30/07/2011

Antakya: A Lesson in Multiculturalism

In Western Europe there has been a lot of talk over whether the concept of multiculturalism is a lost cause.

I believe that the objective is still a fine one, but going about achieving it requires the kind of mutual understanding, tact and wisdom that is the product thousands of years of exposure to different peoples. Not to say that Europe has not had its share of demographic shifts, but it is lagging far behind when compared to, oh let’s say, the southern Turkish city of Antakya.

The area of Antakya has been a site of human settlement for over six thousand years. Each of the city’s proprietors, whether it be the Persians, Romans, Arabs or Turks, have left traces of their presence engrained in its countless historical sites and architecture. Antakya is better known in the west by its former name Antioch, which was officially changed to a more Turkish form after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In this period, the new Republic engaged in a frenzy of nationalist ‘Turkification’ policies which affected everything from religion and governance, to music and language. Many policies specifically targeted what would be known in today’s parlance as ‘multiculturalism’, which was considered a risk to the integrity of the corporate state.

Although these policies succeeded in imbibing a strong sense of nationalism in other parts of Turkey, Antakya retains a distinctively relaxed atmosphere which I have not found anywhere in Turkey, where issues of identity and loyalty are of the utmost importance. Not so, in Antakya – I could feel something different was at work here the moment I arrived, in the most unexpected of ways:

Firstly, I should point out that one of the funniest/most excruciating features of living in Turkey comes in asking for directions. Turkish people have a truly deserved fame for their willingness to help, but this is to the extent that even if they do not know the place you are looking for, they will still give you vague directions out of a genuine hope that you will find it eventually. This is not limited just to tourists, as writer Elif Shafak confirms in a piece titled “How to say ‘I don’t know’”, which I recommend for reading with a good translation.

However, when I arrived and intrepidly began searching for a hotel which exists only on the internet, it was in people’s various responses that I realised I was in a place marching to its own drum. I marvelled joyously at the amount of ‘I don’t knows’ I heard, and when someone did end up sending me on a wild goose-chase it was with a look which betrayed a serious lack of practise in the fine art of trying to appear helpful.

What’s more, I found that Antakya is probably Turkey’s best place to spark up instant friendships. None of the conversational exchanges I had resulted in being given either to little, or too much attention. The reasons for this are two-fold and make Antakya perfect for travellers: Firstly, most of the city’s visitors are religious pilgrims, for reasons I shall go into in a moment, but this is a blessing (pun intended) for travellers, as you will not have been preceded by bands of rowdy young party animals or walking bank machines who will leave you looking an easy target in the market place. The second reason for the ability to make friends is that Antakya itself is such a melting pot, that to have a narrow mind out of the question.

Before the last demographic survey in 1939, Turks came to make up just over half of the province – the rest mostly comprising Arab followers of the Alevi sect (a branch generally associated with Shi’a Islam) and Christianity. In the time before and since, the city has been visited by innumerable pilgrims on the way from Turkey, Iran and the Balkans on the way to the holy sites of Syria and the greater Middle East. Apparently, up to 60 percent of Antakya’s population speaks Arabic.

There are a number of contentious issues regarding attitude to minorities such as the Alevis and Christians in other parts of Turkey, but you would not think so by walking around Antakya, which is a testament to the integrity of the people’s tolerance and the clear reality of the make-up of the city, to which no one group dominates. While on our way toward the old cave of St Peter, one of Christianity’s oldest churches, on the slopes of the Mt. Starius, I and my travelling companion were struck by the amount of people, instinctively smiling and pointing us in the (right!) direction.

On the way back into town, we stopped to inspect the oldest Mosque in Anatolia, the imposing, albeit humble, Habib-i Nejjar. We found inscribed on a plaque in the inner courtyard, the tale of the mosque’s founding. The story truly enshrines the essence of the city itself.

Having conquered the city in 636, the eminent Islamic commander Abu Ubaidah ibn al-Jerrah was shown the site of the graves of two of Jesus’ apostles who had travelled to the area – known locally as Yunus and Yahya. Buried alongside the two, rests the town’s first Muslim leader – the namesake Habib-i Nejjar. The story of the mosque’s founding is a reminder of a time before the Christian sphere of the world was brought together by an intense mutual hostility of Islam, and when, from the perspective or early Islamic history, Muslims were more greatly accepting of Christianity as a component of their own tradition.

After reading this story, everything about Antakya fell into place. In the parts of Turkey where the ancient churches have not been left to decay, they are often sealed beyond highly defensive walls and locked but for one or two days the week. In Antakya all religious buildings are ready to receive guests and worshippers, and are tended by locals.

What I found most interesting, compared to other religious heartlands on the Turkish map, was that the spirit of tolerance in Antakya did not only extend to those of a local denomination, but even to those potentially without a denomination at all. A spiritual city with a care-free ambiance is the best way to put it; religious, but with none of the complexes of what many would call ‘conservative’ towns in the area, which can appear uncomfortable and judgemental to outsiders. There are few bars, but those few felt no shame in having seating areas outside on the main street. In any case, the city park, on the banks of the River Asi is the best place to hang-out and meet people. It is a harmless environment full of groups of families and friends, young lovers, and an unusually high amount of joggers.

The city’s ambiguous nature is a source of pride, not contention, for all Antakyans. No-matter what group or sect, people make friends, go about their business, marry, have children and go to the park. Each part adds to the tapestry of life in the city. It would be naïve and highly inaccurate to assume it has always remained a utopian island in a sea of unrest, but it is worth considering that multiculturalism as it is practised, or rather, as it is lived in Antakya, is the result of centuries of living side by side with variety, to the extent that difference becomes the norm.

For those questioning the virtues of multiculturalism it may not be a smooth journey, but if we can learn anything from Antakya, it is that time is the essential component to success.

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