One of the most common sounds heard throughout Turkey is the Islamic “Call to Prayer.” The video here is from an apartment window in Ankara. The sound is played along with the time relapsed video of the rising moon.
Although Turkey is a secular nation that separates religion and government, it’s population is still 95-98% Muslim according to recent statistics. For this reason, mosques are found everywhere in Turkey with at least one in every village, town, and city. The mosques are strictly regulated by the state in a number of ways including payment for the Imams.
(This article was first published on October 12, 2009 for the Study Abroad section at Global Post. View the original article here.)
At 11 p.m. Saturday night, the bar is full of 20-somethings drinking, talking, flirting. One young couple steals a kiss at their table of 20 while an Amy Winehouse song booms through the air. Bartenders rush to keep up with the crowded house, sliding glasses topped with foam to their takers.
The decor is posh. From the stylish designer threads of the patrons to the sleek LCD TVs broadcasting videos of Aerosmith and Madonna, we could be in Greenwich Village. But this is Ankara, the capital city of Turkey.
When I told friends and family I would Study Abroad in Turkey, I heard the words “too dangerous” and was warned of Al Qaeda. I was often asked about running water or Internet access. Very few understood Turkey’s rank among the 20 largest economies in the world.
Turkey is a complex country — one that can’t be boxed into any particular image.
In downtown Ankara, women and men dress in tight-fitting Polo and Lacoste shirts, or trendy button-downs with their curve-hugging jeans, as they pass Levis, Starbucks or chic hair styling salons.
Mammoth malls are filled with American and European brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Nine West and Sephora. In Ankara, a dry and mountainous city devoid of much natural beauty, these malls are major recreation centers. Some offer movie theaters, bowling, arcades and outdoor amusement parks. One mall offers ice-skating in the winter.
“People like to hang out in these malls, even though they may never buy anything,” said Ankara resident Caglar Yurtseven, watching dozens of Turks relax in big leather arm chairs at the mall.
Many of these behemoth shopping centers, spurred by major economic growth and the rise of a new Turkish middle class, rose up over the past 10 years since the completion of Ankara’s first Mall in 1999. Since then, 16 other malls have risen, turning city outskirts into prime real estate where projects as tall as 20 stories have been built or are under construction.
The city doesn’t slow down at night. On weekends, bars and cafes spill out on the sidewalk. Walking down the trendy Tunali Caddesi, or Tunali Avenue, Turks and foreign visitors relax in late night cafes and pastry shops, sports bars, disco bars, oldies bars and dance clubs for the young and old. The city has one gay bar, too, near Tunali.
You can’t stereotype Turkey as an Islamic country akin to neighbors Syria, Iraq or Iran. But it’s not identical to its European counterparts, either. As many cosmopolitan residents there are, others adopt a more traditional and religious approach. In Ankara, one-third of women wear hijab, or headscarves. Sometimes it’s religious, sometimes political, often traditional, and sometimes a little of all. Many Westerners don’t know that wearing a headscarf is banned by Turkish law in Turkish universities. Some Turkish women come to the United States to study in the freedom of wearing their headscarf to class.
Many Turks say they fear the growing presence of religion will undermine secular Turkey, while others describe it as a benign migration of a new middle class into the cities from more conservative villages.
Back in the bar appropriately named Random, Turkey’s political and cultural conflicts seem worlds away amid the laughter of the diverse students drinking together. Here, Turkey’s youth relish the cool breeze gently blowing through the beer garden covered in green ivy. In a country where the average age is 25, the youngest in Europe, Turkey seems poised for more growth.
While on a bus bound for Ankara today, the Turk in the seat next to me showed me the article he was reading about the H1N1 virus (Swine Flu) and the precautions the Turkish government was taking. Sedar Bey, my seatmate, asked where I was from, and after telling him I was from America, he inquired about my health. Did I have Swine Flu, perhaps he wondered?
