Saturday, June 23, 2007

I've Been To Turkey. So That's Something...

You can gather a lot of insight into a country by paying attention to what its people do when they accidentally bump into you. Take America. God forbid anyone bump into me on the street. My forefathers fought and died for my right to walk down a street untouched by those around me. If you so much as touch me you better apologize for intruding on my right to personal space.

And we do. We apologize profusely for intruding on a stranger’s personal space, even though we had no intention of causing any inconvenience. We operate as little islands, ridden with latent Puritanical guilt. Americans say, “I’m sorry,” for nothing, lest people we don’t know perceive us as rude.

During our first trip to Istanbul, a very populated and bustling city, not one single person even gestured in a way that said, “I’m sorry” when they bumped into me on the street. No one did so to anyone, so it wasn’t that I was an American and they were happy to cause me minor discomfort. Moreover, there was no sense that their lack of an acknowledgement was rude. It just wasn’t important.

Bumping into one another was inevitable and necessary. Perhaps a connection needed to be made. It is nothing to be ashamed about.

If I could sum up Turkey in one word it would be, “unapologetic.” It is what it is.

It is both Asian and European, as the land itself is transcontinental, and physically lies in both Europe and Asia. It is both ancient and modern, as the city now called Istanbul was the capital of both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Mosques that are hundreds of years old stand unapologetically next to the city’s delightfully modern and efficient public train system and vast array of office buildings, often poking up into the sky right along side a mosque’s minarets.

No one seems to feel the need to make a decision as to which way the country needs to lean. The only issue the Turkish people are overwhelmingly in favor of making a clear decision on is a Secular State vs. a Religious one. In 1923, a man named Mustafa Kemal Ataturk spearheaded the effort to make Turkey the country that it is now – a secular, democratic, united republic. The Turkish constitution even says that the military can get involved should the people feel that the separation between Mosque and State was becoming threatened.

This pride in their secular democracy is unmistakable, as flags are EVRYWHERE, along with portraits of Mr. Ataturk himself.

These images aren’t unsettling, a la North Korea. The flags do not seem like forced patriotism either. The vibe is simple – this is where you are, this is who got us here, and we are really, really proud of it.

So why is Turkey scary? Why don’t Westerners want to visit? More importantly, why do they often lump Turkey in with many of the countries it is near, like Egypt and Iran and Iraq?

Because it is primarily an Islamic country. And an Islamic country means a country that is war torn and zealous, and quick to blow up anyone whose native language is English. But Turkey is a secular democracy. Religion is all well and good, but it isn’t going to dictate anything going on in the public sphere. (Sounds a lot like what is supposed to happen in America.)

The Muslims that we are trained to fear are Fundamentalists, who practice Islam in a very extreme way. I don’t use the word “extreme” to mean “strapping bombs to their chests,” although it should be noted that a very small amount of Islamic Fundamentalists are a part of such atrocities. The Fundamentalist way of practicing Islam literally means carrying the belief that the tenants of the Islamic faith should dictate all affairs, both public and private. Less than 10% of the Turkish population could be called Islamic Fundamentalists, and about 0.05% of that group would even think about expressing their beliefs through violence.

Yes, there are bombings. Bombs have gone off in marketplaces in Izmir, Ankara, and Istanbul all in the time we have been cruising. However, more people were killed in the recent shooting in tiny Delevan, Wisconsin than in all the recent bombings in Turkey combined. I’m not defending the fact that protestors chose to express their discontent by attacking populated public squares, but it is worth noting that you have more of a chance of being hit by stray gun fire in Chicago than being injured in a Turkish bombing.

American tourists (actually, tourists in general) are still a rarity in Istanbul. This is not to oversimplify things, as it would be na├»ve to think that we were forging new ground by visiting Turkey’s largest city, but unlike Rome or Athens, the parts of Istanbul that cater exclusively towards tourists (i.e. overpriced crap stores) are not too terribly plentiful. In fact, if any of us were to make a trek out to the remote Turkish villages, there is a good chance that we would stumble upon one whose people had never even seen an American in person. (It is also worth noting that the villages outside of Metropolitan Turkish cities do not have police forces. This is because there is simply no crime).

Istanbul is my favorite port so far.

We started out the day in a very traditional way, going to the Grand Bazaar. It is an anxiety attack waiting to happen. It is hot. It is loud. It is a confusing maze of merchandise and hawkers and shoppers and dogs and food and lights. You are expected to haggle, which is something I have not taken a liking to. I like my prices firm.

We bought some t-shirts and things. Whether or not we got a good deal, we will never know. Then, it was time for a snack. And then it was time for me to want to get out of there.

Time to explore. The passion and energy in the city is so thick it is almost chewable. At night, we went to an area called Taxsim, which could be compared to Wicker Park in Chicago or Greenwich Village in New York in the sense that it is fairly trendy and most of the young people flock there at night to enjoy the cafes, shops and bars, all of which stay open very late. Istanbul definitely rivals New York in the “City That Never Sleeps” category.

We wandered down a side street and found a restaurant with outdoor seating, cold pints of beer, and delicious chicken shish-ka-bob. Our waiter was funny and awkward and kind. There were live music clubs everywhere. We watched cafes change into concert halls, as a man would simply switch the building’s outdoor sign from “Restaurant” to “Live Music.” With full bellies, it seemed as though Taxsim was telling us that our night had only just begun.

*I would like to point out that while I authored this description of Turkey, the facts were gleaned from reading of guidebooks, a very informative article in The Economist, and listening to programs about Turkey on my iPod. I knew absolutely nothing about Turkey before going on this cruise. Please do not take any of it as gospel. Hey, go see for yourself! I have about $10 in Turkish Lira left. I’d be more than happy to donate it to your trip so you can form your own opinion.

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