All posts in Turkey

  • In Which I Go to a Turkish Wedding and Think Very Judgmental Thoughts


    The Malvolio waiting in the wings of the Turkish wedding is an old woman. She does not dress up, instead generally wearing a plain black cloak. Her unique function is to mine all the possible gossip from the event. Was the bride’s dress sufficiently fancy? Which guests brought a paltry gift, or didn’t bring one at all? Who wore a hijab but danced to bring all the boys to the yard?


    These old women are known as “teyze” in Turkish. Being judgmental is  not a teyze prerequisite, but teyzes are usually traditional and, in a country where entertainment means television and not much else, gossip is what keeps their lives interesting.

    After arriving at the wedding and completing the necessary rounds of greeting relatives she likes or pretends to like, the judgy teyze sits down and keeps her face expressionless (lest anybody think she is actually having fun – or maybe because Turkish weddings are not fun.) And from her perch on her chair, one of 300 other judgy teyzes, she inspects the cake and the festivities with an eagle eye trained towards anything gossip worthy to break up the monotony of rolling out endless sheets of phyllo pastry over the next few weeks. She does not dance. She considers herself too old for that, of course, and anyway, the dance floor is only big enough for ten percent of the wedding guests and they keep playing the same five songs over…. And over…. And over again..

    I feel empathy for judgy teyzes, because I recently went to my first Turkish wedding and was unable to maintain any kind of remotely anthropological outlook. Why? It was the dullest, most awkward event that I have ever attended, and I have been told that this is normal as far as weddings are concerned. So I judged, since there was nothing else to do, and judged away!

    Turkish weddings, at least traditionally, span two days. The first night, historically only for women, is called the kina gecesi. (This is Turkish for henna night, a tradition most people will have heard of.) Nowadays, everybody can attend, but only women get to sit down, which means that men can casually slip away if they get bored, which they will.

    At the henna night that we recently attended, the bride wore a dress that couldn’t fit through the door. Everybody sat down. Eventually the bride and groom showed up, and danced. Finally, everybody was allowed to dance, but if you didn’t want to, your only option was to sit there. The music was too loud for talking, and too grating for enjoyment. And the DJ kept playing the same songs over and over.

    After about two hours of this, during which time you couldn’t leave because you hadn’t seen the bride get henna put on her hands yet, the bride went to change her dress to a traditional henna night gown. Her mother put a blob of henna on her hands (no intricate patterns here!), the bride and some of the guests danced for an hour more (which you have to stay for) to the same songs, and then they distributed favours,and finally about twenty minutes after that it was appropriate to leave.

    No alcohol.

    If you cannot dance for three hours straight, there is really nothing to do but think about how bored you are. No awkward drunk uncles give memorable, embarrassing, exciting speeches. There is no food on your plate to poke at. You just sit there in a plastic chair in a dress, waiting for it to end, wondering if your hearing will be permanently damaged by the volume of the music, and thinking enviously of the men in the back who can just leave if they want to.

    The only people in a less enviable position than the woman guests of this event are the bride and groom who, although they are to repeat the entire performance the following evening at the actual wedding, are not permitted to stop dancing for the entire ceremony.

    Ah well, so that felt like a waste of an evening. Perhaps the wedding will be better?

    We spent the entire day at the home of the bride and groom’s parents so we could see the groom forcibly removing the bride from her home. It’s not a violent event. The bride stays in a room guarded by her oldest brother. The groom gives money to the brother to give up his sister, and the father ties on a red ribbon to symbolize the bride’s virginity. To symbolize the groom’s virginity, he has to wear a red ninja headband.

    Just kidding, virginity only matters when it’s the bride of course!

    Now the groom has the bride. Everybody disperses to make themselves ready for the wedding. For close relatives, this means doing everything in their power to upstage the bride. Long cream or light-coloured dress? Check. Nine solid gold bangles? Check. Ostentatious up-do or hijab-do? Check.

    My sister-in-law and I went to the hairdresser with some other relatives to take part in this ritual (though of course I couldn’t bring myself to do anything upstage-y.) Here, I learned an interesting thing. Hijabis getting ready for an important event are not allowed to ditch the hijab, because that would be immodest. Instead, they get a hairdresser to arrange it so that it’s many pleats and folds look fancier, and then they get makeup put on their face so they look fancier. And they wear a long dress with lots of sparkles so they look fancier. Everything about it says, “look at me,” but at least it’s modest.

    After the hairdresser, off to the wedding. The venue was outdoors and tastefully decorated. We sat down and discovered, joy of joys, some other English-speakers who had been invited and to whom we could say everything catty that we wanted. The bride and groom walked down the aisle. They cut what looks like a Costco sheet cake. Then they danced their first dance. Then there were three more hours of dancing. Once again, the music was too loud. The DJ, who was not the same DJ, played the same five songs from the previous night! There was no ceremony, as apparently in Turkey “a wedding” is the thing we fondly dub “a wedding reception” in good old North America. And we were served food (thank God), and cake which was not the same cake that the bride and groom cut because…. Even the largest wedding cake isn’t large enough for 600 of your closest friends and family, I guess. It was ice cream cake, which I remember being all the rage for birthday parties when I was 9. 

    No ceremony, no speeches, not even a relative insisting on singing a song in a cringe-inducing faux-operatic style.

    Finally, it was over, and we could go home.

    On to the most catty thing I’ll say here. A number of women were wearing large amounts of solid gold jewelry. Since the Turkish currency has been unstable for at least the past 70 years, most Turkish people of any means choose to save their money in gold. This gold comes out during significant events like weddings and holidays, but cannot be worn every day because it is too soft.  

    Every member of the brides family was wearing multiple pieces of 22 carat gold, the bride wore no fewer than three dresses, the groom two suits, the venue was on the pricey side, but none of them appeared to have been to the dentist in at least ten years.

