I recently returned from our first trip to Turkey, and came away with great memories, and new appreciation of Turkey and the Turkish people. We were fortunate to have had a Turkish student as our house guest for three months in 2012: Atahan. We decided to visit Atahan, who had grown from a "guest son" kid into a young adult friend. One of the highlights of our trip was the development of our relationship with Atahan.
Below are some of my other reflections on our stay.
Hospitality - not just in Atahan's home where we were guests, but Turkish hospitality in general.
We had dinner with an old acquaintance from when I was studying in Munich in 1976/77. I called him locally, as he had frequently said, “If you are ever in Istanbul, I'm the only Opak in the phone book”. My intention had been simply to call to say hello and reminisce for a few minutes. He graciously invited my wife and me and Atahan to dinner. He offered to pick us up, enduring a brutal traffic getting out of town, with grace and patience. Not only was it a pleasure to reminisce further about our days in Munich, but this meeting gave me the opportunity to communicate with a Turkish person without Atahan as our interpreter. We talked about his Haj (pilgimmages to Mecca), his business, and other local topics. (and dinner was outstanding).
I remarked to him the hospitality we had seen and experienced seemed particularly special, well beyond the cordial politeness some Americans or some Europeans show struggling visitors. He mentioned that he traveled a lot for business, and confirmed that my observation was on target. Turkish hospitality is indeed extraordinary.
On Islam and terror in the Middle East
We enjoyed a day and evening with our host's father, and our conversation covered many subjects, including both Turkish and American politics, and religion. I asked about the effect radical Islam was having on Turkey. This man pointed out that Turkey has long been a European country as well as an Asian nation with a mosque in every town (over 3,000 mosques in Istanbul alone). It is also the transit point for people heading from the east to the west (today, Syrian, Afghani, and Sunni refugees), and from the west to the east (as we were). Thus, Turkey is accustomed to many cultures and ideas flowing through its land.
This fellow is a 'Secular Muslim'. (We were having this particular conversation over drinks at one on Istanbul's many rooftop bars.). He remarked that nowhere in the Quran is alcohol prohibited. The prohibition is implicit in preservation of the purity of every body created in God's image,;but nowhere is it expressly forbidden. This man's decision to enjoy alcohol is between himself and God. This feeling is remarkably in line with many Americans who don't want to be told what to do by others, but desire to be left alone with these choices of conscience.
The concern with radical Islam is far more complicated than simply an opposition to being told what to believe. For one, there is the simple economics of Turkey, and Istanbul in particular. Tourism is an important part of the economy, and Americans don't visit Turkey as they used to. The next 9-11 type attack will turn the trickle of tourists to a complete halt. Merchants know it, hotels know it, and nobody who is providing services to tourists likes to think about the effects of the next terror attack.
There are national and tribal differences as well. Turkey's exposure to the rest of the world provides exposure to socially progressive ideas. (Turkey was one of the first European nations to adopt women's suffrage, in the 1920s). Other Middle Eastern countries similar to Turkey in their acceptance of such ideas include Jordan, Egypt, and once, On the other hand, Lebanon. Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia are far less tolerant of others' religious expression. That night we all agreed on one concept: God is great, it is people who malign God's will into something ungodly.
The risk of visiting Turkey
Before our trip, we had asked our host Atahan if my wife should wear a veil, and the question underscored our lack of exposure to the city of Istanbul or the country of Turkey. His response was that Istanbul is a city of over 20 million, twice the size of New York City, and is located half in Europe. There are plenty of veils in the city, including full burka'd women from Saudi Arabia (often with Gucci bags or expensive shoes), but few among the local women. Thus, our light skin and blue and green eyes barely stood out. We felt as safe in Istanbul as we would in any US or European city. I would not hesitate to return, and already look forward to further exploration in the countryside (We will avoid the east, a war zone).
As mentioned, Turkey has long been a transit point for eastern and western passage. Today, thousands of Syrian and Sunni refugees are trying to get to Germany or the UK. These people come from varied backgrounds and personal circumstances, but all are trying to find a better life in the west. We watched this man catch a fish in the Bosphorus. When he landed his first, he pulled a plastic bag from a waste barrel to keep the fish. Nearby his 7 or 8 year old son was trying to sell tissue packages to passersby for 1 Turkish Lira (about $0.33). Istanbul was NOT their final destination. There is no safety net for these foreign visitors (although Turkey has erected huge refugee camps in the east, near the Syrian border). Refugees are easy to spot, with their darker complexions, and frequently begging or selling something on street corners. Istanbul, as with many visitors, is a transit point.
The effect on Istanbul cannot be overstated,and concludes this reflection. Visit and see people from all over the world, enjoy heartfelt hospitality, and see ancient places remarkably preserved..