It’s the opening sequence of the 2004 Turkish SciFi spoof “G.O.R.A.” We’re on the flight deck of an enormous inter-galactic spacecraft from the planet of the same name. The flight crew are speaking English. There’s no emergency and no panic. It’s a normal routine landing. “Please ensure your seatbelt is fastened, your tray table is stowed away and your seat is in the upright position.” “Commander, the system is f—king activated sir.” “Pressure is f—king stable sir.” “What are the f—king coordinates?”
|They wouldn't know your mother|
In a later sequence, on Planet Earth, Arif, the main character, gives a ride to an old villager. He wants to play music but the old guy objects. “I don’t like foreign music,” he says. “They could be swearing at my mother and I wouldn’t know.” Don’t worry, says Arif. This band is very young. They wouldn’t know your mother.” He starts the track and the words erupt from the speaker – “Motherf—ker yeah, motherf—ker yeah!”
Now I don’t want you to give the wrong impression here. Turks are quite capable of swearing, and their language is rich in words that you wouldn’t use in front of your mother, father, or baby sister. But that’s the point I want to make here. On the whole, there are still rules in Turkey, written and unwritten, governing when it is appropriate to use such words, and when not. Cem Yılmaz, the writer of the G.O.R.A. screenplay was poking fun at the apparent lack of such rules in the USA and other Western cultures.
I’m not a big follower of the latest trends in popular music. I haven’t even glanced at MTV for years. Occasionally my students give me a glimpse into what’s going on when they ask me what a certain word means in the lyrics of a song they’ve been listening to. My main link to Western pop culture comes from my visits to the gym, as my companions and I sweat to the rhythm of rap, hip-hop and electronic rock. I have to confess, the first time I heard the young lady from 20 Fingers chanting, “You gotta lick it, before we kick it”, I was mildly shocked. Since then I have become less sensitive, and I scarcely blush when the guy from 2 Live Crew lets me into the intimate details of The Way he Likes to . . . tie his shoe laces (Not!). Or Enrique Iglesias hammers out the alternative version of “Tonight I’m Lovin’ You”.
On the other hand, on the occasional shopping expedition with my own good lady, when we find ourselves in some up-market trendy women’s store, and the same lyrics are wafting over Istanbul matrons choosing fashion wear with their young daughters, a mischievous devil within urges me to offer a Turkish translation to the store manager.
This line of thought takes me nostalgically back to a more naïve time when my kids were teenagers, and I confiscated a Red Hot Chilli Peppers cassette on the grounds that, in my paternal opinion, the lyrics were not appropriate for the tender ears of my own 14 year-old daughter. I did reimburse her for the purchase price, however, and I can’t be sure that she didn’t immediately replace it, being more careful to use earphones around the house in future. Nevertheless, I felt I had done my fatherly duty. I’m just grateful I don’t have to deal with a nymphet daughter these days getting advice from Benny Benassi and his ladyfriend on How to get their Satisfaction.
Turkish parents complain about their kids, but really they don’t know how lucky they are. Check out these lyrics from the current Turkish Top 40:
I’m Tired, sings the girl. I’m drifting away with the wind. I don’t know if the end will be good or bad. I am so much in love I wish this feeling for all my friends. But sometimes, this love brings such pain, I can wish it on my enemies.
and another one . . .
Don’t Hold Back, says the guy. Why do you keep your distance? You said, Close your eyes and I’ll be there. You said, There is no obstacle to love. But what about touching and hugging? Don’t hold back! If you miss me, if you can’t live without me, don’t hold back!
Turkish teachers also complain about their students, but I find it hard to sympathise. The last time I taught in New Zealand, I had the experience of being eye-balled by a diminutive twelve year-old and called a “F—king W—ker”. When I mentioned the incident to the school principal, the first thing he asked me was if there was anything I might have done to provoke the lad. I expect to retire from the profession before I have to listen to the Turkish equivalent from a student here.
Young, and not-so-young women from Western nations, however, sometimes find themselves on the receiving end of unwelcome attentions from young Turkish guys on the street. The reason is two-fold. In the first instance, Turkish girls are (or most of them anyway) very much under the protection of their families. It’s not as easy for a Turkish guy to satisfy his sexual appetites out of wedlock as it is for his counterpart in the USA or New Zealand. Also, the impression these Turkish guys get of Western women from their portrayal in pop culture is one of sexual availability. This impression is reinforced by the undoubted fact that Turkey fulfils the role of sex tourist destination for middle-aged European women that Thailand plays for their menfolk. After one or two disturbing experiences, young Western visitors may be tempted to use an English obscenity (or learn its Turkish equivalent) to discourage unwanted attentions. As a general rule – Don’t. A good Turkish girl is more likely to use a phrase equating to “Shame on you”. Anything stronger may only serve to aggravate the situation. The same goes for rejecting the determinedly importunate carpet-seller or hotel tout. Learning the Turkish for "I don’t want one" (Istemiyorum) and uttering it in a firm tone will generally have the desired affect.
