Diary of a Foreigner Living in Turkey (Part 2)
24 March 1994

Living in Ankara [2/2]

Copyright © 1994 Pierre Flener. All rights reserved.
Do not duplicate or redistribute in any form without written permission.


All over the Middle East (and probably all over the non-Western world) you will soon discover the concept of "collective taxi": it's usually a spacious car, if not actually a minibus, that operates on a fixed route within a city, or between two adjacent cities, just like a bus, and often on the same route as buses. The differences with a bus are, besides the slightly higher fares, that a collective taxi leaves its terminal as soon as it is filled (rather than on some schedule), and that you can stop it literally anywhere in order to board (the driver only stops if space is available) or leave, rather than just at designated stops. Moreover, on a given route, you'll usually see about one collective taxi per minute! They are called "collectivo" in Central- and South-America, "servis" in certain Arabic countries, but I prefer the Turkish designation, "dolmuS" (pronounced dolmush), because of its extreme accuracy: it means, yes!, "stuffed"! Indeed, "dolmuS" drivers are independent, and like to set Guiness records for number_of_passengers_per_seat on every ride. Figuring out "dolmuS" routes is not easy to newcomers, but just asking the locals will make you familiar with the routes you will need. A "dolmuS" is a one-person enterprise, so rides become a very social event: a passenger up front acts as volunteer cashier when new passengers board and reach their money through to him with the mention of their destination; a lookup table indicates the fare, and he uses the driver's cash-box to obtain the change and reach it back to these new passengers! Everybody cooperates in these money transfers, and Turks are quite amused to see a foreigner (a) board a "dolmuS" (upper-class Turks don't take a "dolmuS") and (b) know what to do, and do it well. All this now means that the driver can actually concentrate on the driving (makes sense, no?), and usually he will hate to use his brakes except for picking up or dropping off new passengers: "dolmuS" drivers are infamous for their reckless driving... But this only implementation disadvantage notwithstanding, I believe that collective taxis are a very reasonable and ecological solution to traffic-congested cities, and that they could/should be implemented in Western countries as well.

My Girl Students

I was asked to comment on my girl students: they probably amount to 15% of our student body, and are highly respected, from an intellectual viewpoint, by the boy students, who know that these girls had to earn their seats here by being ranked among the national top-200 highschool students. My girl students are all very friendly to me, just like the boys. Many even tutor me in Turkish now, during "elevator conversations" and at other smalltalk opportunities! I took a dictionary to find out the meanings of Turkish girls' names: wouldn't you want to teach a class where the girls are called Moonlight (Aynur), Lively (AySe), Eternal (Bengi), Wise (Bilge), Fragrance (Burcu), Wish (Dilek), Marbling (Ebru), Gracious (Eda), Tulip (Lale), Joy (NeSe), Waterlily (NilUfer), Ideal (UlkU), Hope (Umit), and so on?! (Some of these names are actually Arabic names.)


I have formed, with a few other "yabancI"s (foreigners), a group of "hamam" fans. A "hamam" is a Turkish steam-bath, like the Roman baths, where you can sweat out all your toxins and get a massage. Going to a "hamam" is nowadays being dismissed as unhygienic (!) by many middle/upper-class Turks, hence our foreigners-only club and the need to seek a hamam in the poorer sections of the city. We go there about every 5 weeks, and here's what usually happens. Upon payment of the entrance fee (~$1.8 each), we are shown to a locker-room where we undress completely (men and women are strictly separated throughout the events) and tie a sarong-like cloth around our waist. Then we go to the bath itself, a marble-plated hot room with a lot of individual cubicles around, as well as a few other rooms with a higher temperature. We enter the latter, and sit/lie down to relax, chat, and sweat. Somebody usually comes and asks if we want sth to drink right now, but it is preferable to delay this to the end of the session. Eventually, enter the masseurs: by now, we know them all, and each has his favorite masseur. So we return to the big room, in the center of which is a huge circular marble dais, at the edge of which we lie down, heads on cushions. Now, a Turkish massage has nothing to do with (as my guidebook puts it) "Californian touchie- feelie methods", but is more akin to "medieval rack-and-wheel torture techniques"... This is barely a euphemism, but boy!, it feels good afterwards! The masseur will knead your skin and muscles, enumerate your every bone, walk over you (if you don't mind), twist and bend your arms/legs into every direction and shape, do dropkicks on your chests and necks, etc, while you try not to scream out loud or faint... After this bone-cracking concert, each of us withdraws to one of the cubicles with his masseur for the actual washing. The masseurs start scrubbing our skins with special gloves that feel like glasspaper, the objective being to scrub away the layers of dead skin: it's embarrassing to see how much dead skin one accumulates over 5 weeks but can't wash away with an ordinary shower... Then come a thorough rinse, the shampoo and the soap, and finally another rinse. The masseurs leave us in the cubicles, and close the curtains, so that we can take our sarongs off and wash our private parts: hamams are very prudish institutions, and, contrary to persistent myths, none of us ever had proposals for "more than a massage or bath". Usually, we linger around a little bit more, and "close" our now wide-open pores with a few buckets of icecold water (otherwise, the polluted air outside would have easy game to enter our bodies). Eventually, we head out. The towelman comes and drapes us in towels, including a turban-like wrapping around our heads. Back in the locker-room, we lie down on stretchers, and wait for the "CaycI" (tea-man) to bring our "Cay" (tea), because steam- baths dehydrate. Hmmm, it's great to feel so clean and relaxed! Eventually, we dress up again, pay the masseurs (~$2 each, including tips) and the "CaycI" (~10c per glass), and tip the towel-man (~50c total), who first offers some eau-de-cologne for hands and faces. After a merry round of handshaking and "see you again"s, we leave the hamam and head for the "Barok Bar" in a romantic side-street with old Ottoman houses, where we are to meet the women of our group. This area is a popular hangout for the students of the nearby Hacettepe University Hospital, and after some more teas at that bar, we have dinner in one of the small restaurants nearby.


