It’s been 3 months?

December 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

I guess it’s technically 3 1/2 months that I’ve been in Turkey now, but those first couple of weeks spent in a bizarre Fulbright orientation bubble deserve their own ‘period of my life’ recognition.

5 weeks in a hotel in a hotel followed by 2 glorious months of apartment dwelling.  Countless moments of “I’m packing it all in, shove it, Turkey” followed by a free dinner from my Ozcanlar Kofte cashier/portly adoptive Turkish father.  Classes of glassy-eyed students followed by lessons of enthusiastic singalongs, evil eye jewelry gifts, and wonderful birthday messages.

Before I left the US I read countless “Things to Know Before You Go Abroad” articles and blog posts.  I thought I was ready for the amazingly cliche “roller coaster of emotions” that I was about to experience.  I wasn’t, and I’m still not.  But it’s impossible to be completely prepared, and anyone who says she is is lying.  As long as I hang in there till the next day, I know that something beautiful will bloom from the shit fertilizer of the previous disaster.

I’ve got one more week of lessons in Tekirdag, one week of exams, then five glorious weeks of vacation!  The plan right now is to spend three weeks in Izmir recording Jewish oral histories for the Sephardic Center’s Ladino Database project (more info to come later), then jet across the Mediterranean for two weeks in Spain with friends and my old Spanish host family.  And yes, for those eagerly awaiting an answer, I am returning for a second semester at NKU.  Leaving mid-year seems oddly incomplete and I’ve grown attached to my 250 little buggers.  Besides, could I really leave before the annual Oil Wrestling festival?


Celebrations, Part Two

December 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

About four months ago,  I uprooted myself from friends, family, and community in Philadelphia to move halfway across the world in pursuit of the nebulous desire to live abroad.  It was a shift in life, a change, an interruption, maybe–but one I chose.

Turkish men’s lives, however, are abruptly interrupted without their consent.  The call to compulsory military service can come at any time for ‘able-bodied’ men between the ages of 21 and 40.  And once it comes, they’re expected to leave their jobs, friends, families, routines, and report for assignment for six to 15 months.  Without pay.

Guray was an English teacher at NKU.  Something about the goofy smile on his face, the way the students crowded around him after class, the ease with which he brushed off failures and eagerly anticipated the next lesson–he was born to be Guray Hocam.

Guray got his call to service a couple months back and officially left Tekirdag in early December.  It was jarring for me that one of my first friends here simply picked up and left–imagine how difficult it was for him.  We celebrated his departure with a farewell feast.  A local music teacher played questionable covers of traditional Turkish songs while we destroyed a table of mezes, kofte, local fish, and French fries.  The Efes, wine, and raki were flowing, and when the musician finally turned on some quality recorded tunes, the dancing began.

It's hard to capture the unabashed joy and flailing arms of Turkish dancing

Guray began a conscription countdown on Facebook before he even left.  Pinar (on the left, with the curly hair), has a running Facebook countdown of her boyfriend’s service.  Ozan, my water deliverer and close friend, is warily eying his February departure.

Generalizing a nation’s people is generally inaccurate.  But of all the places I’ve lived or visited, I have never met a people bursting with outright patriotism as the Turks.  And so despite their own personal hesitations about armed conflict, Kurdish separatists, and more, my friends acknowledge their duty and go without question.

It’s not like they have much of a choice.  Unless they’ve been diligently stockpiling pictures of themselves engaged in gay sex, they’re SOL.  Turkey doesn’t recognize conscientious objectors.

Orhan Kemal Cengiz ponders here the role of military service, violence, obedience, and power negotiations in the formation of Turkish male identity.  He throws out a whole lot of questions without providing any answers, interviews, or personal opinions, but the questions are indeed all valid and great for late-night bar discussions.

“You could and still can see in provincial bus terminals, young men dancing ‘cheerfully’ as drums are beaten and a crowd chants, ‘The best soldier is our soldier.'”

