Living in Turkey for the last two months, I’ve gotten used to seeing a lot of construction oddities. There is a lot less regulation, which sometimes also means a lot less planning when it comes to construction. For example, last month, thruway tunnels that were built under Ankara’s heavily used Ataturk Boulevard to reduce traffic were in danger of being closed. Why? Safety reasons, no. Paperwork, yes. It turned out the tunnels were built before all authorizations went through, and the mayor of Cankaya (a borough in Ankara), was threatening to close the tunnels in his district. It was all a political move, and public opinion for keeping the tunnels open has held out in the end. But still, because the construction happened without all the permits, the threat is there.
However, it’s not just the occasional road work obstacle that crops up. When I moved to my second apartment in Ankara, one of the first things I noticed was a shining, glistening, modern skyscraper at the end of Üğür Mumcu Cadessi, the trendy boulevard near my apartment. I said to myself, “Wow, this is a perfect example of Turkey’s rapid development. This skyscraper is the perfect image.” Little did I know how perfect it was as a few days later, I learned from my British expat friend that the building is a twenty year-old incomplete debacle.
The bottom of the building is still gutted, and the building appears hollow inside.
According to my friend, the group or groups overseeing the construction kept running out of money sporadically, so the construction has been in spurts. According to him, nothing has been going on for at least a few years. Meanwhile, a huge crane continues to sit precariously at the top. Thankfully, Ankara is not an earthquake zone!
So, yes it is true that Turkey has seen major development during the last ten years including immaculate new malls, tall high rises, and more, but at the same time a number of construction projects around lie stalled, or worse. This is just another one of Turkey’s forgotten buildings, and this week’s Friday find.
If you’ve been reading the blog or visiting the photo gallery during the past forty days, you’ve probably seen the words Iftar and Bayram come up more than a few times. I apologize in advance that I’ve only gotten to writing about Ramadan for the blog now, five days after the its end. Part of the reason is that I was kept very busy during Ramadan, and the other reason is I’m holding back on what I have written until next week when it might be published with Global Post, an online international news source. (A new job I haven’t talked about also, but I promise I will soon.)
However, there are a number of things about Ramadan in Turkey, that won’t be in next week’s article. So without further ado, here is a little Ramadan 101 for those who know little about the season or how its practiced in Turkey.
Ramadan is the forty day period in the lunar calendar when all Muslims engage in ritual fasting during the day from
food and drink. It’s one of the pillars of Islam, and therefore mandatory for all practicing Muslims. Early in the morning before sunrise, Muslims will wake up to eat a meal called Suhor, and at sundown, families get together to break their fast with another meal known as Iftar. All over the world, Muslims traditionally break their fast with a date or olive because according to their scripture, it was also the practice of their Prophet Mohammed. Why forty days? The number is chosen because Moses and Jesus also fasted for that amount before beginning their spiritual work. Turkey is reportedly 95-99 percent Muslim, so any visitor who knows nothing else about Turkey besides this statistic would probably expect to see a dramatic change in atmosphere.
WRONG! Turkey, unlike most of its homogeneous Muslim neighbors to the South and East, hardly shuts down for Ramadan. In large cities like Ankara, I only encountered two small food shanties that were closed during the day for Ramadan. Likely, the owners were from the outskirts of Ankara where Islamic conservatism is much more prevalent. Instead, cafes, restaurants, and bars remained open and popular, particularly at night when everyone could eat.
The difference between Ramadan in Turkey and most other countries in the Middle East is one that exemplifies one of Turkey’s most interesting traits: the diversity of its Muslim community. Turkey’s uniform identity is deceiving because its diversity of Muslims runs the gamut from fundamentalist to those who no longer practice their family religion. Just as in the US, the vocal minorities on both ends often garner most of the attention while many of the nation’s residents lie somewhere in the vast middle. Again, like the US, the different communities can be somewhat regionally separated with more conservative Muslims living in the South East while the most liberal convictions lie on the Western and European shores. Big cities like Ankara and Istanbul are incredibly modern and secular, but do have their fair share of conservative communities, particularly with the rise of a new, more religious middle class migrating there. (Something that I’ll continue to cover as I move to one of Turkey’s newly developed cities, Kayseri, a city with a reputation for Islamic conservatism.) Meanwhile, the BBC reports that the growing gap between the richest and poorest in Turkey continues to feed violent and fundamentalist groups in Turkey’s poorest villages. However, the same reports say that the situation has improved vastly in the last ten to fifteen years.
