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August 15, 2006

Observations of Turkish culture

I have been on a beach of the Karadeniz (Black Sea) yesterday and today, in the small town of Kabakoz...hope to add more pictures later. Came to Sile for an hour of InternetCafe (and spent another hour or so on a small local beach). This mornıng I was asked to share my thoughts regarding Turkish culture.

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Here is a summary, of which my present "family" proclaimed, "What you say matches our experience." (Which I translate as 'not too bad for a foreigner.') We are quite enjoying ourselves. :-)

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I imagine it is the climate – the heat – that most conditions Turkish culture. One moves slowly to conserve energy, otherwise it is wasted, sapped by the sun. The relaxed pace could give the impression of inertia, except for the bursts of assertiveness required to compel others to meet one’s needs. There is no widespread ethic of “service” in the institutional economy; it almost seems an imposition on workers to do their jobs. I cite an hour spent in a post office recently, in which three workers took an hour to arrange a small box to be sent to the US. This in stark contrast to street vendors whose constant labor is as palpable and pervasive as the minarets dotting every settled landscape. Turkey is a land of faith, not only in terms of Islam but also in terms of social relations: what must get done, will get done, eventually. Otherwise, it must not need to be done.

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Nonetheless, the people contain and channel vast amounts of restless energy. Periodic emotional outbursts are a regular feature of social interaction. These are generally taken as a matter of course, although I observed two near fights – over adjusting an air-conditioning vent (mere fisticuffs), another over a parking space (with one man wielding a knife). Others intervened in both instances to prevent actual violence. Yet relations over all are friendly. More people return smiles than not, including fully-veiled Muslim women, whose eyes tend to crinkle upon contact (thought not always, some remain suspicious but this is in proportion to similar disinterest from others who find my smile inexplicable).

My ignorance of the Turkish language has only rarely been an impediment. The most common reaction when I initiate a request or reply to some overture or inquiry in English is a slight widening of the eyes and an immediate holler to a resident English speaker. Proficiency varies widely, but has always been sufficient. In those instances when there was no one who spoke English, we’ve still managed through gestures, drawing, pictures, and mime. Only once did I have to abandon an attempt to communicate with a cab driver. I was not equipped with the proper visual aid (a ferry schedule) to supplement my inadequate pronounciation of “Bakirkoy otobus” and forgetting of the apparently crucial term, ishkelesi.

A middle-range of service mentality is evident in private shops and restaurants. It comes and goes according to the rhythm and inclination of the owner or employee. Often enough, one has to assert desire in what seems an aggressive manner. Such hardly seems to ruffle feathers though, as many of the initial interactions I would label conflictual from a US point of view turned into amiable and sustained conversations and a significant amount of attention to satisfying needs both expressed and intuited.

I have met many people who could become friends, and some who have: moreso than I could possibly have imagined. Native Turks of religious and secular persuasıon, Turks who have come to Istanbul from other regions or countries, and foreigners like myself. Everyone extols the beauty and promise of the country.

There is more to write another time. Back to the beach!

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Posted by Steph at August 15, 2006 6:01 AM

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