Forget provincial bus terminals.  While’s Tekirdag’s otogar was certainly thumping to the beat of bass drums and clarinets, Istanbul’s main bus terminal was a sea of jumping, dancing, shouting, twirling, hugging men, women, families, and flags.  There was something almost  rebellious about the scene: ecstatic dancers and rogue bands of musicians clogging the roads, blocking bus paths, and reclaiming public space for celebrations of the human spirit.  In any other context the police would be deployed in full force.

Guray’s Facebook wall was full of “Hayirli teskereler” posts, wishes for a good military service.  That such an established expression exists is evidence of how ingrained the role of military service is in the Turkish mindset.  It is certainly a national experience of identity building, a rite of passage.  This type of intense bonding as part of communal solidarity is nothing new (hello, Israel).  But in a country whose modern history includes nasty military coups every now and then, conscription isn’t something to take lightly.

Be safe, Guray.

An aside from celebrations

December 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve recently begun letting my students add me as a Facebook friend.  Despite my initial inclination to keep that part of my life private, I’ve been swayed by a more casual Turkish teacher-student relationship.  There’s no harm in letting them see I’m a real person within a limited profile (can’t let them see drugs/hookers/last week’s orgy) but they can view some pictures.

One of my ogrenciler recently commented on an old Facebook profile picture: “Your hair is very beautiful.”  After I got over my shock at the correct subject-verb-adjective agreement (something is sinking in!!) and the fact that my hair can look better than scraggly mop, I realized I have no idea what this young woman’s hair looks like.  She wears a headscarf–or, in Turkish terms, is covered.

A secular state by constitution, Turkey’s population is 95% Muslim (practicing or otherwise).  Ataturk, whose image is revered by the followers of an image-less religion, banned numerous traditional and religious garments (including the fez and other non-Western clothing holding his people back from modernity) in a frenzy to sweep away the trappings of superstition and the Ottoman Empire.  Yet the headscarf was never entirely banned.

While dress standards relaxed from the 20’s to the present day, women wearing headscarves were consistently prohibited from university campuses, public schools, and government offices.  So if a covered Muslim woman pursued higher education, she was required to literally leave her scarf at the door.  Depending on your view, this act either liberated her from her assuredly ‘backwards’ family, forced her to remove and deny a piece of her identity, humiliated her, or some combination thereof.  Student movements  demanding acceptance for headscarves on campuses met with varying degrees of temporary success from the 60’s onward.  Prime Minister Erdogan of the Islamist-leaning, definitely not secular AK Party attempted a headscarf-ban ban in 2007, only to be overruled by Turkey’s highest Constitutional Court.  The ban remained.

When the fall semester began at NKU, I only saw a handful of women removing their scarves before passing through the university gates.  However, by mid-October these women walked right through the turnstiles, scarves in place.  My fiercely secular colleagues were incensed; they saw this action as the students asserting the growing power of Political Islam, that hot potato of a phrase that gets lobbed around whenever anyone wants to scare the West.  Normally scarved students were kicked out of class, but a YOK notice supposedly urged professors to live and let live.  So my colleagues were without recourse.

I am an advocate for the “wear what expresses your identity” camp, but that position ignores the gnawing religious-secular conflict at the heart of modern Turkish identity.  Take, for instance, the recent kerfuffle over President Abdullah Gul’s Republic Day dinner.  It’s easy for me to waltz in as an American and approve of my students’ rebellious actions, but I’ve taken the “listen 80%, talk 20%” tactic of intercultural understanding, and to blindly advocate for my view would be pretty silly.

The actions of the NKU students were part of a greater national movement which attracted plenty of attention in the press.  Everyone dissected their actions, their goals, their audacity, their pride.  But this article is probably my favorite.  Not only does it recognize that more and more Turkish women, regardless of religious observance, are pursuing higher education with hopes of employment,  but it goes one step further than most Turkish commentary by actually examining the hiring and workplace discrimination that covered women face after university.  This problem goes far beyond Turkey’s Ivory Towers.

During this past summer’s niqab crisis in France, I was incensed that a government would attempt to legislate women’s freedom with some pretty flimsy excuses.  Whatever decision YOK and the Constitutional Court eventually reach, it’s beyond frustrating (but, I guess, expected) that women’s bodies continue to serve as the visible battleground for society’s greater conflicts.