In any case, the fact that Turkey is filled with this diversity makes Ramadan an incredibly interesting affair. Life does change during the season with huge traffic delays on major city roads during the half hour leading up to Iftar when many are rushing home. Even those who are less devout, find Iftar dinners the thing to do during the month. Ofcourse, once the sun goes down and the call to prayer echoes across the city from Ankara’s many mosques, the streets usually become deserted. It’s a great time for a walk if you’re not starved for food.
“It’s the best opportunity to invite people to your home,” my host Mehmet said to me when I asked him what he thought of Iftar dinners. He was right, and in Turkey, you’ll see groups everywhere eating together. Families, friends, acquaintances, or total strangers like me are invited out to these sometimes elaborate, but always huge, dinners. During the last forty days, I shared dinner with many new friends. Mehmet reminded me that along with the discipline Ramadan teaches you, it’s also a time to remind each other about being hospitable to your community.
“By coming together, the children learn,” said Mehmet, “(It’s about) sharing time, sharing dinner, sharing life.”
However, communal rituals do not end with Iftars. In Turkey, Ramadan is capped off in a uniquely Turkish way. During three days after fasting (national holidays in Turkey), most Turks visit relatives’ homes, pay respects to their deceased family, and of course, indulge the children in a tradition known as Şeker Bayram (Sugar Holidays). Traditions of buying new outfits and handing out candy and pocket money reign during the holiday. Think of Christmas crossed with a costume-less Halloween and you have an idea of what the bayram looks like in Turkey. Everywhere I went, I saw people dressed to the nines in new suits and dresses going from house to house (reportedly, children often knock on neighbor’s doors for candy).
On the last day of Bayram, I was invited by my friend Özgür to a picnic with his and his fiancee’s families. First, we drove out to one edge of Ankara to pick up his fiancee and her family, and in two, small, packed, four cylinder cars, we drove to the opposite end of the city for a picnic, and then tea and dessert at Özgür’s family’s home. It was an excellent way to finish the Ramadan season in Turkey.
Of course, Ramadan is more than just big feasts. Some of the more religious people I spoke to felt that commercialism has invaded what is supposed to be a season of refraining from extravagances and indulgences, and emphasize self-restraint instead. “It’s about disciplining behavior,” said Mehmet, “The main point is a whole behavioral change.”
However, if you just looked in any mall or at any billboard, you’d think its a time to make money too. Merchants entice people into buying more with special Ramadan and Bayram specials. I found the entire relationship similar to our own culture’s relationship with Christmas where a sacred religious season is also a financial moneymaker that puts most department and toy stores in the black for the first time.
In all cases, Ramadan in Turkey has been a great experience, except for the occasional time I’ve felt guilty for eating on the street in front of people who might be fasting. During Ramadan, I met a number of new Turks, alongside sharing dinner with friends I already knew. Ramadan festivals organized by the city offered sometimes good, sometimes not-so-good concerts and dance shows throughout the forty days. I shared hours and hours with friends, new and old, and many times found myself welcomed into the houses of complete strangers, some who had much to give and others who did a lot with the little they had. Adapting a few words from Andy Williams, “It was the most wonderful time of the year.”
I’m kicking off what I hope will be a regular Friday post, “The Friday Find!” Since arriving in Turkey, I’ve stumbled upon a number of surprises, quirks, funny signs, and other interesting segments of Turkey that do not necessarily need a full blown article.
For example, I never expected to find a Popeye’s in Turkey, never mind the fact that you’ll find them in nearly every big city mall. A lot of these finds may have absolutely nothing to do with Turkish culture or have any significant value, but hey, it’s Friday. Let the miscellany begin!
