Camel greeting

Monday, 22 October 2012

What Makes Turkey Different? – and why Turks love Atatürk

There are perhaps reasons why Turkey today might be just as happy not to join the European Union. However, membership of that club is less important than gaining moral acceptance as a people to be taken seriously and accorded equal status in the modern world. Why should this be such a problem? Because clearly, in the minds of many in the West, it assuredly is.

In the first place, Turkey’s population is predominantly Muslim – a fact that sits uncomfortably in the European mindset, in spite of shrinking congregations in mainstream Christian churches. At the same time, Turks are not Arabs. Their brand of Islam is far removed from the bullying, female oppressing, adulterer stoning, alcohol prohibiting joyless world of the Wahhabi Saudis and others of their ilk. Nevertheless, however much, or little, Western Europeans identify with Christianity, the very word Muslim categorises Turks as ‘other’.

Another aspect of their ‘other’-ness is the origin of the Turkic people in Central Asia. Their language is linguistically problematic in the sense that it belongs to the Ural-Altaic family – i.e. neither Indo-European nor of the Afro-Asian group that includes Arabic and Hebrew. The average tourist to Turkey, wishing to say ‘Thank you’ to his waiter or bellhop, on learning that it requires a six-syllable phrase, rarely recovers his initial enthusiasm for learning the language, and consequently never discovers the later joys of suffix agglutination, vowel harmony and reverse syntax that bedevil the more persistent student.

Getting back to religion, the European Dark Ages coincided with the spread of Arabic Islam. There wasn’t really a major clash until Catholic Christendom began to seek temporal power from the 10th and 11th centuries, which also coincided with the beginnings of Seljuk Turkish incursion into Asia Minor. Turks were not historically Muslim. Their original religion was shamanism, and they fell under the influence of Buddhism on their westward journeying. Islam was a later adoption, and Turkish Islam bears the stamp of earlier cultural influences. Nevertheless, it was the Turks who were the target of crusading Christian knights.

Those Crusades (the four main ones, from 1096 to 1204 CE) pose problems of interpretation. The traditional Western view is of Christendom fighting to free the Holy Lands (read Christian Holy Lands) from the grip of infidel Muslims (Saracens or Turks). The implication here is that Christians had some right of ownership to those Middle East territories that in fact contain sites sacred to all three of the great monotheistic faiths. Well, first let’s be clear about one thing: at the time of Christ those Holy Lands were in the hands of the pagan Roman Empire (and to a lesser extent, the Jews). Second, from the 7th century they were under the sway of the Muslim Arabs, as was all of North Africa and much of the Spanish Iberian Peninsula. Some historians suggest that, had it not been for the existence at that time of the Eastern Christian Roman/Byzantine Empire centred on the impregnable fortress city of Constantinople, Europe itself might have been overrun and Islamicised. Third, and in spite of the foregoing, as we have noted before, the Fourth Crusade in 1204 never actually made it to the Holy Land, detouring instead to Constantinople, besieging, conquering and pillaging it, and subjecting it to sixty years of Latin rule from which it never fully recovered.

Subsequently the Byzantines reconquered their imperial capital and held it for a further two centuries. Their territories, however, gradually shrank as the power of the Seljuks and then the Ottomans grew – until the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II hammered the final nail into their coffin with the conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

Again, though, there are problems of interpretation here. Who exactly were those people that the Ottomans defeated? In their own view, they and their empire were Roman, having existed continuously since the Roman Emperor Constantine in 330 CE founded the city as capital of the Eastern Empire. Their claim was strengthened after the fall of Rome itself to the ‘barbarians’ in the 5th century. However, from the viewpoint of Western Christendom, there were several difficulties with this. First, with Rome gone, how could you continue to have a Roman Empire?  Second, somewhere along the way, their language had ceased to be Latin, and become Greek. Third, although the fall of Constantinople has been seen as a tremendous blow struck against Christendom by Turkish Muslim infidels, Catholic Christendom at the time barely lifted the littlest finger to help their Eastern cousins. Some historians have even suggested that the Muslim/Turkish conquest actually saved the Greek Orthodox Church from being subsumed into the Western monster, since the Ottomans permitted the Greek Patriarch to continue his tenure in Istanbul and minister to his flock pretty much unmolested.