Celebrations, Part One

December 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

For a European (is it really?) nation, Turkey ranks on the bottom of the list for number of holidays.  It’s no France or Spain, for sure.  But when a bayram does come, be ready.  Students extend their holidays for a few days on either side, and the air at the university is rich with the promise of travel and too many family members.

Let’s step way back to the last weekend of October.  Halloween for the Americans, yes, but also Republic Day for the Turks, a celebration of the founding of the modern Turkish Republic.  Say bye-bye to the Ottoman Empire with flags, flags, folk dancing, and massive Ataturk portraits.  Terrifying rain and winds cancelled parades in Tekirdag and Istanbul, so I wasn’t able to truly appreciate the fervent pride that accompanies this holiday.  I did, however, impress my students by correctly pronouncing “Cumhurriyet Bayrami” and knowing of its existence.  It’s pretty hard not to, though, when every main drag in every town has huge signs wishing Turkey a happy 87th bday.

I taught a Halloween lesson that week for my students—apparently it’s known as “Witch’s Holiday” here and some of them had a basic familiarity with the topic.  We talked about Celtic traditions, candy, pumpkins, and costumes.  It’s not easy to explain a holiday as, well, different as Halloween, but seeing as how the word ‘zombie’ is the same in both languages, we were able to reach some common ground.  I think they especially enjoyed my zombie impressions, though I was a bit disappointed not more of them wanted to spit pumpkin seeds with me.  There’s always a brave few souls who will volunteer for Sherri Teacher’s bizarre cross-cultural connection moments, but most were content to eat their seeds at their desks and cheer me on in my attempts to spit at the garbage can.  Oh, there’s another great moment.  If you want Turks to be absolutely baffled by you, carry a garbage can around all day.  No number of explanations of needing it for class will suffice—you will still be the crazy yabanci.

Afternoon classes on the 29th of October were cancelled, so Alex and I headed to Istanbul to prepare for some Halloween fun.  We were running low on cash (thanks, Fulbright!) so our costumes were pretty low-budget—I made a newspaper hat and a cardboard sword as a piss-poor pirate, and Alex rolled up her sleeves as Rosie the Riveter.  We debuted our costumes at the Marine’s Halloween Ball, held at the Marine’s House on the grounds of the American Consulate in Istanbul.  Although the rest of our crew didn’t feel the need to dress up, my friend Rebecca (former Fulbrighter, met on a blog, the most welcoming host ever) created the best makeshift Minnie Mouse costume I’ve seen yet, and her blogging partner Asher went as Hipster Ahmedinejad.  If you’re confused by that costume, so were the rest of us.  It consisted of a hipster get-up and an Arabic tattoo.  Yes.

Rebecca, Alex, and me. Newspaper hat courtesy of Rebecca's job.

I felt pretty special that night—it’s the only party I’ve ever needed a passport to enter—until I entered what could only be considered an international frat party.  The beer selection included such gems as Budweiser and Sam Adams—under normal circumstances this would be relatively disappointing, but the Efes-Tuborg monotony needed to end.

So frat party—imagine slutty nurses and angels dancing on pool tables to Amy Winehouse and you’ve got what the night devolved into around 12.  But there were some lovely conversations to be had with teachers, journalists, scholars, and Consulate workers.  Someone who, under normal circumstances, is quite ordinary in job and activities, instantly becomes more intriguing in Istanbul—basically, I spent the night trying to figure out what circumstances brought us all together in this hot strobe-lit room.  Given the plentiful libations people were more than willing to talk, and overall it was one of the more eclectic and entertaining Halloween celebrations I’ve attended.

When Ahmedinejad ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.

The next night was Asher’s Halloween party, in which he wisely changed his costume to a recently procured Turkish military get-up, and Rebecca dressed up as Prime Minister Erdogan’s wife (political costume that I won’t get into here right now).  The international company was lovely and drunk, and I was happily surprised when many of the interesting but far-gone guests I met still remembered me weeks later.  The party ended early due to a washing machine mishap and a roommate who seemed just about ready to snap, but I’d like to think we did Halloween in Turkey right.

