Thursday, May 29, 2008

Turkey: In Search Of The Garden Of Eden


I leapt out of bed at six a.m. Enough, I thought, I'm going for an early morning walk. By some lucky chance I might find a cafe open and actually satiate this nostalgic need for my mornings back in Minneapolis...

It's amazing what a person will see of their neighborhood when they aren't busy fighting for space on the cracked and treacherous sidewalks; when they aren't dodging traffic or shrugging off the stares and gapes of the locals, or having to decline invitations to spend money in their shops. It's amazing how many buildings you begin to realize exist and that it isn't just one big wall of concrete. There are splashes of personality and texture; secret gardens on terraces and balconies. Other people ache as much as I for a bit of green -- for a bit of life -- in this concrete, pastel hell.

The apartment buildings and storefronts are nothing spectacular. In the post war era, these buildings were erected to house the millions of people who flooded to the city for work. They are very Communist Era looking, but most have been trimmed and washed in a variety of pastel colors that remind me of those UFO-shaped suckers -- the Sweetart ones with swirly colors. Just like those suckers, these buildings all "taste" the same no matter which color you choose to live in: salmon pink and turquoise, lemon yellow and pistachio green, baby pink and baby blue, or washed out lavendar-brown like my building. Any of the above can be combined, mixed, etc. But few have gardens or room for terraces, though many balconies are decorated with gernaiums in painted olive-oil cans.

During a walk last weekend with two other foreign teachers, I showed them a special street where each house had at least two or three trees. Some of the homes were brand new, modern-styled, European-looking homes but they were all houses. It was a wealthy neighborhood hidden from the rest of Buca. My companions were breathing "ooohs" and "aahhhs" and Bridie, from Ireland, stopped in front of a garden with real vegetables and flowers growing in it. We stepped beside her as she reached through the iron bars of the gate, pointing. "Do youz t'ink we'd find a worm thar?"

At the moment it wasn't meant to be a funny question until I pointed out how repressed we must seem to the woman sitting on her four-season porch across the street. It was like we had come upon the Garden of Eden... It has become a serious and desperate mission of ours to find as many natural getaways as possible in this area...

On another day, while walking with Tugba, I saw a grove of trees behind a high, stone wall. I smacked her arm and said, "I saw this park the other day. But it looks like you have to pay an entrance fee." I pointed toward the gate where a little box with a guard was set up. "How much does it cost to get in?"

Tugba was laughing uncontrollably. "You don't have to pay a single lira. Just kill somebody."

I didn't understand her and believed she had mistranslated my question. As we walked a little further, where I could look past the openings of the barred gate at the entrance, I saw the rolled, barbed wire at the tops of other walls, and a guard was walking a large German shepherd in a distant field. I stopped where I was and gaped at Tugba. Orshi, my roommate, had just mentioned that she believed there was a prison somewhere down our street. I had laughed at her since she's paranoid about everything. But she had been right!

This morning, Orshi and I walked to the end of our boulevard where we can see some of the old bunkers of the original prison. She stopped short on the walk and said, dryly, "How could you tell this was it? It looks like the rest of Buca."


During my early morning walk, I reflected on the people of Turkey. It is impossible to create a fair judgement of an entire nation, so I must just give my own personal impressions of those whom I have met. It would be plainly obvious to any American that the Turkish family is much closer than it is back home. I have never seen so many fathers who truly take part in their child's life. You see them on the streets with their sons and daughters and the love and closeness is apparent. I see it in the grandfathers and fathers of my students when they are escorted to school. The family exists as a community. Elderly parents and in-laws live with their children's families and help raise their grandchidren. Indeed, when a woman is married to a man, the new bride has been chosen carefully as her duty is now take care of her mother-in-law as well as her husband and their yet-unborn children.


The elderly here are taken care of by their children. Since the economic crises (which followed the two earthquakes in this country), many parents have either moved in with their children or vice versa.