    Not only does it seem to be a no-brainer for me that the day whose photographs will grace your mantlepiece for the rest of your life you would like to have clean teeth, just one of those inch-thick bangles could buy a lifetime’s worth of yearly dentist appointments.

    But yeah. Something something can’t judge another culture. Just kidding. I am beyond the point of thinking that one should not make judgments, at least where decisions or traditions affect people who are not yourself. Judgment, where it doesn’t evolve into contempt, is important. It allows us to fight for improvement. And although a wedding a relatively small thing, it’s not nothing to force 600 people to listen to the same too-loud songs for six hours and to lose their entire weekend to that end. I felt resentful. I can’t have been the only one.

    Turkish society remains very conformist and traditional, and it can be very hard for some Turkish people understand that things might happen another way than what they’ve always been used to. I was initially okay with this, thinking that it wasn’t my place as an immigrant to step on anybody’s toes. However, when I allowed my mother-in-law to plan my engagement ceremony, I soon realized the folly in this outlook. The whole event was just… awkward. There was no MC to move the ceremony along. We, as the couple getting engaged, didn’t know what to do with ourselves after they put the rings on, and nobody told us what we were supposed to do, so we sat there blushing awkwardly.

    When I asked Adem about it, he said, “Well, engagement ceremonies are always like that.” We had a similar conversation about the recent wedding.

    “You didn’t find the wedding as horrible as I did?” I asked in a discussion the following day.

    “No, it’s normal,” he said.

    Fortunately during our engagement ceremony, my parents were there to rescue it by giving some speeches. But I still felt, after it was over, a sense of shame that I hadn’t been more proactive in designing a ceremony that was considerate to everyone, a ceremony that didn’t feel like a chore to attend.

    And if you’re thinking, “well maybe the most considerate thing would be to just follow the traditions,” you’re entitled to your opinion, but I think too much tradition can keep things stagnant and allows us to continue practices that reinforce harmful ideals. The virginity ribbon? No thank you. Anything that represents an idea that a woman can be bought? I’ll pass, thanks. And anything that makes people feel like they’re wasting their time? No, weddings are a joyful occasion and, if possible, should be joyful for everyone in attendance.

    All that being said, these ideas are easier said than implemented. I’ve been stressed about our wedding coming up because I want to make it an event that doesn’t make people grumble with resentment, but I am still fairly constrained by the traditionalism around me. For example, I have already conceded that we will invite 600 people from Adem’s side, which is insane. Adem wants me to wear one of those gaudy princess dresses and teases me by showing me white dresses from H&M that he says are similar to the ones I show him. (To be honest, if it looked okay, I would wear a dress from H&M and I would even wear a dress that wasn’t white, but that is one tradition that I have been forbidden from sinning against.) And I’m not even allowed to think about having alcohol at the wedding itself, though I have negotiated for there to be some both before and after. Every single tradition needs to be negotiated. It’s so much.

    Related Post

  • Captain Underpants in Turkish


    This weekend Adem humoured me by going to see Captain Underpants with me. He even let me drag him to the bookstore to buy the first book in the series in Turkish (though he loudly chanted “I married a ten year old, I married a ten year old,” the whole way.)

    So I’ve been reading Captain Underpants in Turkish over the past few days and I have learned many things.

    The most important of which is that Turkish doesn’t have a word for wedgie.

    They have to translate “Captain Underpants was able to leap over tall buildings without getting a wedgie” with “Captain Underpants was able to leap over tall buildings without getting his underwear stuck.”

    I felt very sad that the Turkish translation didn’t have the panache of the English original, so I asked Adem about it.

    “Oh yeah, I’ve seen wedgies in films,” Adem said. “But we don’t do it to each other here so we don’t have a word for it. We have other stuff we do to each other.”

    “Like what?” I asked.

    “Oh, you know, grabbing someone by the balls and telling him to sing the national anthem backwards.”

    Where is that “the scream” emoji when I need it?

    No word yet on whether there are Turkish words for wet willies, purple nurples, noogies, Indian burns, or swirlys. But I will let you know what kinds of similarly horrible practices English doesn’t have words for.

    In the meantime, any translation suggestions for the National Anthem ball grab?

    Related Post


    Since I arrived in Turkey, I’ve listened to the calls to prayer thousands of times.

    You would think I would have memorized them by now, but they haven’t punctured even my short-term memory, much less long-term. If you asked me to repeat the words, or sounds, or even hum along to the music, I wouldn’t be able to.

    I guess I’ve become an adult, and my years of learning through passive absorption are over.

    The beginning of one of the calls to prayer does stick out in my head though. It’s sung in the mid-afternoon, and starts with a robust Al-LAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH. This much I get.

    I passively feel like I should at least know what is being sung; but instead, each time I hear this AL-LAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH, the LAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH of which is exactly the same length and timbre of the beginning of “The Circle of Life” song from The Lion King, that is what I automatically start to sing. Gustily, if there’s nobody around to feel disrespected of if I’m feeling particularly exuberant.

    It is now Ramadan. In Turkey, during Ramadan, my sleep is disturbed by the dreaded (for me) Ramadan drummer. Every night, he strolls through Turkey’s neighbourhoods banging a drum to wake everybody up before the sun rises so they can eat. Then, he comes to your door and asks for a tip for waking you up! Unfortunately, there is no option to take money away from him to get him to stop drumming.

    This guy has sicker beats than any of the other drummers I’ve heard. Ours is a no-nonsense drummer. Loud, and regular.

    Since many Turkish people are, like me, not Muslim, (or Muslim only on their official IDs) I am not alone in being annoyed by the Ramadan drummer. I recently saw a picture of a poster hung up on a building in a liberal neighbourhood of Istanbul. The poster had a picture of Lars Ulrich, drummer of Metallica, with a caption that said, “The only Ramadan drummer you should tip.”

    Hear hear.

