Diary of a Foreigner Living in Turkey (Part 1)
16 December 1993

Living in Ankara [1/2]

Copyright © 1993 Pierre Flener. All rights reserved.
Do not duplicate or redistribute in any form without written permission.

8 September 1993

So I'm in Ankara now. The journey to Venice was trouble-free, and the ferry-trip to izmir a delight, with a very impressive passage through the Channel of Corinth. Then, you've certainly heard by now of the bizarre stranger who crossed the superb Western Anatolian countryside in his car, listening to (and loudly singing) Anatolian songs?! Miraculously, I only had one flat tire, and avoided at least 25 fatal accidents in 600km (they drive like crazy over here)...

Ankara is a city with two faces: on the one hand, there are super-modern parts where you'd think you are in a Western metropolis; on the other hand, you may easily step back by one century, almost without transition. There are many parks, and streets are always bustling with people. The internal economy is very competitive, and you can buy everything here, during very long opening hours. Turkish products/imitations are about 3 times cheaper than back home, but imported goods are up to 3 times more expensive... The weather? About 28C during the days, constant blue skies, very agreeable evenings, fresh nights. Turkish cuisine is absolutely living up to its reputation as one of the three finest in the world: appetizers ("mezeler") and deserts (hmmm, what gorgeous pastry!) are terrific.

30 September 1993

Ankara remains a very pleasant surprise: it's astoundingly green, considering the bleak countryside all around. And they seem to have subscribed to sunshine here! But they tell me that temps will drop very soon...

Contrary to my ekspectations, US imports are sometimes cheaper here than in Europe. Such is the case with CDs (about US$13 on imports, and US$8 on local CDs)! Together with the world-class clothing industry, and some other items, you can easily pay off a trip to Turkey with some well-targeted shopping! Twinkle, twinkle!

The other day, while shopping for equipping my apt, I was looking for a power ekstension cord. The shop only had these industry- size 10m cords with half a dozen jacks lined up at one end, which I didn't need. So I decided to build my own: the cord was easy enough to find, and so was the male jack, but then, hard as I was looking, I couldn't find any female jacks for the other end! Only then did I remember that the supermarket I was in is under the Kocattepe Mosque, the biggest mosque of the Middle-East (and one of the world's largest to boot): so maybe the female jacks are veiled!? I never found out, but spotted a convenient cord at some bazaar.

Another strange fact is that change is consistently in short supply wherever I buy something. So I often leave involuntary "tips" because the price has to be rounded up. What drives me mad is that this often happens at places where one only buys small things, so chances are that quite a few people are able to give the correct change when paying: but why and where does this change disappear until the nekst customer (usually I ;-) comes? This is BTW a quite common phenomenon in non-Western countries, but I never understood what laws of physics/statistics make change unavailable when I need it. Maybe it's only a dumb effort at ripping-off customers, and thus rounding up one's salary?

I finally went through my first diarrhea, though it wasn't fun at all. So I'm set now for drinking tap water! Although my apt has European-style toilets, such isn't the case everywhere. Sometimes, there are only these hole-in-the-ground squat toilets: if we had these back home, I wouldn't have needed any rehab eksercises after my knee surgery!

The big frustration is of course the language: it's very annoying when you don't understand anything on radio / TV / newspapers / commercials / wrappings / instructions, and so on. Although my phrase-book is invaluable as a guide for conversation with those who know bits of English/French, I of course signed up for a beginners' level course in Turkish at my university; it's a matter of courtesy to my host country, and of sheer survival. I have to admit however that there is a daily Turkish newspaper in English, and that one Turkish radio channel broadcasts news in English / French/German about 5 times a day. Once I have TV and cable, I'll also have quite a few Western channels, including RTL, though nobody seems to know what the "L" stands for :-(. Some newsstands have an incredible array of Western dailies/weeklies/monthlies, though at much inflated prices.

Oh, and for those who are worried about my "emotional status" in Muslim land: large parts of Ankara, and especially the campuses of my university, seem to be "anti-fundamentalist" enclaves in a country that is fairly secular anyway. So don't worry: decolletes are in the average as deep as in the West, skirts are in the average as short as in the West, blouses are in the average as tight as in the West. Even better: Turkish women tend to be ekstremely cute...

