28/07/2011

A Pause for Thought (1): Why Turkey?

Something has happened whereby I cannot remember how to order food and don’t know what side of a car to get into. Panicked for my own safety, today I went to the doctor and asked for a “biological MOT”, only to be stared back at blankly. “Is that a normal thing to ask for?” I asked anxiously. “Only when you’re fifty” was the pitiful reply.

No, I am not going senile at twenty-four. Neither, am I experiencing some kind of premature ‘man-o-pause’, what has happened is that I have returned to Britain after over two years of work and stress in Turkey, and I don’t think it could have come sooner.

One of the thing’s I’ve come to appreciate is the greenery. The cities here are planned with open space and the summer sky in mind as, unlike Turkey, there are no awkwardly close-together, five-story apartments sprawling up out of every available crevice. And so nothing stands in the way between me and the blistering grey melancholy lingering overhead. Needless to say it would be perfect if it were all a little more in-the-Mediterranean. But that’s me being fussy. Besides, there are many worse things about Britain than the weather. But it would be dramatically selfish of me to go on about all that. At this point, with yet another year left to go in Turkey it’s better for the psyche that I stay clear of nostalgia and treat the Yoo-kay as my stop-off point before re-entry.

Because the best thing about being back here is having a literal breath of fresh air. Now I think a review of the situation is in order. What is my reason for staying in Turkey? Maybe I should start by asking what I was doing in the first place.

Between the usual ice-breakers at parties, people generally ask me “why did you choose to come to Turkey?” to which I often reply “I ask myself the same question every morning”. A small chuckle ensues, and then we talk about something else.

Answering honestly requires time, thought and reflection, which many social situations don't allow. There is a basic narrative I cling to about what happened, and it begins with getting off the plane and instantly hating Turkey. In 2008 I came to Ankara as a young, innocent, liberal, quietly religious, left-wing Muslim convert from England, shaken to death by what I heard and saw from people my age. They were aggressive in their attitudes, intellectually stuck in the 20th century, and as politically correct as a Fox news anchor. On the other hand, my great error was believing myself to be enlightened and open-minded enough to go with the flow, anywhere I went, and expecting young people from any Muslim country to be the same as the young Muslims I was friends with in my own country. Call it naive, call it ignorant - whatever it was it was, my own alienation shocked me.

Rather than explaining all this you can see why I would avoid the question, or prefer to focus on bitching about Ankara, which is much more socially acceptable if only because the city is like the worst parts of Birmingham bundled together and dropped onto a desert plain. For eight months of my stay in Ankara, the only beauty I saw was on trips out of the city, in the surrounding country and the eastern provinces. In any case, the positive effects of these journies were not long-lasting because whilst living in the city, my fear and disillusionment was so bad that I restricted myself to the company of other foreigners almost the whole time.
I had failed to crack the country, and for that I returned to Britain ashamed.

I'm not the only one in history to fail to 'break' a country. Look at the Normans (stick with it - i'm a history student). Their architecture from Sicily and Italy, shows how much, as a civilisation, they fused with local populations. Looking at the their ruins in the Holy Land however, and you’ll see how even the simpliest churches were constructed like minature gothic fortresses: A symbol of the alienation they felt from the surrounding native culture, and their subseqent defensive and self-affirmating attitude. If it’s not inappropriate or ridiculous enough as a Muslim, to compare my first experience of Turkey to that of a band of Medieval Crusaders, then my second example may be even less appropriate: There is a wonderful essay about Christian missionaries landing in Africa by Richard Price, titled How British Humanitarians Learnt Racism in the British Empire 1840-1860, and I suggest reading it for anyone interested in 'culture shock' or travelling in general.
The comparisons may be out-there, but the main link between myself and the Priest who found that his arguements about God did not stand the scrutiny of an African tribal lord, is that similarly, I arrived with a view of the world which did not stand up in debate and thus caused what Price calls an “intellectual anxiety" attack. The missionaries arrived assuming the equality of humanity and the universality of their own ideas. Now, the equality of humans is one thing, but the universality of the ideas of a second-year history student from Birmingham is quite another. It was the realisation of this that made me retreat into my own ignorance. For me it was literally the smashing of my naïve idea that I was going to a community which, through bonds of faith, I had the right to call my own from day one, but soon found it reflected none of my beliefs or ideas.

Thus, I failed to learn any of the language, whilst condemning it as simple and poor. I complained that their state was founded by utter fascists, and this I proclaimed, with the zeal of a fascist. 
I also never learnt backgammon, and judging from my current ability you'd think I hadn't tried since either.

My raison d’etre coming back home, was then to spend a year studying nothing but Turkey and then return triumphantly. My goal was to go away with my feeling I could integrate whilst still being open to learning a thing or two, and consider more-deeply my own beliefs with the benefit of better historical and cultural understanding.

Working in a state school put a lot of the attitudes and ideas I had had trouble with into perspective - as they were on the syllabus (see photo of school display promoting militarism and Ataturk's personality cult). But to find people from different age-groups, social classes, back-grounds and cultures, I would have to learn the language. That was another year. Now (insha'Allah) on the road to fluency - what is my current excuse for being in Turkey?

Is it enough that I can’t remember how to order fish n' chips?
A time to reflect…

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