    Anyway, back to the general point. While the mid-afternoon call to prayer inspires me to sing “The Circle of Life,” the regular bang-bang, bang-bangs of the Ramadan drummer inspire me to sing the song “Bang Bang.” It’s not perfect because the bang-bangs come a little too close together to sing the intervening words, but at least the initial bang-bang is roughly at the right tempo.










    Related Post

  • If You Want to Go Shopping in Turkey, Consider Europe Instead

    I swear, the pantyhose are made of real silk!

    Before moving to Turkey, I almost always shopped online. I loved getting exactly what I wanted, not having to go anywhere, being able to judge the quality of my prospective purchases by the reviews of people who have already hacked through the jungle of the internet, contracted the tropical fever of buyer’s remorse, and learned the strange tongues of the savage online merchant.

    Online shopping in Turkey is much less popular than in Canada, which means that if you need something, you must usually perform the unpleasant task of searching brick and mortar stores until you find it. If being forced to spend time doing that isn’t bad enough, Turkish salespeople often make it worse.

    My defense mechanism is to just not go shopping if I can help it, but as Adem and I got married in the winter, I did need to buy a few things. The first was a shawl to go over my dress. I hoped to buy something wool as it might be suitably warm for going outside in a Turkish winter. Adem and I went downtown to look in the shops. We spotted one that sold scarves and asked the merchant if he had any made of wool.

    “Sure,” he said and pointed. “Right there.”

    Just by looking, I could tell that the scarf was not wool. The fabric was glossy and a bit plasticky. Further investigation revealed a tag that said, “100% polyester.”

    “This is polyester,” said Adem to the merchant after I showed him the tag.

    “Oh,” said the merchant. “It’s polyester mixed with wool.”

    “But this says 100% polyester,” said Adem.

    “Well it got mixed up with the others,” said the merchant.

    “The others are also polyester,” said Adem after glancing at the rest of the tags.

    We walked on, shaking our heads.

    A few days later, I went to Sephora to buy a lipstick for the wedding.

    A saleslady approached. “Can I help you?” she asked.

    “Yes,” I said. “I’m getting married soon and I’m looking for a lipstick that is close to the natural colour of my lips, but will make them more visible in pictures.”

    The saleslady led me to the Estee Lauder section and proposed a colour. Even by Sephora standards, it was expensive.

    “Or,” said the saleslady as I grimaced indecisively, “the colour I’m wearing could be very nice as well.”

    The saleslady’s lipstick was so dark it was almost black. It could not have been further from what I’d asked for.

    “No thank you,” I said. “I’m looking for something more natural looking.”

    Then, I asked her if there were any cheaper brands I could try.

    She said, “All the lipsticks here are this expensive.”

    Since I am too good at wasting time and not making my exit when I should, I asked, “what about the store brand?”

    “Oh,” said this lady a bit tersely. “I didn’t realize you considered the store brand a possibility.”

    I allowed myself to be dragged over to the store brand shelf but left without buying anything after the lady, again, showed me an array of colours that were the opposite of what I’d asked for and then did not suggest we look at other, cheaper, non-Estee Lauder lipsticks which were displayed in brightly coloured rows all over the store.

    That same week, Adem and I bought wedding rings. I asked the jeweler if mine could be made in rose gold.

    “Of course,” he said. “The rings will be ready in a few days.”

    A few days later, we went to pick them up. As promised, Adem’s was yellow gold, and mine was rose.

    Six weeks after the wedding, both the rings were yellow gold. For some reason, rather than making mine in solid rose gold, they had only plated it … without telling us.

    We went back to the store to complain.

    “Oh,” said the jeweler. “Rose gold as a material doesn’t exist, so it’s not possible to have rose gold jewelry that isn’t plated. You know. You wash the dishes, you do housework with it, and that’s what happens. It wears off.”

    Adem is a peaceful guy, and my Turkish isn’t good enough to really stick my claws in someone, which is maybe for the best since the mental insults I was slinging would have made Satan himself blush.

    Here is a G version of those insults:


    They offered to replate the ring for free, which we did because I was too stunned to say or do anything else. Three weeks later, it is now quite robustly yellow, again.

    Turkey has bigger problems than this of course, but these kinds of mundane dishonesties are just so frustrating in the day-to-day.

    Related Post

  • 6 Turkish Pop Songs to Torture your Friends With!

    When I was an adolescent, my family and I often played a game called Crazy 8 Countdown. To play this game, you dealt eight cards and started to play Crazy 8s. Each time a player ran out of cards he or she was dealt in again, but with one less card than before until that number reached zero.

    One fateful day, my younger brother invented “Very Crazy 8 Countdown.” Instead of playing a normal game of Crazy 8 Countdown, before dealing the first card somebody would choose a song and put it on repeat. We were not allowed to turn it off until the game finished.

    My brother is now head of the Torture Department at a top-secret prison complex at an undisclosed location.

    Unsurprisingly, our fondness for Very Crazy 8 Countdown did not last long, but it did last long enough for me develop a lifelong aversion to Billy Joel, who accompanied us through one particularly torturous and long game of Very Crazy 8 Countdown. I have lived my life in constant fear of hearing the strains of a Billy Joel song on the radio, and so moving to Turkey was something of a relief. The politics are crap, the mayonnaise is suspiciously bright white, it happens to be one of the ISIS capitals of the world, but at least I can live my life in the relative peace of knowing that my existence is now a Billy Joel-free one.

    Unfortunately for me, Turkey has produced its fair share of terrible pop tunes. Unlike terrible American pop ditties of all kinds, the worst Turkish pop songs rarely reach the foreign airwaves. Feeling lucky? Think again, because I am about to provide you with the fodder for seven horrible games of Very Crazy 8 Countdown of your own.