As you noticed by now, the Turkish alphabet doesn't have the letter "x", so I have to type "ks", as in "Taksi", as a workaround. Ooops ;-)

16 December 1993

An important remark to my Turkish friends: some of the material in these diaries may sound offensive to you, or may reflect on things you might prefer people outside Turkey do not know about. But note that I profoundly love your country (otherwise I wouldn't have come here in the first place), and yet I want to be completely honest and mention all the things that clash with my Western values: sometimes, things are hard to swallow for Westerners, but don't forget that at other times (as you very well know) Turkey easily tops Western societies, and that I do mention these things as well!

The fall was extremely short for local standards (maybe one week), and we now have temperatures around 0C (down from around 28C). It snows occasionally, and it rains even less, and the sun luckily persists in keeping the sky blue, despite the cold. All in all, I'm quite happy with the weather here, one of my minor objectives having been to escape the grey, rainy, and cloudy falls, winters, and springs of back home.

In the summer, Central Anatolia is a pretty dry and hot region, so there are not many natural occurrences of the green color. Luckily (FYI: green is my favorite color), municipal and campus authorities have this obsession of growing grass everywhere: hence you'll see entire armies of men watering grassy patches so as to keep them alive, especially in the evenings. Thank you, Turkey, for catering to my visual needs!

Close to campus, I located this MOBIL gas-station (free advertisement) where unleaded gas is available (many stations announce having some, but are consistently short of it when you get there). So that's one good reason to go there. One of the other two good reasons is that MOBIL is the first (& only?) company in Turkey to employ girls (some of them quite pretty) as outdoors personnel at the pumps! (Self-service seems to be an unknown concept here, for the obvious reason that such practice would increase unemployment. As an aside, sometimes it seems to me that unemployment is not really existent here, as people always find ways of self-employing themselves in all kinds of inventive ways.) Now on to the third good reason to fuel up at that station: if you purchase at least 20 liters, they'll wash your car for free, on the spot! This is a quite nifty feature, as the air is so dust-laden here that your car will always look like coming straight off the Paris-Dakar rally, even though you had it washed 3 days before and let it stand idle!

So I went to the airport one day to find out where it is, how to find my way back (not obvious), and where/how to pick friends up when they come to visit me. The road took me through an impressive time-warp: first the modern high-rise sections of Ankara, and then a long string of so-called "gecekondu" villages. Houses are built in one night ("gece") there, with people taking advantage of a centuries-old Ottoman law stating that such houses may not be demolished by the government. So there is no real urban planning in such suburbs (and they are huuuge), and conditions of life are quite miserable compared to the rest of the city. Some upperclass Turks are quite ashamed of the existence of these villages, and they will try to divert you from seeing them, or will express outright shock when you tell them you've been there for a walk (as they would never be caught dead in such sections of the town). Many people would call these slums, but you may also view them as villages near the city, and they are definitely much more representative of the average Turk's lifestyle than the Beverly Hills-like sections some would want us foreigners to spend all our lives in. I think no Westerner comes to work in Turkey to see how the very few gilded rich live (namely often in reckless imitation of what's going on in the West), because that's nothing new to them, nor to restrict her/his life to such a life, because s/he can have the same life back home, or even a better one. We have an interesting conflict of interests here: the academics of my university are relatively well-off (and some of the students are outrageously well-off), and don't really seem to bother about the rest of the nation, which is precisely what we foreigners are here for! Turkish society (still) is sooo different from Western ones, especially if you drop the richer 1% of the population: people are really friendly and hospitable here; they'll go out of their ways to help you; they haven't succumbed (yet) to the all-out int'l frenzy of money-making/modernization/competitiveness/etc; they are easy-going and fun-loving; and so on. (I'm _not_ saying the well-off people don't fit this general scheme.) Granted, some aspects deserve improvement, or are hard to accept for people who have been brainwashed in different ways, but things are very likeable the way they are! Of course, the upper 1% will define this state as backwardness/underdevelopment, but do they really have to impose Western ways onto a Middle-Eastern nation? do we really have to make this world a global village of McDonalds+MTV junkies? I'm fully aware that these ideas may be misconstrued as spitting into the hands that feed me, and that I probably wouldn't like to live in a "gecekondu", but, hey, I'm just succumbing to the many contradictions of the Middle-East. Back to the airport-story (which was just a pretext to convey the ideas above): the airport is a pretty impressive affair, it reminded me a lot of the Luxembourg-City International Airport (to outsiders: this is a joke!).