Concerns about the H1N1 virus (Swine Flu) reached another high in Turkey since the flu season began. The government shut down a school in Ankara after seven students came down with the virus. The Turkish Health Ministry is taking all sorts of steps to protect Turkish residents including the use of body heat scanners at all international airport terminals.
Since the disease originated in North America last year, it’s been interesting to see that effect my travels. Before I even got off the plane in July, I had to fill out a specific medical questionnaire that asked when and if I was recently sick, if I had been in contact with anyone who had been sick or from Mexico, and also the details of my whereabouts while in Turkey in case I needed to be called back for quarantine. Of course, this process is nothing out of the ordinary considering last year’s world-wide pandemic, but when Swine Flu concerns rise, so do concerns about contact with foreigners like me.
Foreigners are usually treated with some of the best hospitality in Turkey, but if any major outbreaks occur, I wonder if suspicion and fear will get the best of some. I, as a teacher this year, hope that the intense work at airports will keep things under control so that any waves of flu will be contained quickly. Turkey will have some vaccinations available for medical personnel, the elderly, and children, but probably not for foreigners. The US has already informed me that I’m on my own,
“Due to legal restrictions and a lack of sufficient resources, the
Embassy is not in a position to provide private citizens with
pandemic-related supplies, medications or medical treatment, including
vaccines, and cannot provide specific medical advice,” according to a notice from the US Embassy in Ankara.
Here’s hoping a steady diet of vitamin C, regular sleep, and exercise will help keep any and all serious illnesses away. Well, that and a cabinet well stocked with Purell (one thing fulbrighters were given by an embassy RN during the health orientation). Meanwhile, I’ll try not to mention “I’m from America” and “Swine Flu” in the same conversation.
(This article was first published on September 28, 2009 for the Study Abroad section at Global Post. View the original article here.)
As twilight turned to night, roads that 20 minutes earlier were choked with impatient cars in twisted gridlock became calm. Congested sidewalks emptied, and a scattered few now meandered down the streets. The call to prayer echoed through the neighborhood. Allah-hu-akbar … It was time for iftar in Balgat, a neighborhood in Ankara, Turkey.
Muslims worldwide fasted 30 days for Ramadan, their holiest season. Devout Muslims will abstain not only from food and water during daylight hours, but other items like cigarettes will not touch their lips. Life for many Turkish residents, even if they aren’t practicing Muslims, revolves around the sundown dinners, called iftar, where observant Muslims break the daylong fast.
Imagine celebrating a mini-Thanksgiving dinner every night for 40 days, or so it seems to me. During Ramadan, observers rotate invitations to their families or friends. Even I, a stranger, attended at least 15 different iftars, some large, some small, some formal, some not.
“It’s the best time to invite people to your home,” said Mehmet Canpolat, “It’s a time for sharing dinner, sharing life.”
I had iftar several times with Mehmet, his wife Malek, their 4-year-old daughter and their spirited 10-year-old son, who always asked if I was fasting. After I said no, he replied proudly that I didn’t have the muscle because I wasn’t Muslim.
Iftars with the family were usually simple. Mehmet would watch TV, waiting for the signal broadcast on Turkish stations that it was time eat. Dates, the traditional fruit the prophet Muhammed used to break his fast, lay on the table with large bowls of soup, plenty of fresh bread, salad and a main course. After dinner, the family and I would settle in the parlor for dessert, tea and plenty of fruit.
Iftars at home include families or neighbors, but restaurants serve iftar, as well. Ranging from city-funded free dinners for the poor in tents to meals at Turkey’s high-end restaurants, groups flooded eateries that lay mostly empty during the day. In Balgat, it took three tries before finding a restaurant with one lonely table amid a feverishly hungry crowd that the wait staff scrambled to serve.
Like Christmas in the West, Turkey’s capitalistic markets have taken advantage of seasonal Ramadan. Cell phone companies, clothing retailers and others advertise special sales for Ramadan and Bayram, the holiday ending the month of fasting. Restaurants and supermarkets publicize special meal deals.