Then there is the question of who those Ottomans were. The so-called Ottoman ‘Turks’ had been in Anatolia for four centuries, intermarrying and mixing with the Greek-speaking Christian inhabitants and others, and adapting their culture to those influences, as well as Persian and Arabic – so how Turkish were they?  After conquering Constantinople and finishing off the Eastern Roman Empire (which had lasted for eleven centuries), their Sultans began to consider themselves heirs of Rome and call themselves Emperors thereof. At the height of Ottoman power, the Empire extended as far as the gates of Vienna, some 1100 kilometres from the present border of Turkey – greater than the distance from Vienna to Paris. In terms of longitude, Istanbul is marginally further east than Moscow (around 200 kilometres) but there doesn’t seem to be a problem considering Russia part of Europe – despite wide ideological differences, not to mention forty years of Cold War hostilities.

According to Daniel Goffman[1], by the late 17th century, the Ottoman Empire had become increasingly integrated into Europe as Europeans lost their fear of it, and greater numbers of them visited for one reason or another. Certainly, it played an important role in European politics until its dissolution in 1923. One can’t help wondering, if the Greeks had been successful in forcibly annexing Aegean Anatolia at that time, would that have precluded Greece from joining Europe, or rather, conferred honorary status on Asia Minor?

Undoubtedly, since becoming an independent, democratic, secular republic, Turkey has played its part in the defence of Europe, as the second largest military contributor to NATO during the Cold War, even allowing the USA to site on its territory nuclear missiles targeting the USSR.

Still the problem of Turkey’s identity persists, and Europe continues to find reasons for excluding Turkey from its club. After the First World War, the victorious Entente Powers attempted to force on the Ottoman Empire the ‘peace’ Treaty of Sevres. Under this treaty, much of the Middle East was taken over by Britain and France and a large independent Armenia was established in the east of Anatolia. The Italians were to inherit the Mediterranean coast, the Greeks, the Aegean and its hinterland – and the Ottoman government would retain a more or less landlocked rump in Asia Minor. Shortly afterwards (and unauthorised by the treaty), the Entente Powers occupied the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, where they remained for five years, taking over control of the Empire’s finances, ordering the disbanding of its army, and reducing its government to little more than puppet status.

The occupation of Istanbul, and the Entente-sponsored Greek military invasion of Anatolia were the spark that ignited the flame of national resistance. After a four-year war, led by the charismatic leader Mustafa Kemal, the Republic of Turkey was established on 29 October 1923, and soon after, despite bluff and bluster by the British Government, the occupying forces quietly left Istanbul, taking with them the now pretty much irrelevant Ottoman Sultan.

Well, one point I want to make here is that Britain and France were undoubtedly immensely upset at having their plans for the eastern Mediterranean so frustrated. Not only had a new independent state established itself, in defiance of the Sevres treaty, on that geopolitically crucial patch of earth, but also those Entente Powers, particularly Great Britain, had been badly humiliated by having to quit Istanbul without firing a shot. Perhaps that’s another reason for continuing to keep Turkey at arm’s length.

Now you may or may not have noticed that I took pains to avoid using the words Turks and Turkish in the preceding three paragraphs, and I want to explain why. First, as discussed above, it was now almost nine hundred years since Turkic invaders won the Battle of Manzikert and entered Anatolia – a similar period to Anglo-Saxon residency in the British Isles at the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and even the hardest-headed Gaelic nationalist must have given up hope of their ever returning to Germany whence they came.

Second, Turkishness was a latecomer to the stage of militant nationalist movements. Gossman notes that after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453,  ‘. . . Armenian, Greek, Jewish, foreign and Muslim Turkish settlers soon had constructed a polylingual, polyethnic, and polyreligious metropolis that existed and thrived in striking contrast to non-Ottoman cities in the Mediterranean and European worlds.’ Some of these groups during the 19th century, encouraged and assisted by the European powers, broke away and established their own nationalist states. The Ottomans, however, despite earlier European use of the term, did not consider themselves Turks. It was Mustafa Kemal, later to become Atatürk, who fostered and then exploited the concept of Turkish nationalism in order to unite opposition to post-World War I invaders, and lay the foundation of a new nation-state.

