Your Majesty, you are one of us already

Your Majesty, you are one of us already

Queen Elizabeth listened to a recitation of the Quran in the Green Mosque, with Hayrünnisa Gül (R). Professor Mehmet Emin Ay is known for having one of the best voices among Turkish Quran reciters.

May 18, 2008, Sunday/ 11:58:00/ KERİM BALCI
Turks love to be loved and appreciated, and we love to be loved by people of rank. We particularly love our distinctive features to be adored: Eat our Maraş ice cream, and you are one of us; drink our sherbet, and you will understand why our faces are so cheerful; taste our fatty döner with ayran, and you will understand why all Turkish men will grow fat and be happy. A few years ago a Turkish cola brand had then-famous singer Tarkan make an advert in which Western people drink the cola and suddenly start behaving like Turks. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II didn't drink any ayran, but she tasted sherbet, Turkish delight (lokum), Turkish coffee and Antep pistachios. That is enough to be Turkified… Well, on the last day of her trip she was in Ankara and, you won't believe it: She was late! By Turkish standards 10 minutes wouldn't count as being late, but it is a good start. Had Her Majesty stayed in Turkey a little longer, perhaps she would be greeting her female guests with embraces and kisses on each cheek.

The queen's image-makers should have studied the visit to Turkey made by Pope Benedict XVI at the end of 2006. The gestures the two visitors made, the things they mentioned about the importance of Turkey to world peace, the places they visited, the gifts they received and the things they ate were almost identical. Perhaps we could say this is not about who visits Turkey but about Turkey itself.

Many "serious" journalists criticized the Turkish media's overemphasis of the superficial aspects of the visit, but symbolism is what forms much of what the queen is all about. Her Majesty is a nation in one person, and thus Turkey has hosted a whole nation, all the nations of the commonwealth if you wish, during this four-day visit. The lady who took off her shoes at the portal of the Green Mosque of Bursa symbolized the respect of that imperial entity for Islamic values. Having asked not to be offered any special treatment, the queen asked her "subjects" not to regard themselves as the superiors of Eastern cultures; donning a headscarf, listening to the Sura al-Rahman (Quran, Sura 55) that starts by mentioning the all-embracing mercy of God and finishes with a verse that real Majesty, Bounty and Honor belong to the blessed name of our Lord, the queen invited the whole world to lend an ear to the message of the Quran and not to distorted commentaries utilized by radicals for their evil ends.

For an average Turkish mind the queen was not only someone who had come from a remote land, but also a visitor from remote Turkish history. We had our own sultans and our own amazing rules of protocol. Whether the Turkish government weighed up the old Turkish traditions in welcoming and accompanying foreign heads of states is not clear, but the Ottomans used to have a state minister (kazasker or a vizier), and not the sultan himself, accompany visiting European monarchs. The selection of Professor Mehmet Aydın, a member of the High-Level Group for the Alliance of Civilizations, had all kinds of merits, but also revived an age-old tradition.

That was not the only thing that reminded Turks of their past: The queen visited a silk merchant in Bursa, and we suddenly remembered that Bursa was the last stop on the ancient Silk Road, which Turkey wants to revive for commercial and touristic reasons. The cloth that attracted the attention of the queen was so rich in color and traditional Turkish motifs that it would be no exaggeration to suggest that this particular fabric will find its way into the newly blooming headscarf fashion.

The traditional Karagöz and Hacivat puppet show the queen watched with curiosity is another long-neglected Turkish theatrical art. The queen, and more so her husband, Prince Phillip, duke of Edinburgh, were so interested in these two colorful heroes of the late Ottoman era that they were presented with a stained glass panel bearing the figures of the eponymous puppets. Though mostly presented as an entertainment for children, this puppet show is a satire of conflict between the alienated modernizers of the late Ottoman era and the traditional wise men. Hacivat is a Western-educated, secular-minded admirer of technological innovation and a frequent user of foreign and invented words. Karagöz, on the other hand, is a wise man in old robes; he sticks to tradition, and although he does not fall behind Hacivat in adapting new technologies, he does not allow his cultural values to be assimilated within the alien culture that accompanies those same advancements.

The attraction of the show for the children arises from the satirical tone Karagöz uses in responding to the foreign words Hacivat insists on using. Often Karagöz plays with the letters of the words Hacivat uses and denigrates the concepts Hacivat imports from the West. In time this cultural aspect of the show was lost, of course, but the origin of the game that emanated from the hardships a nation experienced during an period of immense transition still holds true for modern-day Turkey. One might suggest that the parliamentary speeches of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and opposition leader Deniz Baykal would be a fertile source for a modern adaptation of Karagöz and Hacivat. The queen may not have realized that, but if she continues to observe the Turkish political scene she will certainly remember a familiar scenario from Bursa.

Under the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Turkey invented a magical tool for reforms: European standards. State ministers confessed several times that the internal dynamics of Turkey are not sufficiently powerful to fill the sails of democratization and that Turkey needed not only a push from within but also a pull from outside. Her Majesty provided a pull stronger than Turks might expect. Her presence effectively made unlikely bedfellows of Prime Minister Erdoğan and his sworn enemy Baykal at Friday's garden party. Baykal's wife, Olcay Baykal, usually absent from her husband's side for unclear reasons, was at the party; so was the rarely seen wife of the prime minister, Emine. Even British Foreign Minister David Miliband utilized this "reconciling power" of Her Majesty's presence to pay surprise visits to Baykal and Devlet Bahçeli, staunch critics of Turkey's EU accession process. Miliband is certainly more supportive of Turkey's membership than those two, if not more so than many AK Party Cabinet ministers.

There is this long-held misconception of the British in Turkey: cold-blooded people. They don't like to talk; they don't joke; they don't understand jokes; don't smile; shy from physical contact; their facial muscles are dead… That misconception is, of course, fed by the fact that Turks usually saw the British on the warfront. Well, the Turkish conviction that the tiniest recipe book in the world is that of the British is true. But the queen, and of course the talkative Miliband, disproved the Turkish image of this island nation. In Bursa he was subjected to the classical Maraş ice cream joke. This ice cream is so thick and sticky that it is hard to take it off the service spoon and usually the buyer is left with the empty cone in hand. Even Turks are made a little angry by this joke. Miliband, on the other hand, replied with an even better one: "Politicians are always left empty-handed," he quipped. Prince Philip followed suit: Having learned that Maraş ice cream is prepared by hand, using only lengthy spoons, said in amazement: "High technology!"

The royal couple left Turkey on Friday. Their hearts were not left in Turkey, but they have stolen a part of ours. Your Majesty, you are one of us already!