Diary of a Foreigner Living in Turkey (Part 6)
4 June 1996

"A La Turca", a Lifestyle

Copyright © 1996 Pierre Flener. All rights reserved.
Do not duplicate or redistribute in any form without written permission.

This present issue reflects my perception of how the Turkish mind works and of what makes it tick, as seen through a "Westerner's" eyes. I know in advance that I will be heavily criticized for some of my observations, but note that there is often no judgment involved: I mostly mention differences between the "Western" mind-set and the Turkish one, with a definite generalization to "Mediterranean" (which includes Greeks, Armenians, and Kurds, so please don't take any anti-Turkish ammunition here, because that will inevitably back-fire) and a possible generalization to "Asian" for the latter. These differences are what will strike "Western" visitors most, if not annoy or exasperate them, but such a head-on clash between two mind-sets is inevitable, and, once accepted, contributes to the many joys of discovering Turkey.

Some will ask me why I feel like having to "apologize" (in advance) for what's coming below, as I should have the freedom to write what I want to write. But, as hinted above, experience tells me that especially some of my Turkish readers will not take kindly to some of my observations, and that they will send me hate mail. I also know that many Turks agree with me on many of these matters. Unfortunately, some are not open to analysis or constructive criticism at all.

Most Turks have indeed been exposed to only two forms of prose about their country: Armenian/Greek/...-written hate-"literature" (and the Internet has a fair share of that), and unconditional "declarations of love" by "Western" tourists (and the Internet again has many of these). The problem with the former is that it is so blatantly negative and biased, and often written by people who have never even put a foot onto Turkish soil to verify their claims or experience what they pretend having experienced. The problem with the latter is that they are so outrageously positive and naive: they entirely revolve around what my friend YalCIn calls the "Turkish delight & SiS kebap" axis, and thus provide a form of what he calls "[mental] masturbation" to the Turkish community, the enjoying of which is "induced by an inferiority [complex]" that is entirely unjustified. Indeed, Turks are invari- ably anxious to know what foreigners think about their country, to the point that, hoping that their visitors have overcome their prejudices, they will put the words into your mouth: "We are a nice people, aren't we?" What follows go into neither of these two categories, and tries to fill the missing space in-between them.

Pierre Flener

Arabia for its blessings, but in kindliness Turks excel.
--Arabic adage of the 14th century

[We] set out for the country of the Turks known as Bilad ar-Rum [Anatolia], because it was in ancient times their [the Greeks'] land. Later on it was conquered by the Muslims, but there are still large numbers of Christians there under the government of the Turkmen Muslims. [...] [We] reached Alaya [Alanya?], where the province begins. This country is one of the best in the world; in it God has united the good features dispersed throughout other lands. Its people are the most comely of men, the cleanest in their dress, the most exquisite in their food, and the kindliest folk in creation. Wherever we stopped in this land, whether at a hospice or a private house, our neighbors both men and women (these do not veil themselves) came to ask after us. When we left them they bade us farewell as though they were our relatives and our own folk, and you would see the women weeping. They bake bread only once a week, and the men used to bring us gifts of warm bread on the day it was baked, along with delicious viands, saying "The women have sent this to you and beg your prayers."
--Ibn Battuta [Arabic traveler extraordinaire],
"Travels in Asia and Africa", 14th century

The Turkish Approach to Problem Solving

After millenia of deforestation in central Anatolia (the bronze and iron ages meant high needs for wood-fueled ovens in this cradle of civilization, not to mention agricultural needs for land, the construction of navies along the coast, and grazing by goats, the "curse of Asia"), there are not many natural forests left here, so that the color "green" can barely be seen from many panorama points. Aware of this, the Turks are running many re-forestation programmes, and, despite the slow growth in these arid areas, the results are already impressive. Unfortunately, due to a weird "perversion", these new forests are planted in chequerboard fashion, so that you can see through the entire forest wherever you stand! Funny, no?, that the Turks organize things that should go unorganized (and forests should be synonyms of organic growth), while, at the same time, so many things that "should" be organized go without organization (such as suburban development)!

