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French and Russian undergraduate student, trying my hand at the real world.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Cultural Observations part 1: The Turkish

I must say firstly how much I enjoyed my time in Turkey. We were only able to see Istanbul, much to the consternation of my family as it was just as the protests in Taksim Square kicked off. I'm still alive though, and had an absolutely magical time.

We were staying in the Old City, around the corner from the Blue Mosque and Hagiya Sofiya, in a hostel that had a roof terrace that looked right over to the Bosphorus. At night we sat up here and watched the ships slip past in the darkness, something I have loved doing since the first time I saw the razvedka (raising and splitting) of the bridges in St Petersburg all those months ago.

Kazan in Russia is often likened to Istanbul as they are both cities where East meets West, due to the strong Islamic influence. I would say that this is even more apparent in Istanbul than in Kazan as there are so many more mosques, without Islam being the entirely outwardly predominant religion. Turkey prides itself on being a secular state, whilst allowing freedom of religious practise.

I think in Britain, we are made to essentially fear Islam due to our laughably misinformed and hyperbolic media sources.You only have to pick up certain newspapers on any given day to see some kind of scapegoat being made of an Islamic figure, without showing a positive, regular Joe citizen who just so happens to follow the Islamic faith and who represents the 99.9% of the British Islamic population. Furthermore, they exaggerate some of the cultural aspects of Eastern countries that contradict what we perceive as acceptable in our Western society, which the majority of liberal, modern Muslims would also find distasteful. I find this contemptible.
I do my best to read analytically and retain some sense of perspective, but nevertheless, on entering Turkey I was wary of offending cultural sensitivities and considered whether I should follow (what I perceived as) custom and cover my head. This was of course not the case in Turkey and I rather hang my head in shame at the way I felt the need to tread on eggshells based solely on the way the media has shaped my opinions.

I openly confess to being hugely culturally ignorant, purely because the area in which I grew up was in no way culturally diverse. This is something that can only be rectified.
When I travel, I always make sure to pick up on the culture, for no other reason than that it interests me. As such, there is such a richness of culture that I think we miss out on in England. A prime example here is the art of haggling. We got the shuttle bus from the airport to the city centre, which was interesting for two reasons: firstly, our fellow passengers, and secondly, the fact we were diverted past Taksim, which turned out to be our only glimpse of the protests. This glimpse was as tame as the French protests I saw on an almost weekly basis while living in France and absolutely nothing like the picture the media presented us with back home.
Our fellow passengers, then, were the most interesting part of the journey. We shared the trip with a friendly Persian woman, who had lived in England for 20 years and was in Istanbul to meet her sister, as Istanbul served as a useful halfway point from wherever she was travelling from. Being Persian, her mother tongue was Farsi, which it emerged is spoken by a lot of Turkish people, due to historical relations between the two countries. Farsi is the language of bargaining. She spoke fluidly, with humour, to the Turkish taxi driver, who responded with shrugs of the shoulder, shakings of the head. I, of course, had no idea what was going on. She was haggling down the price of the bus ride, but in a way that English people would be so hopelessly awkwardly incapable of. It was incredible to watch. It was a light exchange, a sort of banter. English people would get flustered and uncomfortable, or worse, offended. I think getting angry and offended has turned into something of a national sport in England - it's the reason certain newspapers exist and indeed continue to maintain such high circulation.

It was in Turkey that I found a sense of peace with Islam. I heard the call to prayer from the Blue Mosque and felt unbelievably moved by its power and its resonance. Islam means obedience and modesty and I felt that this was embodied by the beauty of this call from the mosque. I have always loved alaaps when used in music from the East, but this was on a whole other scale. Islam in my head developed a human, quotidian element that I had never before been exposed to.  I felt like my previous ignorance was forgiven, as well as confused as to how some people feel threatened by Islam and fear its cultural emergence in Western society.

The people in this amazing country were some of the most relaxed and easy-going that I have ever come across. Nothing was too much trouble for them; they have a fantastic sense of humour and are hugely personable. I had some unbelievable food whilst there, including the flatbread I came to love whilst in Russia. (They have recently relaxed border controls between the two countries, so there are a fair number of Turkish people in the Eastern areas of Russia, Kazan included).I loved the Eastern feel of the country from the spice markets and hammam cloths for sale, but without it being too alien to my Western comprehension. I consider this my first steps into a part of the world of which I have barely scraped the surface, but I know I will be welcomed into it with the open, warm arms of the people and not allowed to leave until I have been filled to the seams with the richness of their culture.

I can't wait, frankly, for the next time I can head east.

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