Hey, I found a way to become rich very fast: the Luxembourg Frank (LUF) has a slightly better exchange rate here than the Belgian Frank (BEF). Don't ask me how come, I'm flabbergasted as well, because both currencies are identical by definition. But I'm happy that at least one country recognizes that the Luxembourg economy is doing better than the Belgian one. ;-)

I have a TV now, though no cable TV yet. But the rooftop antenna on my apt building already provides me with 14 channels, all Turkish, except MTV. So I left the thing running for quite a while, and zapped a lot, so as to figure out what's turning people on here. As a sports enthusiast, I get more than my share: Turkish league games in soccer and basketball are plentiful; on top of that I can see selected league games in soccer from Italy, Spain, England, and Germany; plus many European Cup games in both sports; 3 NCAA basketball games per week (yeah! the fore-span features a Thomas Hill slam-dunk, go Devils!), and 1 NBA game per week.

Otherwise, as in any country, the result is pretty sad. Beyond the imported (and dubbed) movies and soap-operas, there are a lot of Turkish productions (which I cannot judge, due to my lack of understanding of the language), many musical shows (some with excellent classical Turkish music renderings), and some really silly shows that seem to have no content at all, but rather be rea- sons to show off some cute Turkish maidens in skin-tight dresses hopping around like North-American cheerleaders at every opportunity. In the few years since my first trip to Turkey (1986), this country seems to have slipped from one extreme to the other: from a total ban (?) on published erotica to very lax standards, and to public debasement of women in the media. (Here I'm on very slippery terrain, but let me push ahead anyway.) The apparent contradiction in all these shows is that whenever the camera swerves over to prove that the audience in the studio is having a good time, you would expect to see a male-only crowd. But no, there are many women, and they seem to enjoy themselves! Even better, quite a few of these women wear headscarves (not the full veil), and thus wouldn't be caught dead while showing some of their hair to men, and yet they seem to thoroughly enjoy themselves while some other women on stage show quite a bit more than their hair... Go and figure that one out! The only theory I could come up with (after discussing this with some Turkish women-friends here) is that Turkish society is divided into two parts, regarding the classification of women: on the one hand, you have the family world, where women are expected to be faithful, obedient wives, mothers, cooks, and cleaning staff; and on the other hand, you have the men's world, where women are for "entertainment" only. These two worlds do not intersect, and wife-women perceive the entertainment-women as mere objects (!), thus with no virtue, and hence not as despicable beings, and they even tolerate/encourage men to have fun in their world. For the same reasons, prostitution is legal here (provided under police and medical supervision), because the object-women allow the wife-women to preserve their virtue. Cover-girls (even on most serious daily newspapers), the girls of many commercials and of some of these shows, many female singers, many actresses, all belly-dancers, etc. definitely seem to belong to the men's world only, and are said to make tons of money. I'm afraid though that I'm just scratching the surface here with my current understanding of what's going on here.

