The other day while participating in a school book fair I had the chance to look through some of the children’s books in English that we stock. I enjoyed reading “100 Facts: Myths and Legends” from Miles Kelly Publishing. It is a great children’s book that covers popular myths from around the world, including nations in the Middle East and Europe.
On one of my visits to China during the 1980s, I observed quickly that dragons were important to Chinese culture. Chinese myths tell how dragons rule the seas and rivers and fly along rainbows to make thunder. The Chinese believe that each dragon carries a pearl -- like a raindrop -- in their throat. Every spring the Chinese celebrate special festivals to ask the dragons to send rain.
I imagine everyone has heard of Sindbad the Sailor. Myths in the Middle East tell of giant bird-like monsters called rocs that would drop huge boulders on ships to sink them, but that could also be helpful. The story goes that Sindbad the Sailor was rescued by a roc.
Another popular myth that seems to date back to ancient Arabia is that of the jinns, also spelled djinns (genies). According to popular myths from ancient Arabia, these take on different shapes and forms, but most often appear as snakes, dogs and humans. You are probably familiar with the collection of Middle Eastern myths and legends known as the “Thousand and One Nights” in which a genie helps the young hero Aladdin.
Visitors to Turkey often ask me about the blue eye and its significance. Wherever you look in Turkey you’ll notice blue eyes. You’ll see the blue-eyed bead on jewelry, a blue-eyed bead pinned on a baby’s top, a blue-eyed plaque hanging above the entrance to a building or an amulet dangling from a rearview mirror. You may wonder why this is so.
It is believed that the evil eye bead brings luck and protection. If you live here for any length of time you will receive the blue-eyed bead as a gift from friends and business contacts. It comes in all shapes and sizes! It is common in Turkish culture to give a gift of the evil eye bead (“nazar boncuğu” or just “nazar”) to friends. If you do not want to appear as one who believes in superstitions and are not so keen to receive it, here is one way to handle it. Remember, first of all, that some people just enjoy the bead for its beauty and sentimental value and do not give it any more thought than that. But that’s not to say that there aren’t many people who believe the bead has protective powers. To not offend a friend who gives you the gift, graciously receive it and thank her for her thoughtfulness. You can later just give it to someone who would appreciate it or do as you wish.
You can trace the evil eye superstition back centuries, and to societies around the world who have associated the phenomenon with human envy. For those of us who have been resident in this part of the world for a number of years, through our day-to-day contact with friends and colleagues, who may have the blue eye pinned to their baby’s clothes or dangling from the rearview mirror in the car, we realize it is believed to protect from harm.
I noticed a new trend recently. Just as babies have the blue eye pinned to a piece of clothing, or a house has a blue-eyed plaque on the wall above the main entrance, these days some dogs have a collar with a stone the shape of the blue eye.
The Turks have a saying: “May God protect [you]!” (“Allah korusun!”)
Perhaps you are wondering about the beggars who approach you for money and when you don’t give mumble some words under their breath -- it is often a curse! Mark Twain, world traveler and writer, always has an appropriate word for the occasion: “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you; that is the principal difference between a dog and a man.”
Note: Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey” 2005. Please keep your questions and observations coming: I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org