    1. Kendimi Kontrol Edemiyorum

    Gençkan’s Kendimi Kontrol Edemiyorum is notable for it’s electric guitar solos during which Gençkan pretends to play an acoustic guitar, it’s sleek 90s styling and, last but not least, its monotone panache. The chorus translates to I can’t control myself / I’m so so angry / Don’t make jokes my friends / I’m pretty out of sorts today. Gençkan’s attempted subversion of the angry-music genre by singing without the help of tones falls a little flat in more ways than one.

    Fun Fact! Do you know that it is impossible to find any trace of a grown-up Gençkan anywhere online? It’s almost as if he’s embarrassed or something.

    2. Çukulata Kız

    While not as musically horrifying as Kendimi Kontrol Edemiyorum, Çikolata Kız (Chocolate Girl) is notable for seeming to take advantage of tourists to Ephesus without their knowledge, climbing on pillars at historical sites, and being racist. The elderly dancing tourists in the video likely just signed up for a trip to Ephesus and not to be in a music video. (If there is one thing I would like to know, it’s whether those people are even aware that this video of them is even on the internet.) As for the racism, culture critics (aka probably just me) have criticized the fact that the word ‘Chocolate’ is used to denote a black woman and that part where the black girl’s boyfriend shows up and ends up not being angry because Ragga Oktay is dancing. Because black people love to dance! Get it?

    3. Çikita Muz

    Muz means banana in Turkish, and Çikita Muz is what Turkish people call what us North Americans fondly dub ‘the normal banana’ and what scientists and nomenclature lovers have christened “The Cavendish Banana.” (Turkey is also home to the anamur muzu which I think is just the Turkish name for the rare Gros Michel variety that was popular in North America until disease made it impossible to cultivate for commercial purposes.)

    The reasons this video is bad are fairly self-explanatory. There is no need to even translate the lyrics. Enjoy (or don’t). At least you learned something new about bananas.

    If you feel like more, Ajdar Anık also has a song about mint.

    Fun Fact! Ajdar Anık has a degree in Engineering.

    Bir Gün Beni Arzularsan

    Dear Banu Alkan, thank you for putting your boobs in a bowl. We notice that you aren’t particularly flat in the chestal region. The vocal region, however, is quite another story.

    Fun Fact! In 1976, Banu Alkan starred in a film called Taksi Şoförü (Taxi Driver). That same year, Robert De Niro starred in a film called Taxi Driver (Taksi Şoförü). Wild, right?

    4. I Love You I Love You

    Musically speaking, this is far from being the worst Turkish song ever. However, a Turkish man singing to a photograph of a blond foreign-looking woman and imagining her responses is just too reminiscent of the daily sexual harassment many women, and particularly foreign women, and extra particularly blonde women experience in Istanbul.

    Fun Fact! Because of this song, the only thing my mother-in-law knows how to say in English is “I love you.”

    5. Hello Obama

    It was 2008, a simpler, more hopeful time. Mustafa Topaloğlu was swept up in the hopenado sweeping the rest of the world like a house in Kansas. Unfortunately, the superfluity of hope he was probably experiencing extended to his understanding of his abilities in English, and led to the creation of this song which, much like the house in Kansas, could probably kill a wicked witch if it really tried.

    I have so many questions about this video, and here are a few.

    1. Is he wearing one of those tuxedo t-shirts? Or is his tuxedo designed to look like a tuxedo masquerading as a tuxedo t-shirt?
    2. Did he do his own subtitles, or was his subtitler as delusional about his English abilities as his boss?
    3. Who is the rapper and why is he too embarrassed to show his face?

    Fun fact! Mustafa Topaloğlu was on Turkish Survivor in 2012.

    Less Fun Fact! My sister-in-law says that Mustafa Topaloğlu is known for beating his wife. But because my Turkish isn’t good enough to read all the Turkish tabloids, I cannot confirm this.

    6. Foolish Casanova

    When she says “Shut up! Shut up!” I think the Petek Dinçöz might actually be singing to herself.

    If you can make it to the part where she says it, then you are probably drunk or not worthy of being my friend. (Full disclosure: I made it there, but it was for research ok?)

    Fun Fact! This singer has worked with 12(!) music labels. I can understand why a label would drop her, but how she has managed to find new labels is beyond my ken.

    Related Post

  • Life in Istanbul these Days

    Sorry for the long absence – it was, I promise, one that would have counted as “motivated” by even the nitpickiest of my high school teachers. I’m working full-time, I’ve had some minor but time-consuming health problems, I did a bit of travelling, and I got married. I’ve neglected a few projects because of the craziness of it all, and this blog is one of them.

    Here are some notes from life in Istanbul as of late.

    Turkey is going to have a referendum in early April about some proposed constitutional changes. These, if accepted, would give the presidential office and Erdogan a great deal of power. I’m beyond caring about it because whether Erdogan wants to maintain the veneer of democracy or not changes little about what is actually going on. The only thing to do is to choose battles we can fight in our corner. To that end, Adem and I have a laundry list of products we no longer buy and stores we no longer frequent because of their links to the government. Ülker and Godiva products are out, we’ve stopped shopping at Şok, Bim, and A101, and we try to shop at the bazaars and neighbourhood shops and to buy local so that our money goes towards providing livelihoods for local merchants instead of big companies that tend to funnel money upward.

    Although I don’t feel any anxiety about the referendum, it is hard to ignore the campaigning. As my neighbourhood tends conservative, huge posters encouraging people to vote yes to the constitutional changes are prominently displayed all over the place. Under one of these posters, another poster has been hung advertising “psychological consulting.” Although I’m reasonably sure that said “psychological consulting” would also be coming from a conservative perspective, it still makes me laugh every time I pass by.

    Along with the posters everywhere, campaigners are handing out flyers in the street and mobile propaganda trucks play jaunty patriotic tunes. The ones against the constitutional changes all play the Izmir March, whose lyrics translate roughly to “Long live Mustafa Kemal Pasha! May his name be a jewel in our crown.” Like many marches, the Izmir March is a major earworm and I find myself whistling it frequently, even if my feelings towards Atatürk are not particularly worshipful.