In general now, the notions of symmetry and perfection[ism] seem pretty much absent from many Turkish minds (except for the cited "perversion" regarding forests), so that many results of design, engineering, construction, handicraft, etc., are shabby: parallel walls, bricks, and tiles are rare (the Italian bricklayer's nightmare vision), doors and windows often don't fit exactly, plumbing and wiring are somehow attached outside the walls, paint is splattered all around the painted objects, tekst is'nt spelczecked (sic) nor grammar-checked, and so on. (It is of course debatable whether the "Western" attribution of beauty to symmetric and perfect things is the only valid approach.) Turkey is an unread open-air textbook on fabulous ancient architecture, which will still stand when the shoddy contemporary concrete prefab houses have long crumbled away early next century. Eighty percent correctness and operationality seem perfectly adequate for most Turks, which drives quality-conscious "Westerners" out of their minds with despair. If something doesn't work, a quick fix will be done, which will do until the next (inevitable) dysfunction. Turks definitely do not form a problem-solving nation: symptoms are discarded, but causes are rarely looked for. The "rock parable" sometimes cited for other nations also applies here: suppose a heavy boulder rolls onto a road. Well, Turks will drive around it, which eventually creates a bypass dirtroad, but the facts that the unannounced obstacle is a danger, and that it can even be removed (gasp!), don't come to their minds!

Of course, there are situations where such Turkish-style flexibility and improvisation talent come in handy. Turkish mechanics, for instance, are unsurpassed when it comes to getting your car rolling again, even in the absence of tools or spare parts (this often out of sheer necessity). It will only do for a small distance, but if that's what's needed to get you out of the wilderness, you will be mighty grateful. Turks have an uncanny sense of fixing the impossible! Another point is that there are things that don't have to be played by the rules: one of my objectives in moving to Turkey was to get out of the overly tight Germanic straight-jacket that imposes "must"s and "don't"s in too great abundance. I'm maybe slowly getting there, hopefully eventually striking the "right" balance, but the exasperating thing is that here almost everything is improvised and somehow rigged together, so that I live at the opposite end of the spectrum now! There is no organization, no scheduling, no foresight, no discipline, no optimization, no quality control, just a lot of hard work. Sometimes I try to imagine where Turkey would be with, say, German organization talent and Swiss precision: probably a major economic power! What are the reasons for such an evident lack of job ethics and job pride? Is it "genetic", in the sense that nomadic features are still perspiring through? Or is it that most workers are so poorly paid and overloaded with work that they cannot care about perfection? Or is that the State (as the modern successor to the omnipotent Sultan) somehow favors such a system, in the sense that people don't want to invest into an uncertain future? Probably all of these reasons apply, and maybe others?

The Turkish Lifestyle

Considering the Central Asian origins of Turks, it is amazing how much they have changed their lifestyles after migrating to Anatolia and mixing with the indigenous and other migrated people. To a certain extent, calling the country "Turkey" and the people "Turks" is actually a misnomer, as the only thing Turkish is the official language (and yogurt!). Everything else is a blend of Turkish, Arab, Persian, Kurdish, Armenian, Greek, Roman, Caucasian, etc., to the point where almost anybody can visually pass for a "Turk". This cultural and ethnic mix, plus the influence of Islam on a formerly schamanistic society, is my only explanation for many apparent paradoxes, such as the following (so "Turk" here stands for "citizen of the Turkish Republic): Other things come as a complete surprise to me, considering the deservedly legendary friendliness and hospitality of Turks. The most annoying one is the considerable lack of respect for others (what would you expect of a nation where seemingly fifty percent of the population smokes itself into early death?) and of self-respect. The best illustrations of the lack of respect for each other are the way they drive (see the dedicated section below) and their enormous lack of first-come first-served discipline when "queuing" for a service. The "everybody does it" mentality will of course not solve this frustrating issue. Another example is the street sweeper who sweeps the dust onto the legs of passersby. The self-respect issue has already been illustrated above with the job ethics discussion.