Many of you were worried, or just confused, about whether I had some form of Christmas celebration last December 25. The answer is "yes" and "no". Turks are predominantly Muslims, and the modern Republic of Turkey, though secular in its foundations, only includes Islamic holidays (see the appendix) as religious holidays in its otherwise secular and solar calendar. Islam does recognize Jesus (isa, a first name still in use in Turkic and Arabic countries) as a prophet, but doesn't celebrate his birth and death. But we foreigners at my university did get organized and had Christmas parties. And if you see Turkish kilims with Santa Claus on it, it's not (as I said in my first "Diary") because the shop-owners want to please foreigners, but because Santa Claus lived and died in Turkey (although, technically, a carpet or kilim should not display any living being, according to Islamic teaching; so there you have a good heuristic to decide whether a carpet/kilim was made for tourists or not, respectively whether it's old or not). Interestingly, (middle/upper-class) Turks nowadays increasingly have "Christmas" trees, but for New Year's Day rather than for Christmas Day! According to some, such trees are a pre-Christian, pre-Islamic, pre-Turkish-arrival, Anatolian tradition that had simply been adopted by Christians and brought into connection with Christmas Day, because of the temporal proximity (though I'd rather reckon that Christmas Day was chosen so as to be close to some pagan celebrations, such as on December 21, which is the shortest day of the year). According to others (and far more likely), the current "tradition" of "New Year's trees" is just a recent, deliberate, imitiational, secularised version of Christmas trees, no matter what their origin, just like the recent increase in Halloween celebrations all over the world, due to commercial interests.

The Islamic fasting month of Ramadan ("Ramazan" in Turkish) finished on March 13th this year, with the 3-day-holiday of "Seker BayramI" (sugar fest) (see the third "Diary" to find out how I spent that long weekend), where you are offered candy in stores and by relatives and friends. Ramadan was actually much easier on us "infidels" than I feared: many restaurants were open (though people would tactfully not eat at the window tables), and so were most shops. Tolerance was high, and in many parts of town (including our campuses), one could barely notice that this was Ramadan! A special Ramadan bread (hmmm!) was on sale at sunset, i.e. when believers could start eating and drinking again. TV channels with provocative material on weekend nights suspended such broadcasts.

From my apartment, or anywhere on the campuses of my university, usually no "muezzin" (prayer caller) is audible at the 5 daily prayer times (I have yet to actually see a muezzin climb on a minaret and call from its balcony: loud-speakers are nowadays attached to the minarets...; everything goes down the drain), except if the wind blows in the right direction, when I can barely hear the muezzin from the village on the other side of the hill. Too bad, because in my apartment and office, I tend to forget where I am, and prayer calls can be a very mystical experience that I would like to hear more often.

A Typical Saturday

So what do I do on weekends? Well, let me relate a spectacularly successful weekend day that includes most things I have discovered so far. I catch a morning bus from my East Campus residential area to the 12km distant city, and more precisely to the SIhhiye Bridge. This is where the east-west railway line cuts Ankara roughly into a northern and southern half, the former being old Ankara and the "gecekondu" villages (see the first issue of my "Diary"), the latter comprising modern Ankara and the middle/upper-class districts. I like to view the space under this bridge as a strange membrane: only expatriate residents will cross it from south to north (many middle/upper-class Turks wouldn't be caught dead north of the railway line, except in some of the fine restaurants (see below) on that side of town), whereas lower-class Turks will occasionally cross it from north to south (for certain shopping missions, or just out of curiosity to see how the "wealthy" are doing: it's like having a real-life version of the Dallas TV series).

Anyway, as you can guess by now, I of course head north, on the mighty AtatUrk Boulevard, that separates east-Ankara from west- Ankara (my university is in the south-west quadrant). People are dressed differently, headscarves and full chadors become more and more numerous(, and so do moustaches). There is even more roadside selling, more life, oriental music coming from the shops, more audible muezzins calling at prayer-times, different items in the shops, well, in a way it becomes more like our prejudiced view of Turkey: a definite hint of Middle-Eastern life!