This is the first reason, then, that modern Turks love Atatürk. It was he who gave them a national identity, bonded them together and led them in the fight to establish a free and independent state in their long-standing historical heartland. Without him, the present-day Republic of Turkey would not exist.

Definitely worth a look!
Another reason is that, in his second role as political leader and statesman of the republic he had founded, Atatürk established the ground rules of, pointed the way to, and gave his people the tools to build a state which could take a proud place in the modern world. At the same time as he encouraged pride in Turkishness, Atatürk did away with the Arabic alphabet for writing the Turkish language, established a secular constitution and laid down guidelines for dress which would allow Turks more easily to integrate into the European world.

Turkey continues to have problems of identity, not only with the outside world but also within itself. As a modern secular democratic republic, its Muslim religion sets it apart from its potential peers in terms of political constitution. On the other hand, its very status as a secular democratic republic makes it an outsider and a threat to other members of the international Muslim community, whose governments, for the most part, incline towards paternalistic autocratic governments based on religion.

Turks, free to dress as they like, walk hand in hand in public with their girl or boyfriend, attend or not attend prayers at the mosque, drink alcohol or not as they choose, and vote for the political party of their choice in well-organised transparent elections, are grateful to their first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who devoted his life to making these rights possible. Foreign visitors, free to drink without danger of whipping, to visit Muslim mosques out of interest, Christian churches for worship, and protected historical sites from a rainbow spectrum of ancient cultures and religions, should also be aware that they owe these freedoms to that Father of the Turkish Nation.

On 29 October, Turks will celebrate with parades and fireworks the 89th year of their republic – and twelve days later, on 10 November, at 9.05 am, a Saturday this year, stop whatever they are doing to remember his passing – and give thanks for his life.

PS - A very nice thing about Republic Day this year (2012) is that it falls just as the Islamic Kurban Bayram (Sacrificial Feast) ends, which means a six-day holiday combining the secular and the religious. This is Turkey!

Saturday, 13 October 2012

The Balkan Wars - Centennial Commemoration

I have written a number of posts attempting to balance the ledger of genocide accounts in Anatolia, the Caucasus and the Balkans. Professor Justin McCarthy is one historian who continues to publish the results of objective research - not denying anything, but attempting to clarify the context in which events took place. The Turkish Coalition of America posted this on the 100th anniversary of the First Balkan War:

1912-1913 Balkan Wars: Death and Forced Exile of Ottoman Muslims - An Annotated Map

This month TCA observes the 100th Anniversary of the start of the first Balkan War, which broke out on October 8, 1912. The war and those that followed caused immense suffering for all of the people of the Balkans. However, the tragedies suffered by the region’s Ottoman Muslims remain a story largely untold.

To this end, by publishing an annotated map displaying the geography of atrocities committed during the Balkan Wars, including the death and forced exile of approximately 1.5 million Muslims from Ottoman Europe, TCA commemorates the memory of these victims. The map also chronicles the settlement in Eastern Thrace and Western Anatolia of the surviving Ottoman Muslims, who had once represented a majority in their Balkan homelands. Millions of Turks today are the descendants of those who found refuge in Turkey.

Prepared by Justin McCarthy, Professor of History at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, the map is a powerful visual tool to better understand the devastating effects of the Balkan Wars on Ottoman Muslim communities.

"During the Balkan Wars many groups suffered, but those who suffered most were the Muslims, especially the Turks. 27% of the Muslims of the conquered areas of Ottoman Europe, mostly Turks, died as a result of these wars - the worst civilian mortality witnessed in any modern European war,” said Professor McCarthy. “I hope that this map will demonstrate the disastrous fate of these peoples during this time."

TCA is very proud to have supported this publication and we thank Professor McCarthy for his meticulous investigation into the forgotten history of these Ottoman Muslim communities,” said G. Lincoln McCurdy, President of TCA.