To illustrate this, a (Turkish) colleague told me the following joke: in the kitchens of Hell, the Devil has some cooking pots in which he prepares broth from people of the various nationalities. The Devil's aides are busy with big wooden spoons to push back the people who try to scramble out of the pots. Except for one pot in the back of the kitchen, which boils completely unsupervised. "That's the pot with the Turks," the Devil explains, "whenever one of them gets almost out of the pot, the others will pull him back."

At first, I did not fully understand this joke, only seeing it from the driving and queuing perspective. But then I realized that some Turkish friends stoop whenever I tell them what a friendly and helpful people the Turks are. Although I still have trouble believing this, it appears that these virtues are indeed mostly (in urban areas) reserved for dealing with foreigners: Turks won't go out of their way for helping each other as much as they will do for foreign visitors. As I said, it hurts me to accept this as a fact, and I dearly hope it's not true.

The Turkish Society

The Turkish society is extremely class conscious: there must be hundreds of class layers. Just look at the many ranks among waiters in restaurants! Or the tea-man who considers himself very much superior to the cleaning-man, although "Western" society wouldn't make a difference between them.

At a broad level now, it must be noted that Turkey has almost no middle class: it's vanishing very fast, as the richer get richer, and the poor poorer. But I would also say that very few people are extremely poor, in the sense that they couldn't afford at least one daily meal. The income distribution is pathetic: the multiplier between the lowest salary and the highest income is absolutely incredible here (ten to the three at least?). Some people would even be rich by "Western" standards, because otherwise they couldn't afford the latest Mercedes, which, all things considered, is three times more expensive here than back home, although salaries are many times lower here than back home: there seems no way anybody could, with honest work only, afford a Mercedes in just one life-time, and still feed a family and have a roof! Of course, a fast way to wealth here is to rip off the wealthy (and they seem happy about being ripped off at just about every opportunity), so that, after all, a Mercedes is affordable in one life-time... One of my favorite examples of ripping off the rich is what I call the "tuna fish war": at least two companies (unnamed here, because I don't want to further their interests) have decided that (rich) Turks should eat tuna fish, and they advertise their excessively expensive produce so aggressively that one soon feels guilty of not eating tuna fish! And they of course have a "low-calorie, diet" version: it must be strange for many Turks to find out that some people here want to eat just for keeping their stomachs busy. The rich circulate money (sucked from the poor) among themselves in amounts that would buy the same products in a "Western" country, oblivious to the fact that these things should be N times cheaper here; but maybe they are happy to be able to spend that much money, as it gives them "standing"?

The Turkish Labor Market

My real-life joke about PTT (in the 1st issue of this diary) hinted at a colossal dinosaur of misunderstood and over-staffed bureaucracy here in Turkey. Nowadays I know that nothing, not even trivial things, can get done in less than half a day, and that many additional, unexpected, and illogical hurdles are thrown into your way on every bureaucratic venture. "Expect the unexpected", Murphy's Law, and Hofstadter's Law ("it always takes twice as long as you expected, even if you take Hofstadter's Law into account") are very accurate here. But, on the other hand, which of the two systems is better: in "Western" countries, up to 30% of the work-force is officially unemployed, and often draws unemployment checks (and maybe food stamps) without having to make an effort for it, whereas here there is over-staffing everywhere and unemployed people are "self-employed", which means they (illegally) sell just about anything you can imagine on the sidewalks? Which system gives more dignity to the people, and actually keeps some unemployed from idling in the streets (and from devising criminal schemes of making money)? It would all be nice if only this over-staffing didn't create an absurd bureaucracy, where even simple paperwork is cut down into half a dozen transactions to be done by different agents in opposite parts of the city.

