I have been home from Turkey for over one month, and I just realized today that I failed to ever write a final post on Turkey for this blog. Please forgive the delay; I suppose I’ve been so caught up in readjusting to life in the U.S. that I forgot to keep up with this. Though perhaps this is not such a bad thing, as it has allowed me lots of time to reflect privately, before laying out some thoughts here. Of course, I would be naive to think that one month after the trip I have the authority to make definitive and concrete conclusions on my experience in Turkey. The process of travel is an ongoing one, and I will continue to learn from my life in Istanbul. But in what follows I will try to give some of my impressions and ideas about my experiences abroad and at home.
1) Turkey, and especially Istanbul, is safe. This came as no surprise to me, as I had read countless articles and travel journals on Turkey before I ventured there. I had talked to numerous people who have been there, and all told me that Istanbul was a vibrant, welcoming, and very safe city. During my four months living and studying in Istanbul, I never once felt unsafe or threatened in any way. This includes when I would travel around the city alone, and even when walking alone through the antiquated cobblestone streets of Beyoğlu late at night, and when I traveled to the city of Van, in the far eastern region of Turkey and thirty kilometers from the Iranian border. Now, I understand that as a male, I do have some advantage in this respect, in the sense that safety often becomes more of an issue for women, as the world seems full of pestering men who harass and annoy incessantly. But even in that regard, most of the women in my program had no problems, and could usually deflate an untoward flatterer by shouting the Turkish word ayıp, which means “shame.” This word operates like verbal mace, and would dispel the harasser immediately. I am interested in this issue of safety because I think it is a fascinating example of how our perceptions about the world are often in great contrast to reality. Many, many people in the United States warned me about going to Turkey before I left. Comments such as “don’t trust anyone,” “always watch your back,” “I can’t believe you’re going to a country that is near the Middle East,” and “I admire you for going there, because I would never have the courage to do that” were very common. And, I admit, I too had some reservations about going to a country which many in my own communities know little or nothing about. But I am happy to report that all of these fears were entirely unfounded, and that my experiences in Turkey were free of danger.
In that light, I think many of us in the United States have unfounded fears about many countries overseas. We seem to be raised – inculcated, even – with the notion that the U.S. is the only safe and free country on earth, and that the rest of the world wallows in misery, destitution, and sorrow. I remember in my early elementary school years having the sense that the U.S. was the only really good place on earth. It probably has something to do with the “shining-city-on-a-hill” attitude with which early childhood education tends to present U.S. history. Now, I do not mean to demean the United States in that regard, but merely to speculate as to how these attitudes develop. Outside of education, our popular culture also seems to be intensely xenophobic. Take for example the very popular 2008 film Taken, in which Liam Neeson has to rescue his daughter from the sex-trafficking cartel of Albania, which she falls into immediately upon entering Paris. In that film (and others), all foreigners are presented as strange, mean, conniving, and dangerous people, and this has a marked influence on how many people think about the world. Those sorts of films imbue the viewer with an almost unconquerable certainty that the world is not safe and present a tragically warped image of our world. This certainty is grounded not at all upon experience and fact but upon a baseless emotion. It is not to say that one should not be prudent when traveling overseas; the world certainly does have real dangers, and one best be aware of them. But generally, it is my impression that the world is far safer in reality than it is in the imagination of a typical United States citizen.
