Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sultanahmet late summer

Tuesday, early evening, the last full week of August,
in the month of Ramazan. Our window on the fourth floor faces east, overlooking the
mouth of the Bosphorus. I've taken to working here each late afternoon
until the sun sets. Sounds from outside float in over a strong,
cooling breeze; after so many weeks of excessive humidity, I'm almost
tempted to throw on a shawl. Above my head outside, hanging from the
flat roof one level up, a drying carpet hits the side of the building,
fringe dancing in the wind, clanging an occasional rhythmic chime as
the corner hits the window glass.

The imam from the mosque a short distance away is softly singing the
Koran; the acoustics of 600 year old bricks magnify his lilting voice.
Waiters in the hotel garden below are filling glasses with tinkling
ice cubes. Ferry boats and oil tankers are chugging through the strait
200 meters away; a buzz saw and hammers from a neighbor repairing his
roof add their syncopated beats. 
 Over it all, the whirling seagulls cry in perpetual motion.

The imam at the Blue Mosque to our south bursts into the call to
prayer; other mosques in this ancient holy district join in. The men's
voices rise and fall in the same phrases, but all with differing
inflections, timing and tonal skill. They harmonize in a communal
chorus, for the third time of five a day. As the last voice disappears
on the wind, a rooftop restaurant in the street below tunes up some
cool jazz, in preparation for this evening's crowd.

My husband comes in and turns on an old film with a soundtrack of
funky Turkish R&B, about gangsters, cabaret singers, frequent
fistfights and gunfire, and predictably, a man in drag. The slowly
setting fun bounces off the yellow wall opposite, the red tile roof
sags from age and a profusion of squawking birds, searching for bread
crumbs tossed there by the carpet repair man, who feeds them even
though he himself will not eat for another few hours.
The film ends. Abit goes back to work in the shop downstairs. Another
tanker rumbles along the Bosphorus, and I continue to write.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Thicker skin

: a blog-ring project of Dialogue2010
You met our multinational cultural innovators this spring in a roundtable discussion of hybrid life at expat+HAREM. Now in these interconnected blog posts they share reactions to a recent polarizing book promotion at the writing network SheWrites. Join the discussion on Twitter using #HybridAmbassadors or #Dialogue2010
Looking like a tourist while living in Sultanahmet
, the touristy heart of Istanbul, it’s obvious I’m going to be taken for a visiting foreigner. Even though I walk like a Turk along the narrow cobblestone streets, someone is bound to say in English “Hello, the Blue Mosque is this way”. I’m perfectly comfortable being the only ‘one like me’ when I’m on the road. 

But now I’m home. I don’t like to be a foreigner on my own turf.

This is not about my ability to speak the language or to behave as local women do. This is about the outside package: what I look like, and people’s reaction to me based on purely that. Multinational visitors to our shop show little hesitation in stating, “You’re not Turkish” before I’ve even opened my mouth. Do they expect an explanation, an apology? Is that a polite thing to say to someone you don’t know in any culture? And why can’t I be Turkish? I respond that I’m a hybrid, which stops most from asking further, and gets an excited reaction from those who know what I mean.

This week, as I was sitting in our shop, a Turkish woman about my age and her daughter came in to try on some vintage Turkmen clothing we sell. She sat down and launched straight into telling me about a gathering the next morning, a festival of sorts, about an hour’s journey up the Bosphorus from here, and asked if I would be free to come. For a Turkish woman I’ve just met to invite me somewhere was totally normal in my experience…until she continued, “There will be others there – from Spain, Germany, Italy, as well as some British friends who live in Capadocia.
When I saw your face, I thought maybe you’d like to join us.” She even gestured to her own face to make sure I understood.

Granted the Turkish I speak is far from perfect, but I’d just been thinking as this woman and I spoke how lovely it was that we conversed in unhalting Turkish, that we could communicate. But she’d invited me because of my face, not because she liked what I’d said or even that I was a foreigner who speaks her language.

Perhaps I need to develop thicker skin. A funny phrase when it is indeed my skin, my features, at odds here. It intrigues me that she didn’t think it was wrong to call me out as the ‘other’; in fact, she was pleasant while direct – my face was why she was interested.  

