The dance of friendship

The very first person I met here when I arrived 10 years ago was a young waiter who spoke English named Melih.

He took me under his wing and made it his mission to see that my needs were met and that I visited Eminönü and Sultanahmet unmolested; he really helped me out. Then, over the years we drifted apart -- he moved to Van, got married, started a family and launched his own business and I got busy with my various projects. Before he left for Van, he introduced me to Firat. Firat called me the other day and it got me thinking about friendships in this country.

When I first got here, I was a little overwhelmed by the intensity of my new friendships. People I had just met were treating me to meals, taking me to all the tourist places, introducing me to their friends and family -- it was like a whirlwind romance without the romance. But that was my first month here, and I chalked it up to Turkish hospitality, which prides itself on making guests feel welcome.

But what if I weren’t a guest? When I moved here, nothing had changed. My new friends were the same as they were when I was a tourist on vacation. They were like friends on steroids -- super friends, if you will. The friendships here are deep, sincere and lasting. To the American eye, they may seem a bit on the clingy side, but once you get used to the culture and customs you see that a little clinginess is a small price to pay for somebody who truly cares about you.

One day I got very sick from food poisoning. I called Fırat, told him that I was sick and couldn’t meet with him as planned. I then crawled into bed to try to get through the night. Within 30 minutes there was a knock on my door and Fırat and his cousin were there. They rushed me back to bed while one of them got a cold cloth and put it on my head and the other proceeded to go into the kitchen to make me fresh soup.

Imagine if that scenario had happened in the States -- if I had called my best friend Phil and told him that I was sick. He would have said, “I’m sorry to hear that.” He probably would have inquired into the nature of my sickness and offered some helpful advice. Then we would have made an appointment to catch up another time and that would be it. I guarantee you that he would not be on the next bus to Brooklyn to make me soup and put cold cloths on my head.

I did, however, have to draw a line in the friendship sand. When you live in a “bekar evi” (loosely translated as a bachelor’s pad), friends feel they have the right to ring your bell at all hours and that when they show up you will drop everything, make some tea and pull out the backgammon board. The first time that somebody dropped by unexpectedly, I was busy preparing the next day’s lessons. I told him that he should come back another day and that he should call first. But when I saw the expression on his face -- well, you would have thought that I had just killed his dog. I realized then that I had to let him in.

The following day, I had a chat with my closest friends. I told them that I would honor the cultural expectation of letting them come over when they wanted. However, if I was working on my lessons, I would not stop what I was doing. They could watch TV, make tea, hang out and when I was finished my prep work, we could spend time together. My New England work ethic would never allow me to let work suffer due to hanging out with friends.

Because of Turkey, my friendships have changed back home, too. I have learned not to let so much time go between conversations. In New York, I worked two jobs to make ends meet and so there was no time to meet up with my friends so often. Or that’s what I told myself. In İstanbul, I worked at the university during the day and gave private lessons after school and yet, I learned, there was still time to play backgammon with my friends and drink tea and chat. In fact, they insisted that we get together weekly regardless of how busy our lives had become.

Getting along with family

Turkish friendship customs helped me to become friends with my father. My father is a hard core Republican -- and always has been. Growing up, we used to fight like cats and dogs. I was an “ungrateful, commie, hippie punk” (which I kind of was) and he was whatever bad label I could come up with that demonized the political right and would make my father turn red with rage. So it went that when I decided to come here, my father told me I shouldn’t and I told him in that haughty American individualistic way that he could go fly a kite.

But after living here for two years and being highly observant about the way people treated their parents, I began to rethink my position. I noticed that most of my friends let their parents say whatever they wanted and simply agreed with them -- whether they really agreed or not. I began to think about my arguments with my father. Was fighting with him changing anything? Not at all -- I was only making him feel uncomfortable or angry around me, but the world marched on with the political left and right continuing their course.

And so it happened that I took a trip back home for a summer vacation and stayed at my father’s place. He was the same. He continued to express the Republican talking points, but rather than argue with him I simply shrugged my shoulders and said, “I don’t read up too much on that stuff.” And I let it go. After that trip, he told me that Turkey had really been good for me and that I had matured a lot; I even got him to come here a couple of times (where he got to see firsthand that not all Muslims are terrorists, though I never rubbed that in).

I think one of the hardest conversations I had with my father was when I became the founding chair of Democrats Abroad Turkey. “Are you sitting down, Dad?” I asked. I took a deep breath and told him; but I also assured him that I would not berate him with Democratic talking points and that I would do my best to try to see his side of the story.

There is an underbelly to friendships here and that is the specter of expectations. In fact, as fast as friendships can begin, they can end. The two friends that I recall losing were Cafer and Ercan. Cafer called me about his wedding just the night before. But I had a class the next day and he had given me no time to find a substitute. I told him that I had to teach and that I was sorry, but I would miss his wedding. He suggested that I call in sick and he couldn’t understand why I thought that was out of keeping with integrity for so many reasons. I realized then that friendships come with a price: You are meant to put your friends above everything, even your job. I told him that the following month I would take his wife and him out to dinner to honor their special day -- but that was not what he wanted to hear and the last words he spoke to me were, “You are not a true friend.”

Ercan was a different case all together. One day we were sitting in his living room and he announced, “Brooks, it’s time for you to get married.” HUH? I asked him what he was talking about and he said that I was 43 and that I needed to be married. When I pushed him for more on that, he insisted that I needed a woman to cook and clean for me. I told him that what he was describing to me was not a wife, but rather a maid. Not to be deterred, he insisted. Finally he said, “Look: Come to my village, we can line up the women there and you can pick one.” When I asked him if his sisters would be in that lineup, he hit the roof. He couldn’t believe that I had the audacity to suggest he give me one of his sisters in wedlock. Meanwhile, I was appalled that he thought of women as chattel that could be pawned off to a complete stranger and yet paradoxically viewed his sisters as more sacred. Needless to say, we have never spoken since.

As the years march on, I still find myself involved in different projects and can get quite busy. And while some friendships have drifted away, I have managed to keep in contact with most of my friends here and back home. This is one aspect of Turkish culture that I will continue to cherish.

2012-07-02

Muhabir: Brooks Emerson