    In other news from this month, my eyes have been opened to the meaning of my status in Turkish society as unmarried lady living with her boyfriend. I’ve never felt exactly uncomfortable in my neighbourhood or apartment building, but it did make me laugh ruefully this past month when the neighbours started speaking to me all at once. Before I had assumed that their not speaking to me was just because we live in a huge city, but I now suspect it was because Adem and I were living in sin.

    It all started when, a week after the wedding, I said hello to the opposite neighbour and mentioned “my husband.”

    “Your husband?!” she said. “Adem is your husband?”

    “Yes,” I said, “we just got married.

    “Congratulations!” she said. “Why don’t you come in for tea?”

    She has never invited either of us for tea before.

    A few days later, our downstairs neighbour caught us as we were heading out and admonished us for not inviting her to the wedding.

    “We’re neighbours!” she said. “You should invite us!”

    “It was just a small civil wedding,” Adem said. “We’ll have a bigger wedding and invite you.”

    “Congratulations, congratulations,” she said. “Yes, let us know when you have the big wedding.”

    Now she too always greets me whenever we cross paths in the hallway and asks me how I’m doing. I appreciate the attention but do find is amusing (and disturbing?) to see how shut out I was until I made an honest woman of myself. On the other hand, it’s not exactly surprising and they were never rude to me, so I suppose I’ll accept the friendliness and reserve my personal misgivings for bigger problems than their tacit judgement of our choices.

    More to come, I promise.

    Related Post

  • Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey – Turkish Literature in English

    Özge Samancı’s bildings-graphicmemoir Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey chronicles her growing up years in Izmir in the turbulent period following Kenan Evren’s 1980 military coup. Turkey’s 1980s was a time of rapid inflation, a dictatorial government, curfews, and persecution and killings of opposition members. Samancı’s parents were both public-school teachers and, as the currency devalued in the wake of the coup, they became increasingly poor. In order to silence the protests of public servants being paid less and less, the government implicitly suggested its employees begin to take bribes. This allowed for a near-complete absence of recourse for people who didn’t have money and wished for any sort of legal protection.

    Samancı’s father’s response to the treacherousness of life in Turkey is to push his two daughters to do well in school and get well paying jobs. At one point, he tells them, “you have to be good at school. Otherwise, in the future you will be dependent on your husbands or us. Your husband will tell you what to do. You will lose your freedom. In this country, if you are a woman and you don’t have a job, you are ZERO, nothing, NOTHING!” Özge and her sister Pelin respond to this pressure by working very hard and attending weekend school so that they can go to more prestigious high schools and colleges. (This educational pressure was a reality for many Turkish kids of the period, including Adem.)

    The political narrative is a perfect pairing to Özge’s own personal journey to find herself amongst the obstacles of the Turkish education system and her father’s insistence that she be financially successful. Through Özge and her family’s stories, Dare to Disappoint poses questions of what to do in the face of a society that restricts you and its other citizens and forces you to behave in certain very prescribed ways. Do you try to follow your dreams, or is it best to just try to survive?

    This graphic novel also provides a clear window into how the Turkish present mirrors the Turkish past. The modern Turkish “democracy,” the legal system that favours those with money and power, and the intense competition among people who can be trying to raise a family working six days a week for 400 American dollars per month are all foreshadowed in Samancı’s work.

    Samancı also explores the question of whether resisting the status quo is even worth it, both through her own life and in a more political sense. In one scene, her parents watch two protesters protest the government on television and remark that “they’re so brave.” However, the with backdrop of executions and jailings one can’t help but wonder where the line between stupid and brave lies.

    Despite all the serious questions, Samancı is able to demonstrate the turbulence of Turkish society and its effect on her and her family in a way that is gracious rather than angry, humourous rather than jaded. If there is one book I would recommend to people trying to understand modern Turkey, this one is it.

    Other things about Turkish culture you can see in the book include: political graffiti and movements, Kemalism and Kemalist attitudes towards Ataturk, Turkish communism, and the rise of kumpir.


    Related Post

  • Islamic Coverings in Turkey: Women, Young Girls, and Economics

    During my first trip to Trkey in 2014, I was surprised to see few women sporting Islamic coverings. Although public transit was plastered with advertisements for silk hijabs sported by smiling women wearing shiny trench coats and coordinated makeup, the street itself was relatively bare of covered women. In retrospect, the fact that I spent all my time around the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque explains my experience; touristic neighbourhoods are typically only frequented by foreign women since Turkish women understand that the shops and restaurants there are overpriced and the salesmen typically lecherous and inappropriately bold.

    The following summer, I moved to Izmir. Izmir, by Turkish standards, is remarkably liberal – a repository of the deification of Ataturk and his doctrine of secularism. In Izmir, bikini-clad ladies roam the beaches and barely-there sparkly dress-clad women roam the nightclubs (before returning home each night to save their virginity for marriage.) Wearing a hijab in Izmir was an act of rebellion, not a capitulation to a ruling social morality. Even my erstwhile boss, a self-professed Muslim from a more conservative city in the south eschewed it. “No, the hijab is not very good. Anyway the way women wear it these days, it is not modest!” she wailed to me once. “If you wear the hijab for modesty, you shouldn’t also wear makeup!” She showed me a picture on her phone of a Facebook friend of hers, smirking shiny red lips at the camera over a sumptuous meal, an orange hijab of expensive fabric carefully arranged atop her head. “See?” she said. “This woman is wearing so much makeup. She looks not modest.”