When I switched locations for my Turkish classes, I began walking by a huge McDonald’s with advertisements in Turkish for the McDonald’s Breakfast all over its windows. I’m not a big fast food person, but I am a die hard Mickey D’s breakfast supporter. So after walking by images of Pancakes, “Donut”, and the Big Breakfast, I had to give it a go.
After ordering, I was asked by the cashier to go sit down. I thought, “Why…it should only take a few minutes for my hotcakes to come out?” But a few minutes later, I actually noticed them cracking an egg and whisking in the kitchen. Suddenly, I knew I was in for more than the average McDonald’s hotcake.
So, here I was waiting at in a Turkish McDonalds for my hotcakes, hash brown, and tea to be brought to my table by the staff. Only in Turkey! And that’s today’s delicious Friday Find.
In July, I wrote about a type of minibus in Turkey called a Dolmuş /Dole-Moosh/. (See: Stuffed Cars, Pt 1)These special buses run specific routes like a regular bus, but can pick people up and drop people off anywhere like a taxi. The ride can sometimes be very cramped, and the Turkish penchant for aggressive driving makes the ride an adventure.
In any case, a friend sent me a short film made by Turks (evident by the English captions) about the Dolmuş. I thought I’d post it since there aren’t many films on the site as of yet. My camera is having some technical problems that will hopefully be fixed in the next few weeks. You can expect to see many TurkFilm videos soon after.
The city is Antalya, one of Turkey’s most popular summer destinations. You can find photos from my visit to Antalya in the photo gallery.
NOTE: This article was first published for “Today’s Zaman,” an English daily newspaper in Turkey. View the article as it originally appeared here.
He was the best of men, he was the worst of men. It was the season of giving, it was the season of taking. This slightly amended phrase from Dickens illustrates how I felt at the end of my second visit to Sultanahmet in Istanbul. Home to both the Hagia Sofia and Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), it might be the most visited site in all of Turkey and certainly one of the top tourist destinations in the world. However, for that reason, one can find all sorts of characters.
Without my friend Emily to guide me this time, I found myself alone amidst the sea of tourists (I admit that I am one myself) and salesmen, primarily carpet dealers who often also conveniently owned a leather shop. Decked out in a khaki photographer’s vest, Disney polo, and camcorder, I certainly fit the tourist look. A look carpet dealers were attracted to like bees to honey. Here, I encountered one of the most unsavory Turks, and one of the most generous within the same couple of hours.
The square was already bustling with visitors rushing between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia by the early afternoon when I made my way to the Blue Mosque. Out of nowhere, a stout Turkish man, roughly in his mid thirties, approached me.
“Hello Sir! Hello. Where are you from?” said the mysterious man. Two hours alone in Sultanahmet already had taught me this man was likely selling carpets or leather, probably both. Feeling generous, a feeling I quickly lost, and in the interest of practicing Turkish, I let this go on. I have since marked this my worst decision in Turkey.
For a short time, we made small talk about where I was from and what I did. I spoke Turkish while he, getting more impatient by the second, spoke in English. Finally, I asked in Turkish what he did. He looked sheepish, seemingly offended that I asked, even though I believe he knew exactly what he was doing. He explained that he had both a carpet and leather shop, and it was at that point I made my half-hearted attempt to get out. I quickly replied, “No thanks” several times, but he was not going to let me leave so easily.
I explained time was short, I was in a rush to see the Blue Mosque. But he said, “No, no, you can’t go now. It’s prayer time,” even though I knew that the prayer was almost over, “Come to my shop and have some tea.” I made it clear that I had no interest in buying, telling him that there was no price to make me buy today.
“This isn’t like America,” he said, “It’s not buy or no buy. Just come in and have some tea. It’s hospitality, Turkish hospitality.” It’s true that many Turks consider hospitality to guests a high virtue. Unfortunately, this hawker was not one of them.