Something that struck me when I came to Turkey back in the late 90s was the absence of street graffiti. Sure, I know it’s an artistic genre, and I fully appreciate the skill it takes to execute in its highest forms. However, not everyone can appreciate such works of art when they appear on the newly constructed pristine white wall around his house. For sure, I’m seeing more of such street art in Istanbul these days, and also the less artistic variety with obscenities, often in English. Still to be seen, though, are those touchingly amateurish outpourings of a young male heart: ”Ayshe I love you – Forgive me!”
I am sure others like me will have had the following experience or something similar. Heading out on my bicycle one Sunday morning with the intention of stopping by the seaside for breakfast, I paused to buy two simits from a street vendor. As it happened, I had only a twenty lira note, which the guy couldn’t change. He insisted, however, that I take the simits and I could pay him at some future time. In fact I paid him on my return, having changed the note elsewhere. Far from being impressed with my scrupulous honesty, the chap seemed almost disappointed. His giving me the simits had been a good deed which God would undoubtedly reward – and my repaying him detracted from its merit.
Now I know that I am sometimes accused of lauding Turkey to the skies, and overlooking its faults. To a certain extent this is deliberate, in the sense that I am aware of the bad press that this country commonly suffers from, and this blog is an attempt to balance the ledger. Nevertheless, there are certainly cultural peculiarities that visitors to Turkey would be well advised to beware of. In April 2000 several planeloads of English football fans arrived in Istanbul to support Leeds United in its UEFA Cup match against the local team Galatarsaray. Accounts vary as to exactly what happened. Bar owners in the Taksim entertainment area said that a glass had been broken in a Turkish youth's face and that drunken approaches had been made to local women. Some said that revellers had mixed the powerful local spirit rakı with beer instead of the usual water. It was also suggested that the Turkish flag had been treated in a disrespectful way.
Whatever the reasons, fights broke out in nearby streets, and two Leeds fans died from knife wounds. English supporters, and the media back home were genuinely shocked. In the minds of some, the deaths amounted to murder, and feelings persist that the Turkish justice system failed to view the events of that night with the seriousness they warranted. They may well be right, but there are lessons to be studied by visitors to Turkey from foreign lands.
- First, public drinking and drunkenness are not very common, and generally frowned upon. Turks are quite capable of going out with friends to a restaurant of an evening without drinking alcohol at all. Don’t assume your hometown attitudes to drinking and a fun night out are the same everywhere.
- Most Turks are very patriotic, and they strongly identify with their national flag as a symbol of their national pride. If you’re not looking for big trouble, don’t disrespect it.
- Some Turkish men do actually carry offensive/defensive weapons, and it is as well to be aware of this possibility before getting into a fight. At the time of the Leeds incident one of the English fans was quoted as saying, “We didn’t know they was tooled up.” Do your homework before getting on the plane.
- Fighting is a very serious business for most Turkish men, and inextricably tied up with the masculine sense of honour. Once a fight starts, it may not end until someone is dead, or seriously injured. Consequently, bystanders in Turkey will rarely allow an argument between two guys to come to blows. Strangers will intervene, for example, to keep road-ragers apart. For the same reason, it is incumbent upon the antagonists so separated not to be seen to be too easily discouraged from pursuing the fray. It may take two or three peacemakers to hold each honour-bound combatant until calm is restored. In general, it’s better to avoid getting into a fight if you possibly can.
A more recent cinematic work from the Turkish comedian Cem Yılmaz, is the 2010 film, Ottoman Cowboys (Yahşi Batı in Turkish). Aziz and Lemi are two Ottoman officials charged by their Sultan with a mission to the President of the United States. The year is 1881, and our two Eastern gentlemen are sharing a stagecoach with an English couple, an elderly chap of aristocratic demeanour, and his younger wife.
“Are you French?” asks the lady. “Oh no, madame,” answers Lemi Bey. “I’m Ottoman.” “You ride camels don’t you?” inquires the Englishman with heavy sarcasm. “Camels?” replies Aziz Bey. “Yes, every time. Always. Camels everywhere.” Then in an aside to his companion, in Turkish, “They always say that. It’s the only thing they know.”
In fact, if you see a camel on your visit to Turkey, chances are it’s there to provide photo ops for tourists who might otherwise be disappointed. If you want to visit the country with the largest population of camels, better go to Australia.