Excerpt from Turkish Diary

It’s not a tourist town, but a big, noisy regional city. So no cheap hostels with dormitories for backpackers, only a few hotels in the center of town. After being helped by men on the street to several more and more expensive hotels where my hands were washed with sticky and alcoholic lemon water as soon as I entered reception, I found something reasonable, a room at the Çamlica Hotel (the cheapest in town) with no private bath for 20TL. Turkey is definitely not cheap like Morocco or Israel. It is more like an eastern European country. But I am relaxed enough to go with the flow, and although I was a bit weary after an hour wandering sweatily around hotels with fancy reception areas with my pack on my back, it was all fine. Learning to take time. I had a shower, some vodka and water and my last chocolate biscuit and I was ready to hit the town.

Crowded, busy, but a citadel with big basalt walls, full of market stalls. Got some vinyl sandals for 5TL. And a chicken pita and cola from a beautiful big-eared Anatolian boy (these lovely lads all seem to have wide ears).

Mt Erciyes rears up eighteen miles to the south. 12,800 feet. Am going to see if I can hike up it. Wonder if St. Basil ever did, or was he a bookworm?

Wandering the bazaar, I was greeted by a wide-eyed lad who asked me if I spoke English. He wanted to practise a bit, so we chatted. It became clear that he wanted to guide me around, as he explained things in great detail and then said, “I know Kayseri like the back of my hand I could be very useful.” He then led me to his cousin’s carpet shop. I decided to relax and go with it this time. I am not going to buy a carpet.

His cousin, a beefy guy named Mustapha, sat me down and roared for tea. The lad scurried off, shooed out of the conversation now. Once we got the dance about carpets over with, I said I was studying and travelling, and that I had bought carpets before but on this trip, unfortunately, this was out of the question, even if they could ship back to Australia or Norway for me.

He replied, “Well, Kayseri is not like Istanbul. It is not a tourist town, here we have time for people.”

Spent an hour over two cups of tea with him, and he was keen to discuss with me the poverty of European culture and the strength of his own. He asked me, as everyone does, if I was married and had children. My stock answer is that I am divorced, and have no children (which is the truth). He eyed my gold and lapis lazuli ring with a dry look, and probably twigged that I am gay. He was very confident of his opinions on Europe versus Turkey. Europe is full of drugs, homosexuals, lesbians, and loose women. He knows, he said, as he lived in Germany and got women constantly, in fifteen minutes if he wanted. I think he was exaggerating his prowess. But he had changed, he said, rather piously, and now studies the Koran and goes to the mosque and is married with two children. He does scripture study every week.

He wanted to know about living conditions in Australia. Was life good and easy there? He then made a little complaint about how hard it was in Turkey. “You know, a guy with money in Europe, he has about one million euros. But here, the same guy only has about 500,000 euros.”

“Half a million Euros!” I exclaimed. “That’s a huge amount. Neither I nor anyone I know has anything like that.”

Mustapha spoke about marriage and women, opining, “You know, here a woman has to be a virgin. If she is found not to be, you can divorce her and demand all of the wedding preparation money back.” He seemed very happy with the state of Turkish marriage, that families were strong and there was little divorce or marital disharmony. I asked him, “What if you find your wife was not a virgin but you really love her anyway?” This question seemed not to register with him at all. Then I asked if men have to be virgins too. “Oh no, a man before he married, all his friends pay for him to go to a prostitute so he can learn how to do it.”

I asked about double standards. “Double standard?” He thought for a minute. “No, no double standard.” Then he said, “You think just like my friend Dean from Canada did, but he has been here a year teaching English, and fell in love with our culture, and next week we are going to Izmir to celebrate his marriage to a Turkish girl.”

I did not bring up the subject of increased suicide rates among women in countries like Iran, where traditional laws are enforced. Turkey is one of the countries with no immediately available statistics on suicide.

I asked him what would he do if he got sick of his wife. “Oh, I would keep her and pay for her house but I can take another one. You see, I would shoulder the burden financially, and it works just fine.”

I brought up the subject of freedoms as principles, and that a man has that freedom in principle, strongly, totally, but that perhaps a woman has that freedom conditionally, conditional on the man.

He paused but did not answer, before going on to talk about Islamic values and helping the poor. “In Europe, no one helps the poor. No one gives money on the street for example.” I talked about different structures, of higher taxation and government responsibility for welfare. I agreed that it made westerners less socially minded and there was a problem with that. I told him about volunteer work, helping people that way. He discussed at length the helping of poor people with gifts at night, under the cover of dark where no one else would see, this was the Islamic way. For example, a poor man who is on a salary of only 300-400 euros a month (typical lower civil servant salary) might need help with his wedding, circumcisions, buying a house. Of course, he would help, and he was only telling me this as part of an informative conversation.

He called out in English to his colleague, busy on the computer, “So are you coming to class today? The Hodja will discuss with us the subject of giving generously to the poor.” His colleague smirked, and gave a look that said, “Huh? No way, buddy!”

I said that I had seen very poor people living in tents outside some of the towns.  “Oh those,” he replied with a contemptuous flick of his finger. “Those are just Gypsies.”

I said that I did not understand much about Islam, but I mentioned Sufism. He did not seem to know what I meant. I elaborated, that I found Mevlevi and the Mathnavi inspiring. He did not register this beyond a dismissive look that seemed to say, “Oh, those people!” I said that it was this aspect of Islam that touched me here (I indicated my heart). He was not interested in the topic. So after our two glasses of tea I said goodbye and said I would surely drop in on my next visit to Kayseri.

Afterwards I thought about our conversation and Mustapha’s enthusiasm about his newfound religious life. The kind of religion that nourishes him is one that fully endorses and supports the privileges and prejudices of a heterosexual male. This left me feeling a bit depressed. To me, the religious path, the spiritual path towards God, which includes a developing sense of social relationship with others, involves a breaking open of the self, as well as an acknowledgement of the self. Without the former, the latter becomes hard and stagnant and eventually backward. Hinduism and Buddhism teach that the ego can be a burden and a blockage on the path. The stories in Christianity and Judaism tell of suffering and the breaking open of the ego, and that this, and the trust that goes with it, is what brings a soul to maturity and then to nothingness. I have not yet encountered this in my limited discussions on Islam. I got absolutely no sense of it from the personality of Mustapha. Only from Rumi, who once said “I was raw, then I got cooked, now I am burned” do I get a sense of this terrible and paradoxical development.

This excerpt first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org.


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