“The important thing is not iftars,” Zeynel Oz told me over Turkish tea at his home. “What’s important is fasting, not iftars.”
Practicing and more devout Muslims like Zeynel and Mehmet are not always happy with Turkey’s commercialization of the holiday. Zeynel scoffed when I referred to the Bayram holidays as Seker Bayram (Sugar Holidays). In Turkey, traditions have emerged where children go door to door looking for candy treats from neighbors and family. Just like the U.S. during Halloween, candy retailers push Seker Bayram festivities.
Discipline is the real lesson of Ramadan, according to Mehmet and Zeynel.
“All humans want everything,” said Zeynel. “But God says, ‘No, not everything.’ ”
Mehmet grew up in Istanbul and started fasting in university. Like Zeynel, he sees it as an opportunity to cleanse the spirit and discipline the body.
“The main point is a whole behavioral change,” Mehmet said. “You must be a good man, woman, kid — whatever you are.”
These ideals are the ones that Mehmet and his wife Malek admired the most. They agreed that during Ramadan, many try to live up to these ideals.
Some in Turkey worry about the growing popularity and religiosity during Ramadan as a harbinger of fundamentalist expansion. The secular government allows minority voices on both ends of its political spectrum, but continues to uphold its constitution.
Zeynel prays during Ramadan that conflicts can be reconciled and people will respect each other. When asked about an Islamist takeover, Zeynel said he doesn’t want to force his religious views on anyone.
“The fundamentalists are a problem, and they cause issues for more modern religious people,” said Zeynel. “The Koran tells me to be modern … I don’t see modernity and religion as opposing forces. They are in the same glass.”
Global Post, a completely web-based international news source, launched a new beat today featuring writing from students abroad. I was selected earlier this fall as one of their student correspondents. This is the reason there hasn’t been much writing on the blog besides the Friday find. Last month, I submitted most of my writing to GP. Now that they are launching, you will be seeing more articles from me that will be published in Global Post’s year abroad section first.
As major newspapers struggle to sustain international bureaus across the world, GP uses a small group of professional reporters around the world to cover global events. They are the first international news source to rely solely on the internet as their delivery, a characteristic that helps keep their operating costs way down. If you are interested in finding another credible source for international news, definitely check out Global Post whose link is provided under “Turkish News Sources.” The media landscape continues to change, and all of us with it. However, the search for truth in the world never changes, and never ends.
Apologies for no Find last week, or in fact, for much of anything last week. I left Ankara for my new home in Kayseri two weeks ago, but due to meetings back in Ankara coupled with the beginning of my new teaching job, I’m only getting back to the blog today. And what a relief it is to be back. Let’s get started.
One interesting custom, or superstition, I’ve come across is Turkish insistence on NEVER throwing out bread. I first read about this on a British Expat’s blog from Turkey. After reading it, I started to notice all these bags hanging from fence posts, windowsills, and even trees. I probably just saw them as garbage before. The practice doesn’t seem to far fetched considering the atmosphere. Walk down any city street, and you’ll find at least one shop with a cabinet full of bread. Eat at any Turkish restaurant, even a fast food joint, and you’ll probably be given a side of bread. Drive anywhere in Central Turkey, and expect to pass through acres and acres of wheat during some part of your journey (if not all of it). The plethora of wheat makes the cost extremely cheap ($.30 for a loaf similar to Italian Bread). At some dinners, Turks serve me an entire loaf to go with my meal. And if I somehow finish that, I know more is waiting. With all that bread, however, it comes to pass that some becomes stale before being eaten.
Kayseri resident Evrim Onem explained Turks consider bread a sacred object. Some consider it bad luck, while others would just find it an offense against the creator to throw out bread.
“It’s a life giving thing,” said Evrim, “so we must treat it with respect, always.” Perhaps, a thought to keep in mind next time your deciding when to toss that rye.
That’s today’s Find. Same time next week.