2) The so-termed “Muslim World” is not a uniform body of people. As someone who grew up in the United States during the era of the horrific tragedy of 9/11, I have been exposed to an enormous amount of judgment toward the Middle East. Now, some of this judgment is entirely appropriate: of course the U.S. should condemn religious extremists who target innocents, as well as the countries who support and harbor them. But beyond that, I think that the West has created an unfortunate characterization of the so-called “Muslim World.” In my opinion, the politics of fear and absolutism (reference the infamous “Axis of Evil” approach) perpetuated by the Bush administration of the early 2000′s forged a great mis-characterization of Muslim people. What happened in the process of that characterization was a simplification of an entire religious and cultural identity, to the end that many in the U.S. began equating the world “Muslim” with the word “evil.” Moreover, this process reinforced the traditional and inaccurate alignment of the West with progress and modernization and the Middle East with antiquity, backwardness, and anti-progress (the process of which demonstrates a staggering ignorance of the Middle East’s contributions to philosophy, science, and literature, many of which were foundational in the development of now-indispensable Western ideas). In those happenings, the extensive diversity of Muslim peoples was chiseled down to a single, uniform Other, whose only definition was that it was dangerous, foreign, and scary. This is the reason that so many people had such negative perceptions about Turkey. Even if some of the people I talked to had never been to Turkey, had never studied it, couldn’t name it’s capital or political structure, had never met a Turk, or had never realized that Turkey is traditionally a very strong ally of the U.S. as well as a founding member of NATO, many of them would oddly have such assured opinions on the country, and the sneaking suspicion that it isn’t safe and that it must hate America. The motivation behind these attitudes, I contend, is this whitewashing of the Muslim identity by many of us in the West. The only thing that many people know about Turkey is that it is a Muslim country, or that it is near the Middle East. In the minds of many, Turkey must therefore be full of evil terrorists. In that mentality, the Muslims in Istanbul are simplistically equated with the Muslims in Tehran, Bahrain, Philadelphia, Damascus, Paris, Dubai, etc.; the “Muslim” is reduced to one singular identity, even though a huge breadth of difference permeates the Muslim people. This, in turn, only heightens the amount of racism, xenophobia, ethnocentrism, and fear that dwells among us, and as someone who witnessed firsthand the incredibly welcoming and enthusiastic people of Istanbul, I can assure you that it is unfortunate, misguided, and unnecessary.
3) The Turkish people love the United States (generally). This one is obviously a generalization, but I will tell you that nearly every single Turkish person I met had only good things to say about the U.S. As an American I was welcomed especially warmly, and Turks everywhere constantly tried to impress me with their knowledge of American popular culture.
4) Turkish is a rich and important language. Before going to Istanbul, I knew only one word in Turkish (merhaba, hello). After studying the language for four months, I am now intensely aware of its importance in the world and its literary capabilities. Nearly 200 million people in the world speak Turkish or a Turkish-derived language. Additionally, Turkish is in my opinion a fascinating and extraordinarily rich language, with an important literary tradition that is packed with imagination and beauty.
5) Turkey is formal. The Turks have an interesting dedication to formality, and this manifests in their clothing, hairstyles, bureaucracies, and even in the way they speak their language. Suits and ties are everywhere, and even more casual clothing tends to be quite formal. Jeans are very common, but shorts are rarely seen. Turks speak their language with a very vibrant presence, as if to announce their dedication to whomever they are speaking. Of course, this too is a generalization, and does not apply to everyone. In the broadest terms, though, Turkey is very concerned with presentation and formality.
6) To speak English is to possess an overwhelming privilege. Simply put, that I could travel to a country as different and faraway as Turkey and, because of the presence of English, still have virtually no problems or struggles finding my way around or buying things, illuminates the advantage that English-speakers have in the global world of the twenty-first century. It was humbling and eye-opening to meet locals who were thrilled to be speaking to a native English speaker, and who were eager to practice their English on me. If someone from Turkey came to the U.S., I doubt that people would offer a comparable treatment. “That’s unfair,” you say, “because English is far more ubiquitous globally than Turkish!” True, but what about more predominant languages, like Spanish (current total speakers: 500 million) or Mandarin Chinese (current total speakers: 1.3 billion)? Surely few in the U.S. would welcome speakers of those more predominant languages either. I say this not to be supercilious, but merely to observe the unfortunate obstinacy with which many in the U.S. view language. How many times have we heard comments like “learn English or leave!,” “speak English or go home!,” etc.? These comments simply no longer hold water in our increasingly connected world. Furthermore, they ignore the struggle of the billions across the world who are learning English (usually for economic advancement), and reveal a lack of awareness of the privilege I mentioned earlier. Finally, they turn a blind eye to the legacy of multiculturalism and diversity that is the United States.
That is all I will say for now. Travel abroad has certainly broadened my perspectives, and I think in a positive way. It was and is a constant cracking of nutshells, a shaking up of assumptions, a relinquishing of fear, and a powerful excitement at the potentiality of an interconnected world.