    My more recent forays into Turkey have allowed me to see a third snapshot of Turkish culture. I now live in a mixed neighbourhood of Istanbul. Here, Turkish students and Turkish and Syrian families of varying levels of conservatism live together. In my neighbourhood, it is a bad idea to eat in public during Ramadan. Shorts are a fairly rare sight on both men and women, even in the heat of summer. About 50% of women wear some sort of head covering, from the hijab paired with jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt to the face-covering niqab styled with matching long flowing black robes.

    I’m told that there has been a shift towards covering in recent years – that in the olden days of 20 years ago, women who covered typically only did so following marriage and usually simply tied a scarf loosely over their hair. The new style of more intense covering has been blamed variously on the government, the government, the government, and Arab influence coming in from Syria and the Gulf, a typhoon (apparently) blowing the winds of conservative political Islam Turkey’s way. Of course, these are only the perspectives of the ultra-liberal mostly-Marxist couche sociale that I find myself a part of – it’s not exactly easy for me to gather other perspectives because the people who have them aren’t in the habit of talking to foreigners like me and, as I don’t attend school or work in Turkey, I have equally few opportunities to talk to them.

    The prevalence of Islamic covering in Turkey presents an intellectual conundrum for me. As a feminist, I support a woman’s right to wear what she wants. I’m not so blind to the fact that women are presented with many similar messages in the West as they are in Turkey – you should be sexy, but also not sexy. If you’re too sexy, people won’t take you seriously. If you’re not sexy, people won’t think you’re attractive. You should wear makeup to look nice, but not too much because there’s a possibility that people won’t find you attractive if it’s too much. They could also find you too attractive and then it will be your fault if they come onto you inappropriately. You should exercise and keep in shape – but God forbid that a man see the outline of your butt in yoga pants because he might get a boner or talk about seeing your butt to his friends. You shouldn’t care about what men think of you and you should wear what you want for yourself. But be sure that it’s sexy enough to be attractive and modest enough so that nobody can question your character. And don’t forget women. Women are the arbiter of what society thinks too, so if they think you’re not dressing correctly – well, you shouldn’t care, but make sure you’re sexy enough for women to compliment you, but not sexy enough to make their partners be attracted to you.

    But back to the hijab. As a Westerner, I’ve always had a live and let live relationship with the hijab. In Canada, whenever I see one I think one of these things:

    “I just remembered I forgot to buy dish soap.”

    “Oh, a woman wearing hijab.”

    “That must be so warm in winter.”

    “How does she make it look like a turban? How do the pins stay in place? I wonder if they can prick you by mistake, or are there safety pins specifically for hijabs that you can buy?”

    “Is that really all her real hair under that thing?”

    “She could be wearing it for so many reasons – it could be because she wants to express her religion outwardly. Or because it’s a way to publicly express her identification with her culture. Or maybe because her family wants her to. Or maybe she didn’t wash her hair today.”

    In short, I tend to make the assumption of a more-or-less free choice, or a choice that, at the very least, is just as free as the choice I and many Western women make to dress in ways that tread the brutal line between being attractive and being the sort of person one takes seriously.

    This live and let live attitude came with me during my first months in Turkey, and I ardently argued for my perspectives to secularist friends and acquaintances, probably to their great annoyance. After more time spent in the country, however, my perception of the hijab in Turkey has changed; I now understand that pressures to dress a certain way go beyond society and enter many strata of government. To hear my friends tell it, a certain level of conservatism is practically a requirement if you have your eye on a good post in government, and a post in government is like being thrown onto an island of job stability while other Turks drown in the treacherous sea of the Turkish economy. So, while I still affirm an adult woman’s right to wear what she wants, the social pressure that exists in Turkey to dress in a way that covers your body is bothersome to me because the more pressure there is, the less choice a woman actually has.

    What bothers me even more is when I see prepubescent girls who are already covered. I have seen a few girls around the age of eight. My sister-in-law told me she once saw a covered little girl around the age of 5. I’m no Muslim theologian, and I haven’t thoroughly studied what Muslim scholars say about Islamic modesty’s links to (female) sexuality. However, this lack of profound knowledge notwithstanding, I do understand that popular perception holds that the hijab is about hiding the body and sexuality or (more generously) about seeing a woman for virtues that have nothing to do with her body and sexuality. So whenever I see young girls with heads already covered, I can’t help but resent the implicit sexualization of the young girl’s body.

    If I’ve learned one thing from feeling frustrated about people who cover their children or people who refuse to admit that the hijab isn’t as free a choice as it could be, it is this: engaging another culture can present real and serious difficulty to people with a particular notion of ethics, morality, and what is good for people; it is not as simple as just “respecting” somebody else’s culture. Sometimes, differing beliefs can even motivate the essentially altruistic behaviour of trying to change something about a culture (although, of course this may not be perceived positively by the culture one is trying to change.) Even though I say nothing when I see eight-years-olds wearing hijab, I feel suddenly empathetic for the bad guy “orientalists” and “missionaries” and “colonists” of history, not because I think all their actions can be justified, but because I understand what it feels like to see something in another culture and believe that it’s basically wrong.

    When do we have the right to try to change something? Or to make a moral call? Does anybody have any ideas that are better than mine?

    **To be very clear: I believe that adult women should be able to make the free choice to cover or uncover. I also believe that implicit sexualisation of young girls and being forced to cover for economic and other unavoidable reasons is wrong.

    Related Post

  • A Few Specific Muslims I Have Talked To

    Over the course of the last few years, I’ve talked to many Muslim people about faith. For some reason, these are the ones that stand out in my memory for the unexpectedness of what they said, the sincerity of their belief, the difference between my perception of what a Muslim looks like and what they looked like, their personal qualities, or some combination of these things. I’ve tried to write what they said without interpreting it here – although of course the questions that I asked in order to get them to talk more may betray some expectations I may have had.

    Azerbaijan, 2015 – Khalid

    I met Khalid online while in Azerbaijan. We spent a day walking through the old city talking about life in Azerbaijan, life in general. Many people in Azerbaijan are not particularly religious. Khalid was more religious than many – religious enough in any case to feel the need to impress on me fairly early on that “ISIS and people like them are not real Islam.”