Good night, boys.

Two weddings, no funerals

December 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

In America, weddings aren’t complete without agonizing over dresses, food, the wedding party, location, music, guests.  The same seems to be true for Turkey; over-the-top ceremonies and clothes, and more painful tightly-curled updos than a high school prom.  But the agonizing appears to stop at the guest list.  How do I know this?  I’ve been invited to two separate weddings either the day of or three days before.  Would that fly at the Huntington Jewish Center or Crest Hollow Country Club?  There was no hand-wringing about extra plate settings  or grumbling about last-minute attendees; just invitations to share in happiness.

The first wedding happened my first full weekend in Tekirdag.  Over coffee and cigarettes with my colleagues on a Friday afternoon, I was invited to a wedding of a teacher I had yet to meet.  “For real?  For really real?” I asked.  Yes.  And the wedding was in 5 hours.  A frantic afternoon at the police station applying for our residency permits gave way to girly-girl prep time.  In our finest American duds, Alex and I waited at the Burger King for the rented minibus to carry us to unknown Trakyan distances.  Bumping over the rolling brown hills with people I barely knew past garbage fires, I was excited.  Then the sun set, it got cold, it was 90 minutes later, and the minibus driver got lost.  For all I knew, we were headed to Greece that night.

But finally!  We arrived in Uzunkopru and were hurried into Gizem (the bride’s) family’s house for a homecooked meal of meat stew, rice, soup, immeasurable quantities of bread, baklava and Turkish delight.  I was delighted.

Alex and I, overwhelmed and stuffed. But that's generally how we feel every day in Turkey.

We hurried back onto the bus and arrived at what I can only imagine is the Turkish equivalent of a fire hall.  The building appeared to be an all-purpose hall ready to host your wedding, circumcision, any cause for a gigantic party.  We lined up outside for what seemed to be the longest receiving line ever.  Meanwhile, I stared at this poster and tried to figure out if I had met Gizem before:

She looked vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t sure.   Then,  as we entered the building, this beaming woman greeted us

and I remembered.  After greeting their families and throwing in some newly-acquired Turkish etiquette (kissing the elders’ hands, they love it) we gave Gizem a huge hug and tried to avoid getting caught on her money sash.  Turkish brides traditionally wear red sashes to which guests pin money and gold coins that the couple later cash in to fund their new life together (Macy’s has fertile ground for registry marketing in rural Trakya).

The bride and groom take photos with all of their guests (hello, receiving line traffic jam) and sell them to you during the reception.  Of course I splurged—but not on a scanner.  Sorry readers, you’ll have to wait.

Here I discovered the secret of the non-guest list.  Everyone in the whole town came wearing everything from expensive gowns to t-shirts and jeans.  And as they come in, the hall staff adds more tables and chairs.  That’s all—they simply add more space.

It’s less of a hassle to add more spaces because there is no sit-down dinner served at this particular reception; just Pepsi, mixed nuts, and wedding cake.  Gizem and Cemal had already had their official wedding ceremony, so the night we attended was simply celebration.  A DJ blasted mostly Turkish tunes mixed with American love songs and salsa.

The couple’s first dance, with fireworks

Alex and I were amazed at how into the traditional dancing the teenagers were.  No hesitations about grabbing each other’s shoulders, and, legs flailing, dancing in wild lines across the floor.  Just pure glee.

I loves me a good line dance and was only too happy to learn some new steps and wave my gold sequined handkerchief around.

Unfortunately our minibus was scheduled to leave at 11:30 pm so we missed the henna ceremony.   Not surprisingly we got lost on the pitch-dark ride back to Tekirdag, but we were so exhausted from the multitude of new experiences and riotous dancing, we didn’t mind much.

Nighttime party bus

Readers, do you think I’ve developed a case of the royal we?  I spend so much time with Alex it seems that I can’t explain any experience without including her.  Well, except for this next one.