Every second Turk will say he is a businessman, when you ask him. This is of course to be understood in broad terms, because even the (illegal) lighter-fuel seller on the sidewalk considers himself a businessman. However, I would also say that the average Turk is a very "bad" businessman! Let me explain: most businesses are small, one-person or one-family affairs, set up in small quarters, and they are happy that way. Just like in Ottoman times (and in medieval Europe), the shop next door usually sells/produces exactly the same things: as long as you know what part of (the old) town specializes in what, this is a buyer's paradise, as you just need to "play the competition" to get good prices. Now, expansion or merging or buying up the neighbor's shop doesn't seem to come to their mind: everybody is fiercely independent, and wants to be his own and the only boss. And they don't have a sense of competition: how many times did I walk into a grocery, say, to ask for oranges, say, that the grocer said he ran out of oranges, but that his neighbor had some, and that he would walk over with me to the neighbor's shop, for a chat! Back home (in Europe), the grocer would praise his bananas instead, and not even mention his neighbor. This is why I put "bad" between quotes above: I infinitely prefer Turkish businessmen to the greedy ones back home! As an additional "quirk" of Turkish businessmen, I must add that they are absolute wrap-o-maniacs: somehow they only consider things sold when they are wrapped up in (news)paper, and they won't hear you when you insist on not having it wrapped up, even if it's just a postcard or a pen.


Most Turks are fiercely patriotic, and some will mentally lynch you for the slightest historical mention that doesn't fit into the way they have been "brainwashed". Even some of the intellectual elites, who often spent years abroad and had access to other viewpoints, can sometimes not be argued with about certain aspects of their past history. It's here in Turkey that I have understood what a powerful tool brainwashing is. Of course, the books I have read are not entirely devoid of dogmatism either, but at least I still have the open-mindedness to listen to all the sides. The key issues about which one had better have one's "facts" (if any) together are the persona of AtatUrk (the first president of the modern republic, and the object of a much petrified, institutionalized adoration), the "Armenian genocides", the "Kurdish question", etc. Especially the four letters K, u, r, d, in this sequence, make some Turks go ballistic with intolerance: I have received some hate mail for having used them a few times in this diary, although I only used them for geographic and ethnographic identification, not as a political or separatist statement.

A popular means of airing nationalism are (ball) games of the national teams or of the top Turkish teams in the European cups. The national football team has (deservedly) qualified for the first time for the final round of the European Championships, but the press splashed such high waves of nationalism that one was led to believe that the World Championships of 1994 would have to be annulled and replayed so that Turkey could claim its legitimate World Championship title. After big victories, raucous crowds run amok across the entire country, and some foreign residents have felt threatened by this nationalism. I haven't really followed crowd behavior in European arenas recently, but Turkish audiences in international fixtures strike me as particularly unfair: every move of the opponent team is "serenaded" with aggressive booing until they lose the ball. What is this? Why focus energy on being negative, destructive? A couple years ago, when Galatasaray (from istanbul) qualified over English champions Manchester United (not by beating them, just because of more away-goals), the fans went crazy, and some even staged a demonstration in front of the UK embassy in Ankara: don't ask me what football has to do with politics! Their line was something like that Turkey should be a member of the European Union because of this qualification. Politics and sports are not entirely separated here, and my Brazilian friends will probably point out that fueling nationalism in sports is just a means of the government to make the people forget certain problems, at least temporarily... But I also have one good word for Turkish football fans: they write poems for their favorite teams, and recite them in chorus during the games!

Another way of identifying Turkish nationalists is their childish refusal to write "Turkey" rather than "TUrkiye" in English sentences.

Turkey, a former political heavyweight (at Ottoman times), has problems to re-establish its position in the international political arena, and the knowledge of past military glory creates an utterly useless inferiority complex (at least for the middle and upper classes, because the lower class tends to have a superiority complex). Turkey came out victorious from their War of In- dependence after World War I, and a proud nation was built, but it was also torn from its roots by the decision to emulate Europe and North America.

Traffic in Turkey

Even though the driving rules are theoretically the same as in the "West," almost nobody sticks to them, and it comes down to mere survival of the "fittest" on the roads: the biggest/fastest/most-ruthless has the priority, wherever he's coming from, at whatever speed he's coming! (Note that I can happily write "he" when referring to a driver, because there are only a few female drivers here, and they tend to be rather considerate.) Pedestrians thus have the lowest priority, and they are expected to know that and to be very swift to avoid being run over. Of course, if you are used to "Western" courtesy by drivers (although even this is slowly disappearing in the "West"), then it will really look as if they were actually trying to run you down! But such is not the case: the drivers are so used to pedestrians getting out of the way in the last second that they expect it! So if you don't know the local ad-hoc "rules" (however strange they may sound to you), you get into these kinds of situations where you think they are aiming at you. Actually, there is only one traffic rule here, and it says: "There are no other rules!"