OK, let's leave AtatUrk Boulevard now, and climb up the hill on our right: we enter old Ankara. Streets become narrower and more crooked, old Ottoman architecture peeks through everywhere (although often in a pitiful condition), and the whole area is just one big bazaar (shopping area). In good old Ottoman fashion, every street is specialized in some item: clothes, hardware, copper, carpets and kilims, second-hand furniture, spices (hmmmmmmm!), fruit and veggies, and so on. Every now and then a "kebapCI" (small restaurant offering "kebap" or "kOfte", i.e. grilled meat), or a "pastane" (shop selling gorgeous Turkish pastry, such as "baklava", "kadayIf", "Sobiyet", "lokum", puddings, etc.), or a "Cayhane" (a tea-house; it's usually an all-male preserve, full of smoke, where men meet to discuss politics and football). This bazar is not made for tourists or expatriates, and is probably one of the cheapest in Turkey, although the very best quality can hardly be found here.

This area also comprises two of Turkey's best museums: the world-class "Museum of Anatolian Civilizations" (a mind-boggling time-warp that will take you back about 10,000 years, to the Hitite kingdom, Lykia, Lydia, etc., and will actually stop with the Romans, i.e. where most Western museums start!), and the excellent, complementary "Ethnographic Museum" (displays of Islamic, Seldjuk, and Ottoman handicraft, i.e. the last 1,500 years). A few months ago, after years of painstaking negotiations, the Turkish government finally succeeded in repatriating the fabled "Lydian Hoard", which had been literally stolen by US-archeologists. It's on display now in a new wing of the "Museum of Anatolian Civilizations", and features quite spectacular silver ornaments of the richest man of his time, Cresus (from Lykia, the peninsula into the Mediterranean Sea, west of Antalya). So this is worth an N-th visit of this museum.

After an hour or two among breathtaking jewelry, Assyrian clay-tablets, Hitite stone lions, etc, I head out and hear some real (tm) Anatolian music, the kind of which they almost never play on the audio-visual media. Following the sounds, I get to the Clock-Tower Gate, where some politician seems to be running for mayorship of the local municipality: he had the brilliant idea of first attracting the crowds by hiring some musicians and dancers, and I strongly regret having forgotten my camera. After the performance and the applause, the politician gets down to business and promises schools, sewers, and more trees to the electorate.

So I cross the gate, and am now in the age-old Citadel of Ankara. Surrounded by mighty walls, on top of the hill, its residents have miraculously preserved a rural life-style, in the middle of a nowadays huge city (Ankara had 3,000 citizens 70 years ago, probably 4 million today). It's like stepping back a century, except that some of the old Ottoman wooden mansions are now being gentrified and turned into middle-class restaurants with fine views over the city. No signs of yuppification (yet?), as the shopping and driving conditions are really bad here. Kids play football in the streets, and fly kites off the rampart walls. And see!, over there are three traditionally dressed women standing on a wall and wave a huge carpet up and down, so as to get the dust out. They stop while I'm passing, out of courtesy (but maybe also modesty?), but, damn again, where's my camera? I walk around, trying not to get lost this time in the maze of narrow streets, but do every now and then have to backtrack because I entered private backyards.

Eventually, I head out of the Citadel and back to the bazar area, for lunch at one of the "kebapCI"s. A great soup + iskender Kebap (with yogurt, hmmm!) + salad + ayran (Turkish drink made of water and yogurt) + Cay (tea) later (make that ~$2), I set out for the nearest "pastane", so as to feast on baklava for desert... Outdoors again, in the first sunshine of this spring, I again hear some great music, and think it must be some other politician, but it turns out to be some private party (maybe a circumcision?) that is spilling out on the street, with the loud-speakers being hung up on the trees. Rhythmic handclapping, dancing, singing. Very nice. There is a "Cay hane" nearby, and I ask the owner whether I can take a table and chair outside to enjoy the sunshine. Sure. So there I am, sipping yet another tea from a tulip-shaped glass, warmed up by the sun-rays, listening to great music and watching the dancers, having smalltalk with some curious passersby who wonder what this blond "yabancI" (foreigner) is doing in their midst, trying to decipher articles in a Turkish daily I just bought, contentedly watching people passing by and going after their businesses, etc. Hey, this is real life!!! Eventually another prayer time comes up, and my situation turns out to be perfect: 3 muezzins from 3 nearby mosques start calling/singing in a well-timed relay, a highly mystical moment, and I finally have the picture-book Middle-East that I miss so much on campus and that makes me come back to this area time and time again...


Did you know that Gordion (where Alexander the Great cut the famous Gordion knot, and was thus destined to reign over Asia) is just a few miles west of Ankara? (Nowadays, it's a pretty unimpressive archeological site, though.)

Did you know that the famous Angora wool was won from the sheep of Ankara? (Unfortunately, it's "was won", as there are only very few shepherds here in Ankara anymore.)

Did you know that the famous Angora cats are the native cats of Ankara? They are not to mixed up with the equally famous Van cats (from the Kurdish part of Turkey). (Again, unfortunately, the Angora cat is almost extinct here in Ankara.)

Pierre Flener