us Turks!”
Which is not hard to believe about a country the size of Sweden and Norway combined. The 80 million inhabitants outnumber the two Scandinavian countries by a factor of 5.3, and comprise, according to a young Turkish guide, no less than 25 ethnic groups.
Turkey, the gateway between Europe and Asia, is fantastic, fascinating and to be quite honest, a little frustrating. As the meeting point between two continents, it is a several-thousand-year old scene of action; battles, conquests, trade, feasts, both religious and mundane, celebrating life and death. Turkey has become a conglomerate of beliefs and traditions. A conglomerate I can’t even begin to wrap my head around.
My learning curve is steep, sometimes so challenging it feels like climbing a vertical cliff with no safety equipment.
I have been here barely a week. We’ve been flown in, bussed and boated about, and seen sights and sites I’d never even dreamed of. The tourist carousel makes me dizzy and renders genuine encounters with the authentic Turkey, if not impossible, then at least very difficult.
Our small hotel in the ancient town of Side is situated on the waterfront, and remnants of ancient occupancy are everywhere. The fragmented structures are silent witnesses to past life, work and play.
On my walks I try to listen to the whispered tales of the ruins, but their quiet voices are almost drowned out by a new kind of play, staged by the tourist industry, and, of course, encouraged by the tourists themselves.
Against Turkey novices like me and my teenage daughter, the predominantly male shop- and restaurant hustlers definitely have the upper hand.
Less silent witnesses
“You eat something? Drink?”, “Shoes, bags — good price!”, “Beautiful lady! Where you from? German, English, Swedish?”, “Norwegian! Aaaah, I love Norwegian! Come! Have free gift”.
The insistency of the charade is disturbing, so we smile noncommittally, say “no thank you” this way and that, and quicken our steps.
You on vacation, remember
But it’s a no win situation. Our obvious wish to get the h… out of there triggers a witty soul into shouting: “Why you run? You on vacation, remember!” At this we giggle nervously, realizing that he knows that we know that he knows that we know what’s going on. We are like confused mice, scurrying about, fearing that sooner or later the trap is going to spring shut on us.
A little breathless, we finally make it to the Green Market behind the Amphitheatre, the meeting point for the minibus taking us to a hamam.
In the hotspot
Arriving at the bath house, thinking ourselves on safe territory, we realize we’ve jumped from the frying pan into the fire. Our host, who we soon wish would evaporate like sweat in the dryness of the hot room, flirts violently with my eighteen year young daughter in between supplying piecemeal information about the hamam procedure.
Among other things, he’s already planning a trip to Norway to teach her German — as soon as mama (me) gives the ok…
The two young boys who provide us with a foamy body wash and a good scrubbing, have fortunately not learned “the skill” yet. Except for a few friendly instructions they let us enjoy the experience without trying to attach any unwelcome strings.
Black Belt Mama
Back with our host, the flirting is escalated to new, uncomfortable heights. In an effort to rein in the situation, I start conjuring up an imaginary boyfriend. Adding for good measure words like “protective”, “ex con”, “martial arts” and black belt”.
I don’t have a black belt myself, but trigger my PMG (protective mother gene), and I am up there with the best of them. If necessary, I will make it more difficult for a boy to pester my daughter than for a Turkish camel to pass through the eye of a needle.
I silently wonder if his behaviour is a consequence of a distorted image of westerners, conveyed by degenerated TV- and internet content, glossy magazines and tourists who leave their manners and inhibitions behind at the check in counter.
When in Rome
Our host’s manner, business-like and importunate at the same time, leaves us feeling at a loss as to how to respond. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, has no meaning here, as I choose to believe we haven’t yet experienced authentic Turkish behaviour. If it is at all possible to define such a thing.
And there are no women — Roman or Turkish — around to act as role models for us, or correct inappropriate male behaviour. Are they at home, looking after house and family, or off getting an education, fighting for their rights, or working in places where we don’t see them?
Turkey is officially a secular state, mainly as a result of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s wish in the early 1920s to unite the country and to lift it out of its religious backwaters, into modern, enlightened times. The constitution promises, among other things, equal rights for men and women.
The discrepancy between law and practice, however, is huge in many places, as is the variation in the situation of women in rural versus urban areas, in the East versus the West. Where the women are, what they are doing and how they are faring may vary a lot. And the result of probing into their situation depends on whether you probe official sources, tourist information, independent journalism or human rights organizations.
During this very short visit, we are barely scraping the outer surface of this many-faceted country. To get to know it and its people more intimately will take many visits, much research and a very open mind. Our stay has, however, triggered an urge to learn more about Turkey, its past, present and future.
Will Atatürk’s ideas become reality in all realms of Turkish life? Will the country eventually be accepted into the European Union? Will it turn its back on the Eastern world, of which it makes up only 3 % in geography, but so much more in history, culture and tradition? Or are the Turks already in the process of reconsidering, casting longing looks towards the once more rising powers of Arabia, China and India?
Only time, the Turkish government and its people will tell. Before escaping into the realms of our hotel, someone shouts: “Madam, you want a son-in-law?!” At least I know the immediate answer to that question.