Muslim, conservative, progressive -- Turkey's winning formula
Zorlu Center, currently under construction in the district of Zincirlikuyu, is one of the many new mixed-use centers being developed in İstanbul to encourage economic growth. (Photo: Reuters)
Whilst expatriates regardless of where they're headed for will have read countless country fact files well before departure, only a limited number of foreign language publications really prepares a new arrival for what everyday life on location has in store once the emptied suitcases have been stowed away.
Yes, these voters do frequent İzmir's IKEA or one of the mushrooming clothing 'outlet centers' and buy foreign brand mobile phones, but once in the perceived safety of their own four walls, they could easily be mistaken as proponents of being anti all things foreign
Ensuing misconceptions might just as well be the very result of some of your guidebooks' contents or online chat forum threads you had unwittingly consulted before coming here. For example, you will have read paragraphs describing this nation as “(…) Turkey, a poor, mainly Muslim country of over 70 million.” What many intentionally or by sheer unprofessionalism forget to mention is that whilst there are indeed almost 75 million Turks and that Islam is indeed the religion for over 98 percent of proud inhabitants, it has transformed itself from “poor” to relative European economic powerhouse with at the end of the first decade of the new millennium a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of $10,000, a phenomenal increase when compared with just under $3,500 back in 2002 before the current government came to power. (Source: Turkish Statistics Institute [TurkStat]; figures projected to rise to $12,500 during 2014.)
“Poor” is automatically associated with the notion of being backward and underdeveloped, and, once again, unless you consult Turkish-based English language newspapers, have been here before or can rely on accurate wires from reliable news agencies, you will not know (or believe) that Turkey hosts some of the world's finest shopping malls, some years ago embarked on constructing a state-of-the-art high-speed train network, has a better overland bus network than any other country I have ever visited, has a young and energetic and highly skilled population, top universities and, teething problems left aside, has just begun to totally overhaul its primary and secondary education system by means of “4+4+4” and in particular the FATİH project (high-tech in each and every Turkish classroom by 2016). It has fashion designers ready to take on the Karl Lagerfelds of the world, over 200 quality wine varieties and some of the planet's most luxurious hotels. Further economic achievements would fill pages with success stories of craftsmanship, entrepreneurial instinct, the wish to go higher and faster and, above all else, go better.
Caffe latte meets Turkish (family) traditions
However, mistaking this easily visible state of remarkable economic and other forms of progress as the equivalent of how normal citizens approach life in general can be somewhat misleading.
In other words, sipping a cappuccino with your newly found Turkish friends in a well known multinational coffee house chain is one thing; having them accept that today's Turkey is fully integrated into our globalized world perhaps another. What's more, the shiny towers of the Turkish version of materialism scattered all over İstanbul's financial district have luckily not led to a reversal of the more traditional Turkish culture per se.
Yet the saying “My home is my castle” seems to hold forth in this country, too. With cappuccinos and brownies figuratively speaking left outside the door and globalization nothing but a 13-letter-long crossword solution yet not the staple diet for tonight's dinner conversation, you would realize that the Turks in their vast majority somehow manage to do a balancing act of enormous proportions between old and new.
But of course not everyone as of yet seems keen on doing just that. For some, their personal viewpoints more often than not swing back to much less forward-thinking times most other Turkish citizens are relieved are over. Let me explain by asking questions to a certain sample and restate the answers without pointing fingers, but still present a clear “vote” concerning what direction I would take, too.
Through the keyholes
Most expats living in Turkey moved to the three metropolises -- Ankara, İstanbul and İzmir -- or reside along Turkey's Sunshine Belt someplace between Çeşme and Alanya either by geographic preference or limitations of jobs on offer for foreigners in alternative locations. As a consequence, they will meet more representatives of what for the purposes of this article I would call “family type number one” and may hence fall into the same trap many expats and in particular guidebook writers have fallen into before. For them, Turkey seems one-dimensional, is stuck in its ways, hooked to the “glorious” past and as if the new millennium had never happened!
If you were invited to their home, you would soon hear that they firmly believe in all things Turkish and yet only if that means Turkey after 1923 and before November 2002, when the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) was swept into power. Why? The Sunshine Belt in its majority has become one of the few remaining strongholds of Turkey's two major opposition parties. Hence, reading local newspapers, including some of those (but not all) printed in the English language edited by Turkish journalists, going out to bars or restaurants or eventually being invited to a Turkish family's home would create the impression of living on another planet. Not only are today's Ankara and today's national policies apparently light years away, but on top of that there is still a large portion of resentment against anything AK Party, modernity or progress.
Yes, these voters do frequent İzmir's IKEA or one of the mushrooming clothing “outlet centers” and buy foreign brand mobile phones, but once in the perceived safety of their own four walls, they could easily be mistaken as proponents of being anti all things foreign, including goods, and in particular anti-American and anti-European, respectively. Speaking nationwide and whilst they were always in the minority and never the actual decision makers, they supported and probably greatly benefited from the many forms of unwanted tutelage this country had to live under for so long.
Family type number two: ready for the future
Expats may eventually realize that what they perhaps overheard or discussed somewhere along Turkey's western and southern shorelines or in İzmir as well as in some of the few remaining old guard neighborhoods of İstanbul or Ankara, too, most likely stands for the absolute minority of extended families of the new millennium. Hence, enter “family type number two,” which knows that establishing democracy was Turkey's only option. They may not necessarily have been active in the political arena but would vote for those who promote civic rights. They send their children to institutions of higher education but would question which “political” direction a certain institution stands for as some promote tomorrow and others look backwards.
What's more, they know that what they voted for guarantees a better future for their children. I must pay them a huge virtual compliment as they are not fake, they do not frequent famous international coffee houses only to tell me later that they hate all things foreign. Yet family number two has not burned bridges with traditional Turkish life at all -- they only want to be able to once more be allowed to bring out the best in it.
It is for sure difficult for expats to detect these “behind closed doors” differences and requires an extended stay on location and, of course, making friends with as many segments of Turkish civil society as possible.
There are of course myriad other “family types” coming to terms with modernity either because they always longed for it or because they realized after 10 years in the making that this is the only way forward. Are you curious about my own family? Let me simply conclude this article by saying that in my own home I witnessed some elements of case number one, others of case number two. Which viewpoints won? All and none, depending on your perspective. I can happily say we learned to disagree in harmony.
Hence, off you go to a country where tradition is upheld yet modernity has become the norm, where moral conservatism easily pairs with economic progress, where over the best part of the last decade individual liberties that even 15 years ago were unheard of became standard, and where more people use a mobile phone, with the exception of Finland perhaps. It is a country where not everything is as it seems (think case number one and the Caffe Latte Syndrome) and where of course not everything is perfect -- as is nowhere else, for that matter -- yet where progress has not eliminated Turkish family life or other positive traditions, either (think case number two). Talk with everyone, listen to everyone, then make up your mind, but never judge a book (or family or country) by its cover. At least that's what I try to do. Enjoy your stay!