    As we were walking through Baku’s old city, he said, “You know, the world is a bit like a video game. Game companies and programmers create video games with certain parameters, and certain rules for winning. I understand that God could have created the world in any way he chose, but he chose this way. So I think that the most important thing about life is to follow the rules of this game, because the rules could be completely different if God had willed it.”


    Kyrgyzstan, 2016 – Marina

    Marina did my nails at a salon in Bishkek. She was a cheerful ethnically Russian woman originally from Kyrgyzstan, who’d donned a shirt that day which betrayed more than a hint of cleavage.

    “Do you like this job?” I asked her. “Oh yes!” she said. “I love this job. I love making people feel happy and beautiful. It is very interesting and funny for me.”

    “How did you end up doing this job?” I asked.

    “Well,” she said, “I used to live in Dubai. My first ex-husband was Syrian. And I had no job. I was very bored. He said that I would get an education and continue university when I got married to him, but really I was just all the time at home – no education, nothing! And you know, in Dubai you have people to do everything for you so I didn’t even do houseworks. We divorced and I moved back here to where I grew up and got trained to do this job. I’m very happy now doing this.”

    “That’s great.” I said.

    “So where are you from?” she asked.

    “Canada,” I said. “But I actually live in Istanbul with my boyfriend.”

    “Is he Turkish?” she asked.

    “Yes, he is,” I answered.

    “Does his family like you?” she asked. “My second ex-husband was Turkish and his family did not like me.”

    “Oh?” I said. “Why not? Because you weren’t Muslim?”

    “I am Muslim!” she crowed. “I converted before I even married my first husband – and he didn’t even believe in anything, not anything, nothing. He didn’t want me to become a Muslim. But for me being Muslim felt right. My second husband’s family just didn’t like me because I was not Turkish. They wanted to their son a Turkish girl. You must be careful with your boyfriend and his family.”

    “How did you decide to convert to Islam?” I asked.

    “Well,” she said. “It didn’t happen immediately. Actually, it used to be, I used to have a job and on my breaks I would go out behind a mosque… to smoke. And I would hear the call to prayer – you know the call to prayer? And it didn’t happen immediately, but I felt something. I really felt it. And for me religion is something you feel. So I converted. Not everybody understands that religion is something you feel. I tried to explain it to my mother once. I said, “If you named your daughter Ayshe, how would you feel?” And she said, “That name is feel wrong for my daughter.” And I said that if I had a daughter named like “Maria,” or “Anna” I feel myself the same way that “Ayshe” is for her. Then she was understanding me.

    At the end of the pedicure, I asked her if she drank.

    “Of course!” she said. “Yes, of course I drink!”

    “What kind of vodka would you recommend I bring home from Kyrgyzstan?” I asked.

    “They are mostly all nice,” she said. “If you pay a little more, they are better.”


    Kyrgyzstan, Ramadan 2016 – Nurdin

    Nurdin was an AirBnB host in his late twenties that I found along the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul. Despite being ethnically Kyrgyz (Kyrgyz people are – at least traditionally – Muslims) he was observing his first Ramadan fast. His parents, brother, and sister-in-law were not fasting, so he spent a lot of time in his room until after sunset when he would come and join the rest of us to eat. I didn’t understand he was fasting until I’d been staying at his place for five days already; I invited him to go hiking with me if he wasn’t busy and he apologized for not coming as he didn’t think he could force his body to hike if he wasn’t eating all day.

    “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “I hadn’t realized you were observing Ramadan. Of course you shouldn’t go hiking.”

    “Yes,” he said. “Sorry I didn’t tell you, but I just think Ramadan and religion are private things – you do them for yourself, they are between you and God. It is not good to do them only to boast to other people that you’re doing them. You know, here in Kyrgyzstan we have big problems with radicalization these days – these people are not practicing the real Islam, but I want to practice Islam in a good way. So that’s why I didn’t tell you.”

    Turkey, 2014 – Ayse

    Ayse was an incongruously kind and patient housekeeper for the first (and last) family I worked with in Turkey. She arrived wearing her hijab every morning, but usually removed it to tie her hair back if the man of the family wasn’t home. One day I tried asking her to help me with something in broken Turkish; she asked if it could wait until after. It was then that I noticed she had her head covered. “Oh sorry,” I said. “Yes, go do your prayers. It’s not urgent.”

    “You know the prayers?!” she asked excitedly. “Do you know Ramadan too?!”


    Related Post

  • How Reverse Culture Shock Led me to Google “Atheist Yoga”


    I came ‘home’ last week to a surprise bout of reverse-culture shock; as soon I stepped off the plane in Toronto, a profound feeling of depaysement hit me like an unexpected rainstorm on a sunny day. My flawless Canadian accent and manners seemed but tools in an espionage operation designed to infiltrate Canadian society, not a natural part of my identity.

    I’ve felt out of place before, of course. I feel out of place each time I re-enter Turkey after an extended bout in Canada. Still, Istanbul, with all its charms and flaws, begins to feel like home after a while. And, as I learned as I walked through the Toronto airport, Canada begins to feel like a foreign country after a while too.

    In the lineup to go through passport control, Canadians stood with metre-wide spaces between them and complained about nothing. My inner monologue started working overtime, like a jaded old person who thinks age grants a license to say anything, no matter how mean or unconstructive.

    For example: Shut up two guys with nice clothes complaining about Winnipeg. You don’t understand what it’s like to have problems. I can’t believe you guys can’t even appreciate Winnipeg. Seriously, Istanbul is so much harder than Winnipeg. People from Winnipeg can’t even imagine how much harder life is in Istanbul than it is in Winnipeg.