These are a respective group of people. Even the most hooligan-looking teen will stop to pay his or her respects to the "Efendim". They greet them with formality - for example, "Iyi Aksamlar, efendim" if it's evening. The youngster may even -- if they know the elder -- kiss the efendim's hand and then, bowing, the younger will bring the hand to his or her forehead.

I pass by many salons during my walks in Serinyer. They are reminiscent of the American VFWs. Here, as a widower, you come for your breakfast, your 硹, or coffee. You sit with other widowers and play dominoes or a traditional Turkish game of tiles. And you gape at the American woman who passes you by, shrouding her with instantaneous, unspoken judgements regarding how she looks today.


There is a disturbing sugar-coating of warmth and kindness on the women here. I once wrote about the phoniness of Dublin girls I encountered -- how they were so overly concerned about fashion and vanity that they seem to have lost touch with who they are. Here, I think that the women are trying to forget who they are.

Choices are quite limited here. It's not all bad, however. Ahmed tells me that the women here hunt for rich husbands so that they can bathe in wealth and luxury. "Vultures," he declared, half-joking while glancing at his wife's enormous pile of shoes she's horded for herself from his shop. I turned to him and asked, "But if you do not allow the woman to have an education, to be an independent person, to offer something in return, what else do you expect? Of course she's going to try and find someone to provide it for her."

He chuckled at this and raised a finger and an eyebrow at me, simultaneously. "Touche."

The best job you can have as a woman here -- besides the typical, posh position as a civil service worker -- is to be a teacher. And even they are told what they should teach, for how long, and at what level.

As much as Izmir is modern, it still harvests a set idea of woman's place. Underneath the country's struggle to appear civilized, a woman can expect very little. And we women foreigners are regarded with extra measures of caution, resentment, hesitation, fear and jealousy. And then they starve themselves and dress themselves to look just like the cover models they see in British and American magazines...


I was forewarned about the men from the very start and have found them to be like any other southern macho: like the Latin Americans and the Greeks, they are passionate about owning the woman. They love you desperately and become violent if things don't work out the way they want them to.

I was walking with Neco one day, and we came upon two other men -- at different times -- that had introduced themselves to me in my neighborhood. I want to make it perfectly clear that, when introduced, I claim to be married. Though it may be difficult for my Turkish counterparts to understand why I would be here without my husband, they seem to realize that whether it's true or not, I am way off limits. Anyway, when we met these two other men, Neco became obviously uncomfortable in their presence over brief exchanges with me. I was reminded of dogs sniffing each other out on what they thought was once solely their territory. I became irritated with this. Neco agreed but shrugged, "That's how we are."

On the flip side, I have met a handful of men who are genuinely good natured, and who respect me as a teacher, and as a friend. The mentality of the culture may dictate what they feel and think inside, but to me they have been nothing but kind and lack ulterior motives. And this, you can find anywhere in the world. It's a reminder that I am indeed still on Earth and not on another planet as I tend to sometimes think.


They are gems. They are precious jewels here. There are masses of them and they face incredible odds in overcoming and closing the gaps of poor education and economic hardship. Orshi mentioned that it was depressing sometimes to think of the number of kids who will realize so little here. I suggested that there will be -- especially with today's technology making the world smaller -- someone or a group of intellectuals who will say "enough is enough" to the corrupt government. There will be an intellectual uprising, or at least a fight back. Hopefully, anyway.

My students are normal kids with a lot more fear and respect for their adult leaders. Parents are very strict, but my neighborhood reminds me of where I grew up as a child and how we all played until midnight on summer nights. We didn't fear guns; we didn't fear molesters or kidnappers; we didn't fear gangs and drugs. All we feared were June bugs and whether our parents would call us in before we could finish our game. My neighborhood is filled with kids who play the same kinds of games I used to play. And so, when they kick the soccer ball around in the street below me while I'm trying to sleep, I try to bite my tongue before sending down a harsh "Sus!" After all, it is 12:30 in the morning.