Next, I made my second worst decision, which was to agree to visit the shop. I believed he was genuine and decided to check out the prices for my mother overseas. After following him away from the Blue Mosque, we suddenly veered off and entered a dimly lit hallway, headed to the second floor of one of the old city’s tightly packed buildings. Meanwhile, he explained his business was “family run for 35 years.”
Three small, but well lit rooms, made up the shop. Nearly every square inch of wall was covered in leather jackets or bags. There must have been hundreds of jackets and bags. I was inside for seconds before his cousin came over, pulled a jacket off the rack without me even asking, and brought it above my shoulders as if I would immediately want to slide it on.
After “trying on” the jacket, I quickly sat down and made it clear I wasn’t buying. But the barrage of offers continued, “200 Euro for this jacket at any other shop, but here, for you, 130 dollars! Make me an offer, please!” I continued to resist their efforts of goading me into making an offer. I continued to check prices of bags, while this aggressive trader tried to “shock me” with supposed low, low prices. But when he spilled water on the case of my Hi-Definition camera, while showing me that the leather bags were waterproof, I had enough. I got up from the chair in a big huff (its best to use body language when your linguistic skills are limited), thanked him for tea, and began to make my way to the door.
Before I took a single step, he looked me in the eye and spoke in Turkish for the first time, “Twenty-eight?” I replied in kind, “Twenty-eight what?” “Tip,” he said. At this suggestion, I almost lost it. I brought up his remarks of hospitality on the way over, and he just stared. I pulled out five lira, hoping to speed up my departure. As I opened my wallet, I couldn’t believe to hear him ask, “Ten?” I threw the money on the table, and left bitterly. Later, I learned I should have left period, but I was happy to be out of there.
Afterwards, I dragged my feet up back towards the Blue Mosque. While gazing at two of the most revered houses of worship in the world, I was angry to have found such greed. For the next two hours, I moped around the Blue Mosque in doubt of the famous Turkish hospitality.
Things took a turn when I decided to visit the carpet museum alongside the Blue Mosque. I approached the Mosque’s groundskeeper’s house, and peeked my head in. In Turkish, I asked if anyone knew how to the carpet museum.
A young Turkish man, not much older than myself, warmly greeted me from the back room. Having spent a year in Virginia, he spoke English. He explained the museum was closed, and again I felt my luck playing against me. I asked if he could recommend any good restaurants, and he immediately asked, “Are you hungry? Would you like to eat with me?” At this point, I was still uncomfortable accepting such offers, particularly from complete strangers. A friend from my university said later that ninety percent of the time, these offers are genuine, and you just have to avoid the other ten.
After accepting, Ibrahim motioned me to the grass in between the house and the mosque. It was another bright and beautiful summer day in Istanbul as I waited for him. In what seemed like only minutes. Ibrahim came out with fresh bread and a delicious vegetable stew. It was a welcome fix after the rough day.
I found myself de-stressing while exchanging stories about the US and Turkey with Ibrahim. He was a student from Cyprus visiting his friend at the mosque. However, he was not having the best day either as he ended up sitting by himself while his friend busied himself with work.
Where the morning merchant always had an angle, Ibrahim was the opposite. He was soft spoken, and had no other motives beyond getting to know a new friend. Ibrahim asked me for absolutely nothing, except that if I made my way to Cyprus, to call him so he could show me around his university (and offer me a place to stay). We finished our time together touring the Blue Mosque. I told Ibrahim I had wanted to film the Blue Mosque for my blog on Turkish culture, but the area restricted to tourists was incredibly cramped and I had no place to think, never mind capture footage. Ibrahim was delighted to bring me in, and give me a Turk side view of the impressive space.
Besides learning you should only enter carpet and leather shops on your terms, the day reminded me that like the United States, you can find good and bad people everywhere. Yes, Turkey is infamous for treating visitors and guests extremely well. But it doesn’t mean Turkey is free from scam artists and other rotten apples. Rather, sometimes Turkey’s traditional hospitality can make it harder to read those who are playing you. But still, for every Turk I’ve encountered like the trader, I’ve met ten Ibrahim’s.