01 March, 2010

Kitchen communism

One night last week i met a young man named Hikmet. Ah, i said to Oğuz as we were leaving the building, like Nazım Hikmet, the famous poet.

My roommate replied that Hikmet (1902-1963) was indeed the country's best-known poet - but whether he is beloved or execrated depends on one's politics. The writer was imprisoned from 1949 to 1950, and after 1950 fled Turkiye for the U.S.S.R., where he died in Moscow thirteen years later. The bone of contention - his communist views - can be found in his literary works.

The idea of communism or socialism in Turkiye, Oğuz said, was unpopular less because of opposition from the Turkish people than by the political and economic pressure applied by foreign superpowers - namely Amerika. When you are not a superpower, he observed, you tend to be controlled to some extent by those who are. And it is likely that the Allies' interests in Turkiye after World War II shaped to a large extent the country i see around me.

It should come as no surprise that communism found fertile ground in places such as China - and in a way, it is surprising that it failed to take root here in Turkiye. In organizational behavior, we discussed one of the key measurable differences among national cultures: individualism versus collectivism. In America, and north-western europe, individualism is high, personal space is important and physical closeness is uncomfortable. Evidence can be found in the history of westward migration and is strewn across the contemporary American landscape as urban sprawl. Here, by contrast, people tend to be more collective-oriented; to identify themselves by their group memberships rather than purely personal interests, and the Turkish landscape is characterized by pockets of dense settlement.

Today a more immediate example came to life: the custom of eating from a communal bowl, common in small settlements, and sometimes retained even after the move to urban life. Sometimes when my roommates and i cook together, we eat our eggs and sucuk (a sausage-like processed meat) directly from the frying pan, picking up the eggs with bits of bread. It flows from the communal cooking environment. We shop together, pooling our money to buy food. Dinnerware is casually left in the kitchen, and at times used by anyone who finds it. But these conditions make me aware how deeply individualism and personal responsibility are ingrained in the American psyche. What if my knife is in the dishwasher when i need to use it? Instead of letting the roommates do the dishes (which means leaving them in the dishwasher until someone turns it on) i stubbornly wash my few items. Even in the face of communal ideals, old habits die hard.

The collectivist tendency expresses itself in other ways, though. Turks are unquestionably welcoming. A classmate i have barely talked to invites me to his village for spring break. The circle of friends drinking çay in the evenings folds me into it; we talk until the early morning, and two days later we are playing futbol together.

with Önür, Sefa, Akif, Atif, Sadi, Torbjörn, Ahmet, Halil, and others, in the dining room