Why do drivers try to kill themselves, their passengers, numerous pedestrians, and fellow drivers, just to save some time that they will idle away anyway?! The traffic directorate has it right when urging drivers not to be "traffic monsters". Somehow, brains (if any) seem to get relocated in testicles while driving. Put an otherwise very friendly male Turk behind a steering wheel, and he will turn into an absolute savage, apparently driving on a testosterone high. Did anybody ever tell them that the gas pedal is not an on/off device, but that it actually has intermediate positions between slow and fast?! It just beats me what lowly pleasure one can derive from racing into one's fellow human beings so that they scatter around like chicken. You can't overhear the silent screams of the legions of maimed people who limp around for the rest of their lives, just for having once failed to cross the street. As somebody said: "Westerners" die by accident, Turks live by accident!

Many Turks don't have an idea of what constitutes an acceptable risk: I have seen babies crawling on the dashboard of "low-flying" vehicles, buses and trucks hurtling down curvy descents in neutral speed, a man driving his motor-bike one-handed, holding his daughter with the other hand, and many other hair-rising scenes.

We foreigners here in Ankara have discovered what we call the "Critical Mass Theory (CMT)" (I have observed this in other countries as well): pedestrians can cross anywhere and anytime, even if they have red lights, provided they number at least 15 to 20 (according to the width of the road and the speed of the traffic)! This always happens spontaneously, without explicit consent, once the crowd "feels" that the critical mass has been reached. Just imagine the chaos, and the angrily honking drivers who know that such a crowd cannot possibly get out of the way fast enough, i.e. that they must brake (gasp!).

Another observation is the "Local Space Optimization Principle (LSOP)": especially when driving, from point A to point B say, Turks seem to be genetically hardwired to try to move spatially closer to the goal B, by going to an intermediate point, X say, and then starting all over again. (Point X is often, but not always, on the straight line between A and B.) But this goes without anticipating whether the overall time it takes from A to B via X is optimal, nor whether their move impedes global traffic. For instance, if at an intersection someone wants to turn left, but the left-bound lane has many more vehicles than the right-bound one, he will queue up in the latter (because that gets him, temporarily!, spatially closer to the goal), but he will then waste precious time (and run huge risks) in wheedling through the traffic on the intersection, not to mention that this slows down everybody (this also goes into the "lack of respect for each other" category). Another example is for two-lane roads: suppose a pace line of cars on the fast lane (usually the left one) approaches a creeping truck on the slow lane; if somebody at the rear of the pace line sees the huge empty space on the slow lane, he will pass, by the LSOP, the entire pace line on its right, only to get stuck behind the truck until the entire pace line (including the new arrivals to it!) has passed it. A last example is queuing (ahem, crowding) around a service point: again, one is physically closer, but oversight is lost and down the drain goes any chance for first-come first-served discipline; so they scream and push, and the fittest will wait less (by lack of respect). By the way, Turks don't seem to mind being pushed, having others' elbows or bags shoved onto their bodies, or, in general, "suffering" from all other forms of useless body contacts, just because somebody is applying the LSOP. This of course fits the "interpersonal distance" theory, which measures the distance people of various nations want to keep to other people in order to be comfortable.

Elementary Laws of Physics are not believed to apply in Turkey, because how else can you explain bumper-to-bumper driving in fast pace lines? Any open space you keep to your preceding car is considered an "invitation" to being passed (left or right): preserving braking distance is thus often impossible here. Especially uneducated dolmuS/taxi/truck-drivers have a very fatalistic approach to driving: Allah decides on everything anyway, so why should they bother to drive reasonably? Since it is all written anyway, it doesn't come to their mind that they can prolong their lives (and others' lives) by not entering, from a side-road, at 10km/h and without looking, onto a trunk road with heavy and fast traffic in both directions.