“The founders of modern Turkey urged the ravaged survivors of the Balkan Wars, who settled in Anatolia, to look forward, rather than back. This publication is a constructive effort to move away from the double-standards inherent in historical accounts that overlook Ottoman Muslim losses during this period when the Ottoman Empire was on the verge of collapse," stated G. Lincoln McCurdy.

The map can be downloaded in pdf format here. 
Hard copies can be requested by sending an e-mail to

Previously, TCA published a map titled Forced Migration and Mortality in the Ottoman Empire by Prof.Justin McCarthy. This publication can be viewed here

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Turkey and Syria – Caught up in the game

Last week large numbers of demonstrators took to the streets of Istanbul and Ankara expressing opposition to Turkish military intervention in neighbouring Syria. As a rule, my diplomatic representatives in the New Zealand Embassy in Ankara are quick to warn me (and other Kiwis in the vicinity) of any potential danger. Since they have not yet done so, I am assuming/hoping that means there is no immediate threat of war. Nevertheless, tension is undoubtedly mounting, and Turkey is facing increasing problems as a result of the on-going strife between President Bashar al Assad and forces opposing his regime.

Istanbul is a long way from the Syrian border – around 1200 kilometres and at least a twelve-hour drive – so life in the big city is continuing with most of us pretty much unaffected by events in the distant southeast. On the other hand, it’s not much more than an hour’s flying time away, and the news media are more than happy to bring us images of death and destruction. The latest piece of rabble-rousing in our local paper has been the publishing of comparative statistics of the two countries’ armed forces – showing Turkey with a handy advantage in manpower and hardware. So if we were looking at a football match, say, you’d probably put your money on the Turks . . . but we’re not talking about a football match, and I have to say I’m pretty impressed with the restraint shown so far by the Turkish Government, in what is an extremely delicate situation.

For a start, the AK Party Government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had been doing its best to play a peacekeeping role in the Middle East and North Africa. A laudable aim, you might think, but scant thanks they got for it. Critics at home and abroad accused them of harbouring neo-Ottoman imperialist ambitions; secularists in Turkey proclaimed loudly against a perceived Islamic secret agenda; and there was much gloating when the government’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy began to unravel in the face of continuing Arab Spring insurgencies.

The crisis in Syria is particularly disturbing for the Turkish Government for a number of reasons. PM Erdoğan had been trying to work with Syrian President Bashar al Assad with the aim of normalising Syria’s international relations. Clearly his failure to achieve this must be a major disappointment. However, that’s the least of his worries now. We hear a lot about Russian support for Assad’s regime, and once again the Russians are emerging as a potential evil empire. Maybe so, but this fighting in Syria has been going on for seventeen months now. How are those rebels managing to carry on the fight against a government supplied with Russian military hardware? You can only do so much with stones, slingshots and Molotov cocktails. Luckily for the anti-Assadists, it seems they have been getting outside help as well, from friends in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, enabling them to put up more resistance than might otherwise have been expected.

The border with Turkey is 822 km long
Consequently, for those seventeen months there has been a flow of refugees from Syria to neighbouring countries. Turkey has so far received nearly 100,000, and thousands more are reportedly waiting to enter. Angelina Jolie, bless her, has paid two visits to refugee camps and praised Turkey's humanitarian efforts, but praise and thanks don't meet the cost of food and shelter, which will only increase with winter approaching. Another cost to Turkey was the loss, in June, of an F4 reconnaissance jet, shot down by trigger-happy gunners. The Syrians claim, and the Turks deny, that the plane had invaded their airspace. Still, normal practice is to issue a warning before blowing the aircraft out of the sky. Exacerbating Turkish unease is the increasing activity of Syria's Kurdish population. It seems they are taking advantage of the chaos to  agitate for their own autonomous homeland. Iraqi Kurds had already achieved a level of independence as a result of the US invasion. The Turkish Government understandably sees a growing threat to their own territorial integrity.  A more recent consequence of fighting close to the border has been stray mortar bombs and artillery shells exploding in Turkish villages and killing Turkish civilians.

