[Expat Voice] Opening eyes in İstanbul

[Expat Voice] Opening eyes in İstanbul

(Illustration: Orhan Nalın)

October 29, 2013, Tuesday/ 16:35:00

I grew up in American small towns and suburbs. Over the years, I became accustomed to certain material comforts, things that most Americans tend to assume houses come fully stocked with -- a drying machine, air conditioning, a dishwasher.

Seven months ago, I moved to İstanbul. And despite having to adjust to my new apartment not coming replete with a dryer, AC and a dishwasher, I've fallen in love with the city -- its pace and verve, its scents and colors, and above all, the kindness of its people.

In August, I went back to the US for the first time. After visiting friends in Philadelphia, I went to Wisconsin to visit family. Most of the people I encountered were stunned and startled to find out I was living in Turkey. They looked at me with their mouths opened in surprise:

“Do you feel safe? Aren't you, well, scared?”

These were, by far, the two most common questions I was asked while back in the Midwest. At first, I tried to politely explain that, yes, I was careful -- like every major city, İstanbul does have places where one doesn't wander alone at three in the morning. But then I tried to explain that, honestly, I felt much safer in İstanbul than I had during my college years in Philadelphia.

My family and friends looked at me incredulously. As I heard the question, again and again, I dropped the kindness, and my impatience came through. I looked up facts to bolster my argument. Just as I suspected, they supported me: In 2012, 333 people were murdered in Philadelphia, a city of 1.6 million; in İstanbul, a city of nearly 14 million, only 111 people were murdered.

Now, there are other violent crimes, but for my purposes, this seemed a pretty telling statistic. Though İstanbul is nearly 10 times larger than Philadelphia, it saw one-third of the murders. Why, then, were my friends and relatives so concerned about my safety here? Why is there such fear about Turkey, and such blindness to the epidemic violence in the US?

It boils down to ignorance. It's an ignorance that arises because, even in these connected times, many of us remain disconnected from those who live differently than we do. It's difficult, and sometimes scary, to go outside your comfort zone. It's not easy to venture into an unknown foreign culture. But once you do, what sticks with you are not the differences, but the commonalities. My friends and family were suspicious of Turkey because they don't know anything about its culture or its people, and because they don't know anything about Islam.

They don't realize that, just like in Midwestern small towns, neighbors watch out for one another here. They bring you soup when you're sick (as mine did one of my first months here). They don't understand how generous people in Turkey are -- how the old woman down the street will invite you in for tea, and how the man at the corner store will give you a free loaf of bread if you forget your money.

Their ignorance is worst when extended to Islam. Their wariness about Turkey is, above all, an ignorance and unjustified fear of Islam. If they had more encounters with practicing Muslims, they'd find a lot to recognize. They don't realize that Islam stresses community and service above all else. They don't realize that Islam stresses the kind of modesty and selflessness that my relatives in the Midwest have practiced their whole lives. They don't know that Islam advocates, more fiercely than any major faith, for protecting the environment. And they don't know that Islam is a religion that abhors violence, much like the Christian faith they've grown up with.

More than anything, they have no idea about the hospitality and generosity of the Turkish people -- Muslim or secular, male or female. The boundless generosity I've experienced here is a kindness I've only found one other place in the world -- in the Midwest, with my family. It saddens me that there's such a divide between those two places, because I've come to love both of them. I recognize them in one another.

Fethullah Gülen, in an essay about the pursuit of knowledge, writes: “It is very important… to see, know, and understand the world's various places. You cannot do useful service in the name of the world if you don't first come to know and understand the whole world.”

If people -- in Turkey, the US and the rest of the world -- were more willing to step outside their comfort zones, they'd be surprised by the things they share with the “other.” This awareness wouldn't just make us better neighbors, but it might well force us to confront our own biases and blind spots. Living in Turkey has forced me to seriously examine my own materialism and selfishness. The graciousness I've encountered has shown me that I can live with less, and give more.

I suspect that if my relatives were to sit down for tea with my neighbors and colleagues here in İstanbul, they'd find they share quite a lot in common. And like me, they'd make a heck of a lot of new friends.

*Justin Pahl is a staff editor with The Fountain magazine.