The other thing that bugs me with local TV channels is that they are often geared towards the rich (many commercials advertise things most people can only dream of, and the audiences in the studios always look rather well-off), and that the name of the game often is a mere imitation of Western TV: local bands play Western instruments and compose Western beats into their songs, teenagers dance Western steps & dances during concerts, and girls shriek just like the hysterical groupies back home, local orchestras play Western symphonies, everybody is dressed up in Western ways, and so on. These people are entirely throwing away their own culture, and probably are MTV addicts. I just plainly refuse to believe that Western culture is universal in the sense that it appeals to everybody, regardless of what corner of the Earth one is coming from. I'm not saying they shouldn't enjoy Western culture (after all, I like some of the Turkish classical music quite a lot), but they seem to do this with a reckless abandonment that frightens me (after all, back home, people don't go in droves to concerts with Turkish classical music). If the West is the best, as they say, why do Westerners run away from there? Not everything is perfect in the West (as we all know), so what point is there to abandon one's culture because of some apparent deficiencies and to entirely embrace another one with its own, new deficiencies? OK, it's hard to convince them of their errors. Moreover, Kemalism itself (a doctrine named after Mustafa Kemal, the 1st president of the modern Republic of Turkey) shows that this is the way to go (some of his first laws were the prohibition of some traditional garb, which was then considered an outward sign of backwardness). I think there is a lot of mental underdevelopment in the minds of those who think Turkey should throw everything overboard and emulate the West: it's not outward signs such as fashion, music, etc. that translate underdevelopment! Nor is it necessarily inner values that do so. The whole problem is: what is underdevelopment? what is civilization? I think there are no absolute definitions of these concepts, so why should we start comparing cultures/societies in terms of such criteria? But again, I'm afraid I'm off the mark with my current understanding of what's going on here.

Question: How many PTT workers does it take to get a parcel from abroad through to you? (PTT = Turkish Post and Telecommunications)

Answer: 17,

NB. This is NOT a joke. The whole process (home --> PTT --> home) takes me about 2.5 hours...

Moral of the story: when you feel the strong urge to send me presents, please either (a) send them DHL/FedEx/..., or (b) put them into a standard envelope and write "Book/Livre/Buch/Kitap" all over it, or (c) refrain from doing it and laud yourself on your good intentions. Seriously, I'm NOT going to pick up anything at that place again.

Did you know that Santa Claus (or St. Nicholas, the patron saint of children, students, unmarried girls, sailors, and ... thieves(!)) was born in Turkey? Did you know that Mary (the mother of Jesus) is believed by many to have died in Turkey, near Efes (formerly Ephesus, a well-known place to those who've read the New Testament)? Many other biblical/Christian personalities and sites are spread all across Turkey, making this country much more of a religious crossroads than many would want to believe. More samples? Mt. Ararat, where Noah is said to have stepped off the Ark after the Deluge, is in Turkey. Some of the earliest Christian communities lived in Anatolia, and went into hiding in the out-of-this-world landscape of Cappadocia when Arab raiders swarmed into the area. Their underground and troglodyte cities feature some of the most beautiful Byzantine art. istanbul is of course THE treasure-house of Byzantine art.

Of course, today, Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country. For instance, Mevlana, the Afghan Islamic mystic (Sufi, actually) who lived and died in Konya, wrote books that are among the most influential ones of Islam right after the Qu'ran and the Hadeeth (an account of the life of the prophet Mohammed). His preaching of equality of all people, regardless of their sex, race, or religion, ought to be mandatory reading everywhere. I even heard that the Turkish women's liberation movement quotes him (gasp!) as one of their forerunners!

Last Sunday, I went to Konya to watch the world-famous performance of the "Whirling Dervishes" of the local Mevlana order. This dance is performed in memory of Mevlana's death-day, and is a religious dance, not a folk dance. Also, it is a meditation dance, not a dance to show off and make converts. It was a very impressive event. A small orchestra performs some very mystical music on traditional instruments (especially the "ney" flute), and accompanies a choir. After a while, the head of the order steps forward, followed by the dancers, and they ceremoniously shuffle around in a large circle in a very dignified and meditative way. Eventually, the dancers one-by-one get their "blessings" from their leader and start whirling around. First, they make a few spins with their arms crossed over their chest, and then they extend their arms (one hand facing the sky, the other hand facing the earth) and start spinning around the square, their ample white robes floating around their bodies. The rotation speed is quite high, and this goes on, with short interruptions, for over an hour! It is quite amazing that nobody fainted or even stumbled, even though some of the dancers looked quite old. A breathtaking performance! I also visited the Mevlana Museum, a highlight of every trip to Turkey with its masterpieces of Islamic Art.

Pierre Flener