Well, it would be a nightmare scenario for any government. The United States has been quick to exact revenge for deaths of its own citizens, to the extent of invading sovereign states with no clearly established connection to the killings. Mr Erdoğan has so far shown himself less inclined to go in shooting, despite calls from hawks in his own country to avenge the two lost pilots, for example. His government has, however, instructed its military to fire a few artillery rounds back at targets across the border, to make it clear that tolerance has its limits. We can appreciate that, despite those antiwar protests mentioned above, there is a strong temptation for Turkey to send in its powerful military, and help the forces of democracy oust that evil dictator Assad, whose refusal to go quietly seems to be causing all the trouble. But is it that simple?

Undoubtedly, on the face of it, Assad's regime looks anything but democratic. In a part of the world where religion is a hugely divisive force, Syrian Sunni Muslims make up 74 percent of the population. The president, however, belongs to the Alawi sect, and his appointees dominate the government, despite representing only ten percent. A further ten percent belong to various Christian groupings, including a significant number of Armenians. Some argue, however, that Assad provides the strong leadership necessary to hold together a diverse population, and clearly his support extends beyond the narrow limits of his own religious affiliation.

Another state bordering on Syria, Lebanon is said to be the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East. A recent product of the Turkish movie industry, “Conquest 1453”, glorifying the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, is not being shown there, because of protests by Greek Orthodox Christians, who comprise a mere five percent of the population. Evidently they exert an influence greater than their numbers would suggest, and it seems Christians in Syria also support Bashar al Assad.

Still, you have to wonder what interest the Russians have in a predominantly Muslim land, so far from their borders. Syria does have oil and gas reserves, but not in sufficient quantity to make it a major player in world markets. What Syria does have, however, is a geo-politically significant location.

I have a young Syrian colleague at work. Over the summer he went back home to visit his family, a risky but necessary trip. He told me his older brother, a noncombatant minding his own business, had been killed recently. I expressed sympathy, and tried to show an interest by referring to some of the information I had gleaned from mass media reports on the conflict. His take on the situation, however, was somewhat different. He was convinced that, once again, it's all about the oil - in this case a pipeline that US and European interests want to build to bypass the unreliable and dangerous route involving the Persian Gulf, the Straits of Hormuz and the Suez Canal. Pipe the oil and natural gas out to the Mediterranean via a friendly Syria and you've got a clear run for your mega tankers through less treacherous seas to your First World lands of maximum consumption. Trouble is, Bashar al Assad has been anything but friendly to the West, and Russia would prefer not to lose control of supplies to Europe. Turkey too would rather see a pipeline pass through its own territory, and certainly does not want an unstable Syria on its volatile southeast border.

Instability, however, from the US point of view, and the British Empire's before them, if you look at their record, is less important than the short term benefits of resource exploitation – as long as the instability is a safe distance from home. The US Government may not be Involving itself directly in Syria, but is more than happy to see its Arab allies do so. So says my friend Khalil. And considering that the US did a deal with the Saudis last December to supply them with $30 billion worth of arms, those guys are not short of military hardware to pass on.

In the mean time, the war in Syria goes on, with an estimated death toll now of over thirty thousand; refugees, homeless and destitute, continue to flee across the borders to Turkey and other neighbouring states whose resources to feed and house them are limited; stray bombs and shells also cross borders, killing innocent civilians and increasing the risk that the conflict will escalate to an international scale.

I ran into a former student the other day and, while chatting, I asked what he had done over the summer. It emerged that he comes from a Turkish town, Kilis, very close to the southeast border. He said he had actually been into Syria, working with a local humanitarian organization supplying food and medicines and so on to civilians displaced and impoverished by the conflict. He didn't go into  details, but the things he saw were so sad, he said.

Back in the 19th century, the British Empire was engaged in activities that came to be known as The Great Game. It was played out in the north of India and Afghanistan, and involved a century-long struggle with the Russian Empire for control of India, the jewel in Queen Victoria's imperial crown. Two Anglo-Afghan wars were fought, the first of which, from 1838 to 1842, resulted in a major military disaster, after the Brits attempted to install a puppet regime in Kabul. Well, some of the players may change, but the game, it seems, continues. The Age of Empires is by no means over, and not played out merely by nerds on computer screens.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Cultural difference - Turkish camels everywhere!

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.