04 March, 2010

Another Çankaya morning

To begin with, a weather report: yesterday, 2 March, was sunny and 18 degrees. That's 18 Celsius, which is 64 Fahrenheit. Students in t-shirts sat on the grass, soaking in the warmth - which by midafternoon felt like midsummer in Maine. This teaser for things to come was short lived. By evening clouds rolled in and lightning flickered across the valley; it was raining full force when i got to Tunus bus stop. 

I stayed at a cafe immersed in conversation, far too late to take the bus back to campus. A restful sleep on a friend's sofa, and i woke ready to explore, determined to find Ankara's botanical garden. I found it high in the Çankaya neighborhood near Atakule tower. It is a steep little park, a narrow vale filled with trees and shrubs. Apples lifted early blossoms, and the buds of Genista are swelling. Feral dogs sprawled on the grass, sleeping in the sun after a night on the prowl. You can find them in almost any public park in the city. The other thing i saw as Ankara awoke around me - simitçi balancing trays upon their heads, calling in a loud monotone "SIMIT!     SIMIT!" This time i finally got a photograph, and a slightly burned simit to nibble on the walk.


below: Windows are washed as women in headscarves prepare the kitchen; 
a restaurant on Ataturk Blv. prepares to open for the day.

Kocatepe Camii

view from Koyunpazarı Sokkak in Ulus, towards Çankaya. 
Kocatepe Mosque is the visual anchor of Ankara; the tall spire behind it is Atakule tower - 
rising above Botanik Park, twenty minutes' walk from Kocatepe.

03 March, 2010



beneath an overpass on Ataturk Blv, a simitçi serves a polis officer

01 March, 2010


"opt" is instant-messaging shorthand for "öptüm" (pronounced ewptoom), a way of saying goodbye to friends. Literally it means "i kiss", a reference to the custom of kissing on both cheeks when meeting or parting. This casual, physical affection is one of the most foreign things about Turkish culture for many Americans - and Scandiavians, Torbjörn observes. We're not accustomed to it.

Well, i have grown accustomed to it easily. I'll admit the first couple of times it was strange - to kiss someone you've never met before, as when Eyup welcomed me to the dormitory like a an old friend. But, surrounding myself with turkish friends, i began to relish the ease and comfort of the custom.

view toward the heart of Ankara: from a pedestrian bridge near CEPA mall. 
note sidewalks, pedestrian bridges, and new contruction

Kissing on the cheeks is perhaps the most visible difference in interpersonal interaction. Turks are unquestionably warm - not to mention hot-headed; open emotion also manifests itself as heated argument. But Turks are generally agreeable, and  small acts of collectivism are a hallmark of public life. 

On the dolmuş - small, privately operated buses which carry perhaps fifteen passengers - drivers tend to hit the gas as soon as the door closes. Hence it is customary for people to sit down immediately and pass their money forward. The driver makes change on the go (bus drivers here take cell phone calls in traffic). And then everyone passes the change back to the new rider. It is a habit that implies, among other things, the general sense of trust in some (but not all) segments of Turkish society.
A closer look finds evidence of a subtler cultural difference in the act of passing change, in kissing on both cheeks: Turkish culture lacks the pathological obsession with hygiene that plagues Americans. After an evening drinking çay, Sefa, Torbjörn and i stood in the kitchen and discussed these differences. Sefa was curious how public transit differed in the U.S. The biggest difference we could observe? The mechanization of payment is ubiquitous in Amerika and Scandinavia, and conspicuously absent here. Perhaps there is a cultural link, an interaction among collectivism, trust, and germophobia; perhaps the only connection is that lower frequency of technological mediation in small daily acts conserves interpersonal warmth - which supports the immune system in two ways. 

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