I’ve been in Turkey for three months now.
Only five days left until I pack my things up again. My bags are getting lighter and lighter every time- it’s easier to trash things ruthlessly when you know you’re going to have to lug them around on buses and through airports and up and down strange streets for hours on end when you inevitably get lost. I’ve been looking at my possessions with an increasingly critical eye as Tuesday the 21st gets closer. This can go. Don’t need this. I’ve been carrying this shirt around since South Korea and haven’t worn it once- ditch. The only heavy items I’m going to allow myself are my computer, my journals, and my very worn copy of Teach Yourself Turkish.
So. Three months in Turkey. As always, I’m not entirely certain if I feel like I’ve lived here for years or if I still feel like I just stepped off the plane. Because that- within the first five minutes I was here- was when I completely fell in love with this country. Maybe it had something to do with going from a (generally good but) completely exhausting job to utter freedom, or maybe, more likely, it was helped along by the abrupt transition from hands-down my least favorite country I’ve ever lived in, never mind visited (sorry, South Korea) to a country where dark-eyed Mediterranean men shout and laugh to each other from doorways and women in headscarves pick their way down tiny alleys filled with çay shops and nargile smoke.
Turkey is difficult to explain. I think most guidebooks start out that way: you know, “Turkey is a land of contrasts, East meets West, secular constitution vs Islamist regime, European modernity next to centuries-old ruins, yada yada yada”. It’s all true, though. I find it incredibly hard to put Turkey into words. I mean, really, I haven’t seen much of the country- a month in Kabak on the southwestern coast followed by two months in İstanbul, with glimpses of Marmara and Aegean landscapes through bus windows. I guess the best I can do by way of explanation is a list of Killer Facts! about Turkey.
Killer Fact! The whole country is, well, pretty much obsessed with Atatürk. Most visitors are introduced to him from the first moment they step into the country at Atatürk airport, and slowly realize that he is everywhere in this country. A comparison is sometimes drawn with George Washington, but that doesn’t come anywhere close to covering the scope of the national adoration. Every family home I’ve visited has a large portrait of him on prominent display. Not just homes, either- he’s in schools, every public office, even bars. And it won’t be long before someone brings up the fact that YouTube has been banned in Turkey since there was a video posted vaguely insulting him four years ago. So who is this guy? Let’s see, from memory (you can Wikipedia it yourself if you can be bothered- I can’t): Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, called Father Turk, was the country’s first prime minister, first president, and a whole bunch of other stuff besides. He spearheaded a huge reform campaign which, among other things, established Turkey as a secular state following the downfall of the Ottoman Empire and switched the writing system of Turkish from Arabic script to the Roman alphabet, purging thousands of Arabic loanwords in the process. So in conclusion uh, Atatürk was a pretty cool guy I guess.
Killer Fact! Racism in Turkey: pretty much nonexistent, except directed toward Kurds. The Kurdish people, as you may know, are a disenfranchised minority mainly living in the southeast, and it looks like things aren’t getting better for them in any particular hurry. A hugely controversial referendum just passed on September 12 (30 years to the day from the military coup which established Turkey’s current constitution) involving twenty-odd major amendments, none of which had anything at all to do with improving life for the Kurdish people. Following advice I read online, I never mentioned Kurds to anybody here, until someone brought it up to me first. A guy I’d been talking to abruptly changed topic out of the blue and said “so you know, I am Kurdish” with this strange mixture of defiance and defensiveness, like he expected me to jump out of my chair and leave or spit on him or something. Weirdo. Still, I expect he puts up with a lot of crap for it.
Killer Fact! Despite being one of the most socially liberal Islamic countries on earth, Turkey has a lot of odd little conservative quirks. When you book a long-distance bus ticket, for instance, the bus people are forbidden to seat you next to someone of the opposite gender unless you’re related (marriage counts). Judging from experience, they’re apparently also required to seat me next to the (choose one) fattest/loudest/sickest woman on the bus.
My Killer Facts! are turning out to be a lot more long-winded than I had planned, so I think three is all you get for now. I think I’m going to post this, and hopefully follow up sometime soon with posts about
-Bartending for a month in Kabak
-Two weeks on İstanbul’s European side, doing not much of anything
-Six weeks on the Asian side, living with friends and then working in a hostel
-V isa run to Bulgaria
-Future plans: Jordan, Palestine