I had briefly met Recep when he served as translator during a brief conversation about my new apartment in late October.  He had been completing his military service in eastern Turkey and had only just returned to teaching duties at NKU.  I didn’t see him again for 2 weeks, when he reappeared to invite me to his wedding 8 hours away.  Not one to turn down a celebration, I packed my bags for the first weekend of November and headed to the UNESCO World Heritage Town of Safranbolu.

Recep and his fiancé, Sule, were in Konya with Sule’s family and wouldn’t arrive in Safranbolu until early Sunday morning.  Given bus times and teaching responsibilities I wasn’t able to stay for their apparently huge (500 guest) Sunday lunch, but I spent Friday hanging out with fellow Fulbrighters Rachel, Hayfa, and Dara in Safranbolu’s evil twin town of Karabuk.  Saturday, Recep’s friend Mehmet guided me and Sule’s closest university friends on an in-depth tour of Safranbolu.  Mehmet spoke some English, but luckily for me Sule and her friends were all Translation majors and spoke perfect English.  We laughed and took tons of photos while exploring an old Roman aqueduct and a mysterious and beautiful cave system, and sipping sahlep while gazing at the preserved Ottoman wooden mansions that landed Safranbolu on that coveted list.

We strolled through the center’s winding streets and ate far too many free samples of the town’s famous Turkish delight.  We also stumbled upon a man selling mushrooms in the street at 9 p.m.  Because that’s when I want mushrooms.

But the real party started after Mehmet dropped me off at Recep’s family’s house for Saturday night.  Remember that Recep and Sule were in Konya?  I walked into a living room of 4 Turkish women whose age range was vast (12 to 70) but whose English was…well, about existent as my Turkish.  I can’t being to express what thoughts went through my head when I entered the boiling hot living room and saw an old woman eating su boregi and watching half-naked models grinding on PowerTurk, but they were along  the lines of, “My god, what on earth can I say to fill the next 4 hours?”  A smile and basic Turkish compliments go a long way, as do enthusiastically eating everything offered to me.  The two girls loved showing me their family photos on Facebook and discussing their dresses for the upcoming wedding.  Somehow we happily passed 4 hours stuffing my face, smiling, and watching TV—and then the Recep and Sule caravan arrived.

The wood-burning soba which heated both the room and our tea to uncomfortable levels

It was already 12:30 am and I couldn’t imagine that the night could go on much longer.  But the caravan of families was hungry.  Men went into one room, women into another, and out came the midnight feast: meat stew, lentil soup, salad, baskets of bread, stuffed grape leaves, rice, and baklava.  Princess Cruises buffet, eat your heart out.

My baklava fantasy come to life

I was tired and had been feasting my way through Safranbolu all day.  I was content simply to sit back and watch the crowd descend.  But seeing as how the wedding party had been staring at each other all weekend, I became the center of attention.  Everyone wanted to know who this yabanci was.  And after they found out who I was, they wanted to feed me.  My humble protests of “Doydum, doydum!”  (I’m full!) resulted in a showdown between me, Sule’s mother, and one grape leaf speared on a fork tine.  Beneath the gazes of about 20 Turkish women, I cracked, gave in, and ate the proffered leaf.  Then another one, and another one, and then some baklava.  In between, women I barely knew squeezed my leg, smiled at me, and offered me both cooking lessons and their sons.  I continued to smile.  It’s not so bad being the yabanci sometimes.

About an hour and a half later, I gave my best wishes to Recep and Sule and stuffed my stuffed self into a van headed to an unknown destination.  I arrived at another apartment where I gladly passed out in the cozy bed offered to me.

The happy couple!

The next morning I was barraged with simit and su boregi before my bus.  Everyone was disappointed I couldn’t stay for the Sunday lunch, and though my stomach couldn’t take any more food, I was disappointed as well.  Turks are great at making you feel instantly part of their family and I wanted to share in their immense wedding joy.

A bit much for one entry.  I need some more time to reflect on feelings and not just events and food.   But in the meantime, more photos!

NKU colleagues at Gizem's wedding

Aqueduct in Safranbolu

Where Am I?

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