- Published on Tuesday, 11 October 2011 07:47
- Category: Literature
In the fall of 2009, Dale Fox spent two months as a volunteer living with host families in Turkey teaching English. She had never met a Muslim person and this was her first exposure to a Muslim culture. Dale began to email stories of her daily experiences to friends and families back home, portraying the common humanity that binds us, regardless of the trappings of varying faiths and politics. Her experiences and stories completely altered not just her own prior notions about Muslims but also those of her readers, who suggested that she publish them.
This book is not a meant to have a scholarly tome, but instead, is an often humorous reflection of the diverse beliefs and attitudes she encountered throughout Turkey, mirroring what she was told by people young and old, professional and working class, pious and secular. Dale’s desire is to help destroy “monolithic” stereotypes about Muslims by sharing her stories, written in a manner that can be enjoyed by Americans with little exposure to their Muslim neighbors and fellow citizens.
The following is the first excerpt from her book (stay tuned for the second one later this week):
Eyes Don’t Lie
November 11, 2009. The young desk clerk at the Rumi Hotel beckoned me away from a breakfast conversation with my Canadian friends. I had been busy explaining some aspects of Turkish history and politics. I had become their new tour guide, making various recommendations on places to see or not see.
Some of them were thinking of staying an extra week and were considering Izmir, which I highly recommended. When they asked me what the best way was to get there from Istanbul, fly or autobus, my answer was “FLY FLY FLY”. Then they asked me if my host families discussed politics at all; their guide books had warned them not to ask political questions and to avoid the mention of Armenia altogether. I told them that not only did my families discuss politics, I have pursued a path of asking very pointed questions and have always been given very direct answers.
I gave the example of my discussion with my Istanbul family about health care. When I explained the grandmother’s response, they thought that picture should have been in Michael Moore’s Sicko movie. The Canadians commented about how many Americans think they are about to lose the “best health care system in the world”. I told them we suffered from megalomaniac delusions of always assuming that we have the best of everything in the world; one of the older tourists said the Canadians acted in the same fearful and vitriolic manner before they nationalized their system and now they can’t imagine not having it. Just like none of us are voting to get rid of Social Security or Medicare now, are we? When I told them how Americans assumed that in Canada it took months to see a specialist (and when was the last time YOU tried to get an appointment with a specialist in America?) and that their care was sub-standard they shook their heads and laughed in disbelief.
Yes, living abroad does tend to put the spotlight on our collective American idiocies.
My faithful desk clerk was awaiting me and so I made by goodbyes to my fellow English speakers, gathered my passport and credit cards and left with the clerk. This young man had a handsome face and hopeful demeanor. Since his English was very decent, I targeted him as the person from whom I wished to ferret out the secrets of life in this outpost of religious conservatism. The main reason I came to Turkey was to experience the life of more traditional Muslim conservatives, but that reality has eluded me and I suspected this was my last chance. I was happy when he asked if I minded walking to the Turkish Airlines office, a good half an hour on foot, knowing this would allow me time to ask questions. The conversation was so enlightening that after we took care of my purchasing my ticket, I rushed back to my hotel room to write this story while it was perfectly fresh in my mind. After all, Mevlana had all of eternity to wait for me. I had no doubt that I had learned much more from my new young friend than I would from the museum, and so I was in no rush.
Shortly after setting off, I decided to begin with a light question. “I have been told that there is no alcohol in this town because it is very religious; is that true?” He looked at me in amazement and said that while it is true you cannot imbibe from open containers on the street, Konya has the highest percentage of alcoholic consumption in Turkey. Aha, I see my mistake. It would be like assuming that just because you cannot wander around with open beer bottles in downtown Ridgway that nobody there drinks. Perhaps I have chosen the wrong sister city for Ridgway – Konya might be a better fit.
OK, how about this one. My guide book said that Konya was the center of Turkey’s “Bible Belt” although that phrase fell on deaf ears and took some explaining. I told him that I had noticed that despite being known as a very religious and conservative town, I had only seen one or two fully covered women. “That’s right”, said he. “You see, there are 60,000 university students in Konya and while what you read in the guide book was true fifty years ago, everything is changing because of the educated young people”. I sigh, feeling as though my quest to find a conservative Muslim has become a search for the Holy Grail suitable for a Monty Python episode. It was at this point that I asked him his name, which sounds like “Sir Khan”, enabling me to easily remember this prince of a fellow. He then made a prophetic announcement. “It is better to see than to read”. I couldn’t agree more.
Then he sprang a good one on me. “Who do you think it was that destroyed the Trade Center on 9/11?” I hesitated and then muttered that on this point Americans were in general agreement that Osama Bin Laden was the culprit (otherwise why would we be stupid enough to get ourselves into the current mess we are in? OK, let’s not go there). He was convinced that it was actually a conspiracy by a group within the U.S. to make the Muslim world look bad and promised to email a documentary that tells all. I am most interested in seeing it, I responded, and gave him my email; and I am, if for no other reason than to gain insight into the workings of some Muslim minds.