At the little park on my way to school, there is another group of kids. The poor ones; the street kids. They are shining shoes and harrassing people for "para" - money. Shoe shining is a big business here. There are five well-dressed men lined up along the park wall first thing in the morning. They work until at least eleven at night. And they shoo the Dickensonian street urchins away from their reputable stands. When they do this, I can't help wonder if these same, youngish men started out just like these kids...

Overall, children are considered everyone's business. Anybody can come up to your baby, pick her or him up, smother him or her with kisses, bless the child and say a protective word from the evil eye (aha! The Evil Eye -- it's still apparent everywhere. Mugs, keychains, candles, everything you could possibly paint it on, you will find it). Unlike in America, as well, your business is everybody's business. Nobody turns away from a victim of danger and I have quickly caught on to this wonderful community effort in protecting our kids...

Along one of my streets, an electrical wire snapped in two and one piece of it was hanging above the sidewalk. Two children rounded the corner and the younger -- a boy of about five -- grabbed the wire and started to swing from it. I nearly had a heart attack. I cried out, "No, no Schatzele!" and gave him the tsssk common here for a scolding. He smiled shyly at me and walked away, embarrassed. An older man, coming towards me on the street, nodded his approval and we shared our concern over the wire with a mutual frown. It takes someone fourteen hours to remove a dead cat from a sidewalk flocked with passing people. I have no idea how long it takes for someone to climb up a pole to repair a live wire...


I have been so lucky - or unlucky, depending on how you look at it -- to attend two weddings already. Just like the Olden Days in America, this is how the woman gets away from her parents. There really is very little choice. Getting an apartment on one's own is mostly unheard of.

The first wedding was of one of our teachers. I attended but didn't feel a part of it. It all happened so fast, too. The two other Turkish teachers who escorted me to the ceremony had gone to have their hair done and dressed up so nicely, I thought for sure this was going to be some huge event. We entered an auditorium-like room. On the stage was a table decorated in white flowers, linens and some bows. Suddenly, the betrothed couple walked down a side aisle and mounted the stage together. A civil clerk and some relatives were also seated at the table. A large register was passed in which the couple signed their names and then the civil clerk asked some questions to the couple. She held out the microphone to the bride who responded with "evet". Yes. Her new husband did the same. Then there was clapping and the couple dismounted the stage and entered a receiving room. Behind me, a new couple was getting ready to go through the whole previous procedure.

Enormous boquets and wreaths were lined up near the platform where the newly married couple greeted their guests and received pieces of gold: medallions in red ribbons, bracelets, necklaces, etc. When everyone kissed, and the guests all received a little wedding token (almond candies), we were finished. Next, we moved outside and waited for the couple to get into their car and drive away, honking. Inside the receiving room was a new couple already...

As we passed the prison and turned onto the busy street, Orshi and I took one look at each other and ducked into a side street. "The pollution is so bad," she started, "that sometimes it feels like the grit bites your lungs... is that how you would say it?"

"That's pretty good," I said. " 'Bites your lungs' works for me."

Orshi is Hungarian, studied in Iowa, met her Turkish husband there, came back here with him to live and now he's back in America looking for a job to match his MBA. She's finishing her term with Bilmer and will rejoin him in a few months. "I think the correct term is 'burn'," she reflected.

"Yeah, either way it sucks." I winced at having sworn, knowing Orshi is kind of sensitive to it.

Ahmed has been sharing history stories with me and he has a funny way of swearing. One night he was starting a new lecture with me and began with, "When those Ottomans kicked their asses,..." He pauses and nods, squeezing out "kicked", "their", and "asses" as if someone might overhear him - like his mother - understand, and scold him. I laughed before he continued, "Ahmed! If you had been in charge of writing history books for my school, I would have paid more attention!"

I think we all would have...

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