May 27, 2008
of baths, baklava, and balance
as some of you may know, we once again ditched the country -- and this time we went to Turkey. why? because, well, we could. since we're still working on the kids thing, we don't have a mortgage, and we're both freelancers, we figure while we have this freedom of time & finance, we'd be foolish to waste an opportunity to see more of the world.
but why Turkey? honestly, ever since i was a small wee Hadashi, i have had the map of Turkey floating in my head as a Land of Wondrous Culture and Mystery. it's been at the top of the Places To See list for ages...and i trace the allure back to being a child sitting in a hard pew on a Sunday morning, trying not to fall asleep. as those of you who had childhoods in church will know, one of the Approved Activites During a Boring Sermon That Will Not Incur Your Parents' Wrath is to look through the pew Bible. now, at the back of any Bible worth its proverbial salt are maps. they sport fun titles like "Palestine in the Time of Christ," or "The Twelve Tribes of Israel." but for some reason, these did not interest me half so much as the one entitled "Paul's Missionary Journeys." perhaps it's because Paul, quite the nomad, did three of them, plus a one-way trip to Rome, so there were lots of colorful lines criss-crossing the page. perhaps it's also because since i was living in Japan, i was attracted to the large label that said "Asia Minor." i would pore over the map and try to impress myself by pronouncing tough words like "Smyrna" or "Pamphylia."
in any case, i made it to adulthood with the map of Asia Minor still lurking in the corners of my travel mind. the glowing testimonials of people who'd been to Istanbul plus genuine curiosity as to what East meets West really looked like made the answer to "where do you want to go next?" easy. i have to hand it to T.T. -- he wasn't immediately sold on the idea of Turkey, but he agreed to it when he knew how excited i was. to him, Turkey was this murky land of overpriced beach resorts and home to the largest population of Germany's guest workers -- basically, Turkey is to Germany as Mexico is the United States. if your whole idea of Mexico is Cancun and an immigrant workforce, you'll understand the initial reluctance. however, when you travel in a country and get to know it on its own terms, instead of through foreign perception and prejudice, it's a really freeing experience -- which is why he got excited too. so off we went, for three weeks.
the thing about any travel - and probably why we love it so - is that it utterly resets your sensory receptors. you step from the familiar into a metal tube that flies and you step out of it into a place you don't know and no one knows you. there's a heady freedom in all that newness and anonymity, and it gives one a certain weightlessness of being - on one hand you float on the edges of this new place, a stranger - and in some cases, to the locals, just plain strange - but on the other, you are never this fully aware and present when in the familiarity of home.
so we flung ourselves into Turkey with that excitement, exploring back streets, eating street food, talking to random locals (Turkish people are exceptionally friendly and curious, and many speak english), going to big tourist spots and small off-the-beaten-path destinations. we ate fresh baklava and giant legs of mutton, experienced a public Turkish bath not once, but twice, and T.T. even got an old-fashioned shave and haircut in a tiny barbershop somewhere in Cappadocia.
what we found was a country that is at once ancient and modern, secular and sacred, and yes, East and West. after awhile you just get used to seeing women in full chador on the street next to girls in big earrings and miniskirts. you become accustomed to the 5-times-a-day muezzin call to prayer, beginning at 5am, but also to seeing happy groups of late-night revelers crowding into taverns for shots of raki, a particularly potent local liquor. you realize it is not an anachronism to be walking down a cobbled street and see a woman in traditional Anatolian dress chatting on a cell phone.
Turkey has long prided itself on being a democratic, secular country that is still officially 99% Muslim. the constitution calls for freedom of religion, the government is heavily involved in making sure that radical branches of Islam do not flourish (imams get sermon topics from the Ministry of Religious Affairs), and separation of church and state is taken seriously (no overtly religiously affiliated political parties, faith-based public schools, no religious garments in government offices, etc.) we saw that while many people take their faith seriously, they are almost more serious about their role in being the public face of a modern, more moderate Islam -- and they are now in the middle of a huge struggle with what that entails. the current prime minister and the government's ruling party are pro-Islamist, and there are actually lawsuits filed against them for being the "focus of anti-secular activity." Turkish people we spoke to were very worried about the religious direction that Turkey is heading in: afraid it would become another Iran, afraid they would lose any chance of ever joining the European Union, and very afraid that the last hundred years of progress gained from establishing itself as a modern, secular state would be undone.
i think this is what struck us the most about our time there: that as rich as the culture and history of the country is, it cannot be viewed only on the merits of its past. it can't be dismissed as simply another country striving to find its place on the 21st century global stage. increasingly, that region of the world and its dominant religion --Islam -- influence and bend world affairs to its demands for attention. Turkey occupies a highly unique position with its connections to the West and its secular, modern constitution. for example, only in Turkey could a project like this one take place -- a huge step towards reforming the world's perception of Islam, both by Muslims and non-Muslims.
so what's my point? i'm not sure myself -- originally i thought i was going to talk more about another naked with strangers experience (sorry Turkey, Germany & Japan's public baths are better) or the joys of a tiny glass cup of hot Turkish tea, but instead i got all serious. i think we were caught by surprise, though. we went expecting a fascinating cultural immersion -- which we got, and then some -- but we also came to really care about this country and its people and what will happen to them in the near future. some of the world's most intense, vexing forces -- questions of religion, democracy, freedom, economic expansion, ethnic identity -- coalesce here. perhaps the world would do well to pay better attention to Turkey: after all, in these global times, we are all neighbours with much lower fences than we might think.