In the midst of dodging traffic and generally trying to keep my physical body intact, I ventured into the topic of politics. What party does Konya generally support, the AKP or CHP? Definitely the latter, which surprised me, but I did not have time to explore the details; he is on night duty again tonight and I will try to wander down when it is quiet and ask this exposer of the local Turkish soul to explain more fully. Next I tried literature. I have not been able to understand why every Turk to whom I have mentioned that I am reading their Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk delicately mutters that he is a good writer but they do not like him personally. I wondered how so many of them seemed to know him so well. So I asked Sir Khan if he liked the writer Pamuk, and his response was identical to all the others. This time I went further; so why don’t people like one of their most famous writers? “Because Pamuk believes that the Turks killed thousands of Armenians on purpose and has promoted the vision of Turks as merciless killers who need to make restitution, or at the very least to apologize. And for this he got a Nobel Prize”. The rest of the world might think he is cool but for many Turks he seems to be a national embarrassment. This young man had nothing against Armenians per se, but as I have heard before, the concern is that a public apology might result in the demand for economic restitution for land and homes lost by Armenians during the war. I can understand that point. I don’t see New Yorkers offering to give Manhattan back to the Indians. Perhaps if we did that first we would have a moral leg to stand on concerning this issue between Turkey and its neighbor. What’s that biblical saying about taking the mote out of your own eye first?
Enough politics. “What about you, were you born in Konya?” Yes, and he just graduated this year from the University with a degree in economics; but he was stuck working as a night clerk at a tourist hotel because it is very, very difficult to gain entrance for a master’s degree, only 1,000 students are chosen each year, and it is otherwise out of reach financially. He told me that he had plans and dreams for his life, but it was so difficult to realize them; he would very much like to study in the U.S. but like Sema, he had the impression that it is exceedingly difficult to get a student visa. He would prefer to live in the Izmir area above all others; he said the main problem with Konya was that it was not near the sea. We agreed that while Istanbul was an interesting place to visit, Izmir was the better place to spend your life. At this moment I wished that I had the wealth of Bill Gates or at least suffered from Midas’s affliction of turning all he touched into gold (I do better at spending it), so that I could give this bright, helpful and hopeful young man a ticket out of Konya and into a U.S. university.
Now that we had cleared up my misconceptions about Turkey, it was time for me to address his strange ideas about America. He informed me that he was quite sure that almost all Americans thought of Turks as terrorists who were trying to force burqas on all of their women; and even though I twice repeated that was certainly not true of educated Americans, and was not even likely to be all that true of the average American who, for the most part, hopefully get the idea that one bad apple does not the entire barrel ruin, I could tell that he didn’t really believe me. Yes, in this case it would also take seeing to believe.
November 24, 2009. Our next stop was the objective and highlight of our tour, the Eyup Sultan Mosque, named after Mohammed’s standard bearer. Eyup Ensari died leading the first Arab siege of Constantinople in the seventh century A.D., shortly after Islam stormed out of Arabia. Despite being their sworn enemy a deal was presumably struck with the Byzantines to allow him to be buried here on this site; his spectacular tomb remains to this day. I think this was a mistake on the part of the Christians. Henceforth the Muslims never gave up until they accomplished their goal of taking Istanbul in 1453 under Mehmet the Conqueror; by that time they had long encircled the main piece of real estate protected by the huge city walls. The original mosque on this site was built in 1458, just five years after the conquest, in honor of Eyup. That version fell into ruins and the present one was built in 1880 by Selim III. It is one of the few examples left in Istanbul of a mosque with its entire complex fairly intact, including a large cemetery which holds the remains of many famous Ottoman scholars. Even the original kitchen complex still stands and to this day two meals a day are cooked and distributed to the poor.
For the duration of the day my guide provided me with an outstanding interpretation of the Muslim faith, at times pulling out a notebook in which he had translated his favorite verses of the Koran into English so that he could share them with visitors. Setting aside the primary difference between Christian and Muslim theology regarding the status of Jesus Christ, I found little difference in the strictures and advice provided. Muslims do not believe that Jesus is God, since every creature on Earth was created by the one and only God and find the notion that a human being would claim to be God himself to be quite profane. They view him as a highly respected prophet, followed by the last messenger, Mohammed. Frankly, I find their perspective to be more aligned with my rationally trained western mind; this dichotomy is something the scientific western world has never exactly reconciled. It perhaps explains why the Arabs and Ottomans were such great scientists and mathematicians, unburdened as they were by conflicts between science and faith. It strikes me what a particularly great tragedy has occurred between the Jewish and Muslim faiths over Israel and Palestine, because their religions are even closer than Christianity, and they share such a similar cultural heritage.