Trucks, being often overloaded and incredibly old, creep up hills at unbelievably slow speeds. Since there is no enforcement of minimum speed here, they get away with it, but also produce many silly drive-up accidents. Now, if you manage to get enough oxygen and survive the cloud of choking black exhaust gases around such a creeping truck, you can even pass it by bike! This will of course mortally wound the ego of the driver, so you should pray that he never catches up with you, as he's later bound to do something fantastically stupid to show you on your little bike who is the king of the road!

Pedestrians are still unused to bicycle traffic (I'll skip more writing about drivers being unused to bicycles, as the mere thought gives me the creeps): vehicles only exist if they make noise, so you'd better have a rusty chain and squeaking brakes, as otherwise you'll fork up pedestrians by the dozen.

Taxi drivers are probably the most-hated fraction of the population, at least by the foreigners, that is. Similarly with "dolmuS" drivers. First, they honk virtually non-stop in order to drum up business and they especially like to drive up to foreigners in order to offer rides (is there a law stating that foreigners are not allowed to walk in Turkey?), and second, they will happily run over a few pedestrians (potential future customers!) just to (un)load another paying passenger. The best way to cope with the first problem is to always use the sidewalk that allows you to walk against the traffic flow, and of course not to gesticulate while talking to your friends. The second problem is best avoided by staying home. DolmuS drivers are infamous (at least here in Ankara) for other things as well: they use opposing lanes as VIP lanes when they are stuck in a traffic jam, and, every year or so, they widen outskirts boulevards by an additional lane or so, creating them just by driving through the ditches until they are leveled! I can imagine bulldozer-equipped dolmuSes in a near future...

Not surprisingly, motor sports are relatively unpopular here: formula 1, Indy, rallye, etc. races are barely covered by the media, contrary to the huge audiences these competitions draw in "Western" countries. And why should they, as driving yourself to the nearest supermarket gives you higher thrills than watching a bunch of dudes doing a stock-car race!

I'm endlessly amused when watching Turkish drivers at an intersection. Here's an account of what happens there:

  1. Getting there. The width of the road increases (I would like to say "the number of lanes increases", but I can't, as, for some reason I fail to understand, they do not create the "line-painter job"), so as to accommodate drivers who want to turn left or right. But what happens is that cars suddenly start wildly swerving around because everybody wants to be in the shortest queue (by the LSOP): what would be three lanes back home will be five to seven queues here. Moreover, in practice, you can turn left or right from any lane, and dolmuS drivers seem to make it a point of honor to turn right from the left-most lane, and vice-versa!
  2. Waiting there. Cars don't stop before the pedestrian crossing, nor even on it, but, by the LSOP, as close as they can actually get to the intersection itself; and if a hole in the other traffic flow allows it, they'll wheedle in or across! And you can do this right in front of the police! And you are certainly not expected to stop before the pedestrian crossing: first, other cars might slam into yours (not expecting you to be so considerate to crossing pedestrians or to ignore the LSOP), and second, you'll get a vicious honking concert for doing so. For the same reasons, if the crossing traffic is nil or negligible, you'd better go straight through the red lights.
  3. Getting away. Lights first turn yellow, then green, but by then the first cars should be up and gone! Indeed, as soon as the other lights turn red, that is even before yours turn yellow, the drivers in the back of the queues start honking nervously to tell the front drivers to get started! Nobody is annoyed by this: the front drivers will likely be back drivers at the next intersection and they will behave exactly in the same way! So why do they fall "asleep" when first in a queue, but are staring like vultures at the lights when not first, so as to literally honk the first ones out of the intersection? Honking is however a way of life, and rarely an insult: most of the time it is a greeting, or a "gentle reminder" that traffic lights are about to turn green, or even a "gentle notification" that you are about to be passed on your right side! However, the cacophony is almost unbearable for newcomers to Turkey.
Well, "bu kadar" (enough for now). Please keep in mind that this compilation of impressions is meant to educate "Westerners" about what to expect when traveling/living in Turkey, but not to vent some (non-existing) hatred of mine against Turks (otherwise, I wouldn't have stayed here for three years now). If, as a side effect, this draws some Turks' attention to quirks of their nation and society (note that I can write a similar article on my own people, now that I have spent well over 12 years abroad!), then I might even have entertained my Turkish readers!