My appearance put me firmly in the category ‘foreign’, that large block of humanity that is anyone different than you.

Quite like a conversation the previous week, involving a black American author who’d posted an entreaty on a writers website asking for ‘White Ambassadors’ to promote her new book. At first, the post read as an awkward joke, until it became obvious that the author really did want to appeal to “
White people”, another homogeneous block of humanity. The friend who called this anachronistic article to my attention had been deemed ‘uncivil’ when questioning the writer’s manner and motivation. Perhaps the post was meant to be a humorous way to draw attention to the very real fact that the US publishing industry pigeonholes writers by race, sex, religion…whatever narrow ways they have to define us. But here it was again – this time I was wanted not because I was foreign, but because I was white.

In an age when identities and boundaries are increasingly blurry and lifestyles are becoming hybrid, I understand the confusion and fear that arise. I wanted to comment to that author that I’d be happy to read and recommend her book if I liked the subject and her way of telling the story, but now I’d be averse to doing so because I don’t like someone who wants to put me in a box. Just like the Turkish visitor to my shop. 

Is it just me, or are other human beings rankled when they are grouped like large herds of anonymous sheep, expected to follow the latest shepherd in any direction they are prodded?

I could have posted this opinion while defending my friend’s truthful and direct criticisms. But since living in Turkey I’ve learned to stifle my strong opinions about controversial subjects in public forums, though in private I rarely keep my mouth shut. Not because I’m a foreigner here and will always be considered so, but because my husband is also an outsider of a different kind: an ethnic Kurd. Now, while Turks will claim that there is no second tier of citizenship in this country, there is an underlying and easily understood rule that everyone here must be Turkish, end of discussion, no hyphenated ethnicities need be added.
Happy is he who calls himself a Turk”.

Not such a different situation than black Americans have, when they assert they have their own culture, way of speaking and want to keep both that heritage as well as fit in and be accepted as a part of the larger American whole. But when I’ve questioned looks of consternation after I mention my husband is Kurdish (from my husband as well, for he’s been conditioned to keep ethnic issues private), or equate Kurdish identity in Turkey with any ethnic civil rights struggles that I’ve seen in the country of my birth, those looks become stony and cold. 

After all, I’m a foreigner from a very young country. What right to an opinion should I have?

Worse yet have been reactions online, when I’ve posted my thoughts about anything pertaining to the Kurds in Turkey. I’ve been told by Kurds (especially those living in Europe), by Turks and by Americans that I can’t possibly know or understand, that no one would honestly tell me the truth of their feelings or beliefs, that I’m unable to walk a mile in their shoes. 

After more than a decade living with my husband and to a large extent his numerous Kurdish family, spread out all over not just Turkey but the globe, I find it heartbreaking to again be the ‘other’, the perpetual foreigner.

So that may be why I left the defense of my ‘uncivil’ friend to other mutual friends and writers: to our strong-willed woman of color, who could state what we all thought, though we ‘White people’ could not; or to our two European sisters, who could compassionately or cleverly say what we as Americans must not, or be considered ‘uncivil’, a catty comeback women use to bat down assertive female behavior. Insiders, outsiders, each in our own boxes. 

Will we ever be able to state what we feel without all the identity baggage attached, and leave those boxes curbside?

I don’t want to develop a skin so thick that such subjects no longer rankle me. If that 1% difference that we human beings have in our various facial features and skin colors is enough to keep us at odds, what hope do we have of ever reconciling cultural, moral and religious differences? It’s been 18 years since I watched
Rodney King utter that famous cliché on the TV in my Los Feliz living room during the Los Angeles Riots, but truly, “why can’t we all just get along”?

More thoughts on this subject from my fellow HYBRID AMBASSADORS:

Catherine Yiğit's Special-ism

Anastasia Ashman's Great White People Book Club
Sezin Koehler's Whites Only?
Rose Deniz's Voice Lessons from a Hybrid Ambassador
Tara Lutman Ağaçayak's Circles
Judith van Praag's We Write History Today
Elmira Bayraslı's The Color of Writing
Jocelyn Eikenburg's The Problem with 'Chinese Food'