This was a quiet time of year; even in the summer I doubted that many western tourists found their way to this lovely outpost compared to the central focus of Sultan Ahmet, and we entered the holy grounds with nary a person to be seen. I must say that a good part of its authenticity is that it is NOT a tourist mecca; it is the Muslim faithful who are the common visitors. It has a soulful and mysterious quality, and our first destination after my guide stopped and prayed was the part of the complex that housed a traditional Muslim madrasa, or primary school, which was purposely built in the middle of the cemetery. As I walked down the short avenue where prominent scholars were buried, I saw that it was lined with artistic renderings made by the students and I stopped to admire them, as well as an entire collection of young scholars works arranged in the students study area which is under canvas. The original school was recently restored by a special foundation. My guide had a habit of teaching me about what I was seeing by pointing something out, in this case the tombstones, and he asked me “Why do you think that they placed the school in the middle of a cemetery?” I came up with the obvious answer, to remind the students where they were ultimately going.
He elaborated for me. “Education of the young is of supreme importance. They must be taught the answers to the great questions of life, such as where we were before we arrived, where we go when we die, and how we are to behave in the interim. The students are taught in the cemetery to remind them that we all come from the same source, Allah, and return to the same place, the grave, and because of this fact, it behooves his children to treat each other with respect and dignity which includes making sure that the poor do not go hungry and that their children are educated”. He further explained that the duty of those better off to share a percentage of their wealth is to ensure balance in the society, with the understanding that extreme imbalances in wealth and poverty breed social instability that can lead to the downfall of a civilization. He pointed to the famous scholars entombed on the grounds. “The students must be reminded that even the most brilliant and accomplished of human beings also arrive at the grave, and the remembrance of that fact should remind us to be considerate of all human beings regardless of how gifted they are, and if you are gifted, you have a duty to share that God given ability for the benefit of your fellow creatures”. The students are taught that if you do good deeds you will spend the rest of your future in heaven; and if not, in hell; their eternal fate hangs in the balance and hence the importance placed on education. The golden rule should be your standard, but when it comes to deeds, my guide explained that the intention of your heart was more important than the how perfectly we deliver; he applauded my “tender heart” and hence forgave any “technical” mistakes I might make in my ignorance and appreciated my attention, interest and respect.
We entered the door to the school where we found the “headmaster”, a slightly built man with a doctorate who is in charge of this school which provided basic education including the Arabic language along with religious training. A banner hung on the wall soliciting donations to aid the Palestinians in their desperate plight. Yes my friends, I finally had the good fortune to crash land smack in the middle of a conservative bastion of Islam; I found what I have been seeking so fruitlessly and not a moment too soon before I departed. I was offered apple tea by the good doctor, and we proceeded to spend a half an hour in conversation, in the form of a translation by my guide of this educator’s expositions about his mission; I rarely had an opportunity to interject; this was a time for listening. There was much that was beyond me but I was impressed by his sincerity and desire to share his faith. I was given three small books translated to English whose purpose was to explain Islam and its relationship to Christianity. Listening to his exhortations and accepting his books, it struck me that I had entered the temple of the Islamic version of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Despite my secular background and my education which focuses on being an observer and scholar of the diversity of traditions and beliefs found on Earth, I am always impressed by people who enjoy the rock solid faith that they have found the answers to the aforementioned questions. They are good and sincere people, who are difficult not to like. I was reminded of one of my favorite characters in life, an elderly Italian neighbor named Marie from Wilmington Delaware who was the most sincere Jehovah’s Witness I have ever met; she lived her long life by her principles and adopted myself and my little son Randy, inviting us often to dinner and sharing her abundant sense of humor. I have the same feeling of acceptance here.
Before we left to go see the tomb of Eyup my guide asked me to bear with him once again while he prayed, insisting that I stay put in the cemetery for ten minutes. I observed his request, and while waiting, I made conversation with a handicapped helper at the school who knew no English, and he beckoned to two young male teenage students who entered the cemetery to provide translation assistance. They were surprised and pleased to meet this crazy American and I wish that I had the time to talk with them much longer. I could not have found a more welcoming and gracious bunch of folks than in a small church in Ridgway. And of this my fellow Americans we are frightened to death; the exceptions evidenced by terrorism have wreaked tremendous damage to both cultures. Our final stop in the complex was to the main courtyard where we beheld a number of towering 700 year old giant sycamores and the spectacular tomb of Eyup. The interior was plastered with mind boggling Iznik tile work and glittering gold; photos were forbidden in this holy sanctuary. I put on my head scarf and sent up a few prayers for human tolerance, passed through the line of devoted Muslims and off we went to scale the heights of the mountain to have a late lunch at the famous Pierre Loti café that boasts the finest views of Istanbul and the Golden Horn.by Dale Fox, Aslan Media Contributor Turkey Uncovered is Available at Amazon.com, in paperback, hardcover and Kindle.
50% of the proceeds will go to CAIR Pittsburgh and the Turkish Cultural Center, Pittsburgh.