    Complaining about Istanbul is an unpleasant sort of municipal sport of Istanbulites, a habit I had unconsciously embraced as a confirmation of my belonging to the city.

    An officious woman of Caribbean stock was in charge of making people line up properly for passport control. She bustled her way up and down the lineup of empty spaces like a pacman, opening barriers and zipping them shut, yelling rude things at travellers, which as a recently transplant from Istanbul, I found strangely comforting.

    “You need to keep moving,” she bawled across the line full of empty spaces. “Don’t stop, keep walkin’. And don’t cut in line like dis idiaht heyaah.”

    Over the next few days I felt foreign. I knew people couldn’t possibly because I lived in Istanbul. My inner monologue stayed nasty. To the smiley guy at my local coffee shop, my inner monologue sniffed, “You’ve never been to Istanbul have you? You don’t understand.” To some girls I heard complaining about some love interest, my inner monologue sneered “You are so vacuous and people in Istanbul have harder lives. Shut up.” To the squirrels at the park across the street from me my inner monologue mused, “These squirrels don’t know how lucky they are to have all this green space. Istanbul doesn’t have any places for squirrels. Also, I wonder what they taste like? I bet they’re delicious.”

    The unchecked condescension of my inner monologue was worst at my yoga classes. I have never depended on yoga for anything but exercise, but I was always easygoing and patient when it came to listening to the spiritual teachings of the instructors and unscientific statements they came up with about our bodies. But after Istanbul, I suddenly felt less tolerant.

    Teacher: When we feel stress, tension lands in our hips.


    Teacher: We have to remember that it’s love that binds the world together, that amidst the darkness there’s so much light and you can shine that light out onto the world.

    Inner monologue: First of all, that is just a glib thing to say. Second of all, you’re paraphrasing Jesus with that light of the world stuff and not citing your sources. Third, this spirituality is like pablum masquerading as fusion food (Canadian water! Rice from countries that actually grow rice!), a bland mix of West and East cobbled together to create the illusion of effortless self-actualization. Fourth, we all know that most of us are too occupied with our lives to do any major light-shining or contributions to making the world a better place. Our fancy yoga clothes are stitched by children in Bangladesh and that’s just the most immediately obvious problem with our lavish lifestyles.

    Teacher: We come together to take some time for ourselves in this spiritual practice of yoga…


    Meditating was impossible; concentrating on the asanas was difficult. Even just showing up at the studio made me feel guilty for the ease of my life in Canada. Everything about the place – the candles, the slick wood floors, the Better Homes and Yoga Studios decorations, the prodigious expense of taking classes – contrasted with the difficulties I encountered every day in Istanbul. These aren’t my own difficulties though (those are fairly minor), but the difficulties of those around me. In Istanbul, I get to see people whose purchasing power is half of that of a Canadian making minimum wage struggle to make ends meet all the time! There are Syrian refugee children begging in the street! Women are treated as second-class citizens! The government likes to arrest anybody they feel is critical of them! It’s a bouquet of daily difficulties that, somehow, made me feel somewhat less guilty about having a comparatively easy life.

    To add to these feelings that nobody understood what I’d been through, I began to feel uncomfortable with the fact that I’d allowed the world’s (and specifically, Istanbul’s) problems to determine some of my feelings of worth. Cognitively I understood that no Canadians were at fault for being born in Canada, that the insignificance of the problems they experience is directly related to being from Canada. I also understood that I shouldn’t feel self-righteous or good about myself for living in a place with problems or for doing things to solve those problems. My own and others’ problems do not exist to make me feel better about myself, and living in a place with relatively few problems like Canada shouldn’t and doesn’t mean that I, and other Canadians, can’t carve out a meaningful existence. Not only are those feelings of self-righteousness and annoyance presumptive, they also exploit the lives of those with major problems for my own gain.

    What a cornucopia of contradictory feelings!

    Another problem: It wasn’t until I came back to Canada that I fully appreciated the worry that my friends and family felt during a Turkish summer that was objectively terrifying. The worst moment, I think, was the airport bombing at Ataturk International Airport. That day, I was flying to Istanbul and I’d mentioned it to lots of people. What those people didn’t know was my flight time and that I was flying to a different airport. While I was waiting for the baggage counter to open, my phone died. Only a few minutes later, the bombs went off in Istanbul. It wasn’t until two hours after the bombing that I was able to get messages out that I was okay. The bombing was hugely upsetting for me, but it wasn’t until I came back that I truly understood how horrible it was for my family and friends, since at least I’d enjoyed the privilege of being aware that I hadn’t died the whole time. And so coming home, which entailed being sucked into a whirlpool of condescending feelings, also entailed feeling hammered by guilt about the decisions I’ve made to live in Istanbul and to have a Turkish partner.

    I’ve been back a week and a half now, and many of the feelings have softened as I’ve readjusted to the ease of living in Canada, but they haven’t disappeared. I still feel guilt about my decisions to put myself in danger that I could just as easily avoid. And I’m still challenged by feelings of condescension for the ease of Canadian life.

    The feeling that has persisted the strongest, oddly, is an utter contempt for yoga spirituality. The other day I found myself thinking of ways to tackle this problem – should I quit yoga and take a different exercise class? Should I look for a dance tradition that’s heavy on stretching? Should I just try to find yoga teachers that are more into the exercise aspects of the practice?

    It culminated in a late-night googling session where I googled many things including, “Non-spiritual yoga,” “yoga for people who just want to exercise,” and “yoga for athiests.” Unfortunately, all I found were the musings of a few angry bloggers about the culturally appropriative and classist aspects of yoga, which was cool because I agreed with them but not that cool because no studio anywhere seems to have embraced a yoga without daytime television-esque spiritual pretensions.

    In conclusion, Turkey and Istanbul have changed me in ways I did not expect. Canada feels like a home again, but a slightly more ill-fitting one. And I might hate yoga now.

    Related Post