Choosing A Not So Turkish Life as the name of this blog was merely ironic, because it is as impossible to define a Turk as it is to define a Scot as a Brit (and if you get understand that, you’re quite possibly Welsh). To some, the life we lead is as Turkish as it gets; to others it’s a mountain removed. Turkey has as many different societal layers as any other country we may hail from, making what’s Turkish and what’s not a personal perception based on the experiences you encounter or information you somehow gleam. I have friends whose family expects tea poured into tulip shaped glasses repeatedly over the course of an evening, others whose family members hold the sugar cubes in their teeth as they sup the tea through it, others still whose family drink earl grey and little else, offering lemon or milk – even some who offer mugs! I know people whose every holiday is a round robin of dutiful visitation, when olive harvesting means hard graft and others yet for whom summer means beaches and five stars. Their Turkey is often as far removed from my perception of this country and the lives we live within it so vastly different that we could well be in different countries. I came to Islam and life as a muslim after living in Turkey for a few years already. Many layers of Turkey, perhaps Istanbul is more accurate, have revealed themselves through this transition which I would not otherwise have had the chance to glimpse into; in itself, both a blessing and a curse. Liberations I felt then have been largely replaced by restrictions now, and vice versa; whereas I may once have felt alienated wearing knee-length shorts in August, I’m now at risk of being (diplomatically) turned away from restaurants I frequented often. A Not So Turkish Life is an ironic title, yet one very apt and real.
In some neighbourhoods in Istanbul, neighbours raise their children as one extended family during the summer with all kids playing together and mums taking it in turns to watch over; in most all families, grandparents play a large and active role. In other neighbourhoods, you’re less likely to know your neighbours name than you are living in a tower block in central Manchester and – like us – can live 30minutes away but not see family for weeks, sometimes whole months on end. Turkish culture and this idea of one-for-all parenting isn’t a blanket fit. Yet many people, from all walks of life, of all ages and statures, seem to think its ok to pass judgement on others parenting. After the tickings off from strangers for babywearing M, neighbours for him shouting, in-laws for his lack of many layers, nurses for his being held on his feet and every Tom Dick and Harry for not placing him on a blanket but straight onto the carpet, I’ve tried to explain this intrusion, this stifling suffocation i feel when it comes to parenting my child(ren) as a cultural difference i was failing to take under my skin; but this isn’t Turkish, or cultural; it’s simply rude.
I never thought I’d live long-term in Turkey and I certainly had never contemplated the notion of having children in Turkey; in fact, if I had done, I probably wouldn’t have been in Turkey full stop. But things change and love happens. And when love happened to me in a once-time fishing village in Istanbul with a man whose whole life was built here, with a business which allows me to live my life inshAllah nourishing our beautiful children without worrying about working or bill payments or childcare, though I might not have chosen Turkey as the optimum destination for this adventure, life threw Turkey at me. However, the quirks of pavements more resembling of obstacle courses and the opinions of irate Turkish people are far less cute when the opinions are about your children and your pram is failing to navigate those streets.
Once upon a time on my Istanbul journey, I lived in Tarlabaşı, an area currently due for complete urban renovation which tells you more about general opinion of this neighbourhood than I possibly could, but whilst I lived there those mean streets were full of nothing but kindness. Single, young, non-muslim, I spent most evenings out with friends, often coming home past witching hour and walking alone through the main thoroughfare. Every single evening as I came home, a call went down the street ahead of me, shop to shop, window to window, checking to ensure I made it home in one piece. During the day the entrance to my apartment building served as a street-side crèche with babies and drinks and freshly baked snacks making their ways back and forth through windows, into various hands over the course of the day; as a building resident, I was regarded as one of them and both babies and snacks made their way into my hands regularly. Two instances stand out when I think back to that apartment, both, funnily, involving vast amounts of water. The first when I inadvertently flooded the building. I came home late afternoon and opened the door to a flat that wasn’t mine. All floors were strewn with kids clothing and cupboard doors were swinging wide in the kitchen. After freaking a while then calming when I realised nothing was missing, I asked the downstairs neighbour what on earth? She told me, while passing me fresh tea, that water had dripped into her kitchen so they’d gone to check and the kitchen sink was overflowing. Not wanting to go through my stuff, she’d grabbed the towels I had hanging out, and soaked up the rest with her kids clothes. There was no anger, no frustration, just a “these things happen ” attitude – the water had been cut when I’d left that morning – and that was that. The second water incident was when G and I got caught in a rain storm early one morning. As I pulled my sodden jeans from the pillion seat of his motorbike, poor G received an ear bashing from the women of the building who were convinced I was going to get sick. These women were interfering and busy bodies in many many ways – they could probably tell you better than I what I bought and who came in and out during the course of my stay – but for all their meddling, there was not one judgemental comment; they took me for who I was and that was that. The reputation of Tarlabaşı may be one forbidding for many Turks, but for me for that short while, it was the most at home I’ve ever felt here; a stranger pulled into the midst. I have no wish to bring my kids up there, nor do I hold any illusion that living there as a mother I’d escape the judgement which plagues my every day at the moment, but I do think it would annoy me less and the intent would be tempered by the action. you see, for all the interference, meddling criticism and flat-out tickings off, nobody offers to help. I am so sick and tired of being judged for my age, for my headscarf, for my marital status and for the sound levels of my kid by people who have no intent of trying to make any of the perceived downfalls better.
Take the woman on the metro this week who succeeded in making me cry, albeit it thankfully long after she’d departed the train. She was a mother to two, a grandmother to one, and this made her the authority on children. If, instead of telling strangers on the train how I had to be excused for my youth and that I’d soon learn, if instead of antagonizing me with her rudeness, she had left her seat to come talk to M, or to ask if I needed him entertaining, or simply passed me a well-meant empathetic grimace to the noise – toddlers who wake at 5am and haven’t slept by 1pm? – if she’d offered that instead, we may have got somewhere. God knows I’m under no false illusion that I am the best mother out there, there is more I have still to learn than I can ever have learnt up ’til now, and as a mother of two now grown up children, I’m sure she’d have had tips to pass on, but, with that attitude toward me? No lady, I don’t think so. Had this happened when M was a babe, I’d have let it go past; now though, I have no patience and I refuse to ignore such comments as though I know that they’re right. I stood up to her, dividing the carriage of Turks for the remainder of our journey, and amused my now-laughing-toddler in the process. But it didn’t make me feel better – though it did remind me that when I need it, my stagnant Turkish can rise quickly! all it sought to do was frustrate me more and remind me of the stifling attitudes here. It’s bad enough that our neighbours think I’m fair game to be ticked off for my parenting methods but to be attacked, for that’s what it was in all earnest, to be attacked for my mothering skills on public transport by a stranger, simply because my toddler is toddlering?
A Not So Turkish Life is no joke. I am not, no matter what the paper will say the end of next year inshAllah once they make me a Turk, I am not Turkish. Judging me based on my age, my appearance, my name, my religion, my husband’s job or my children’s fingernails will not cut mustard with me. Judging me on my parenting skills without knowing a blind thing about me will drop those mustard seeds into a mortar and send the pestle crunching til they split into shards and attack you. Being a parent is hard enough anywhere, anyway. I am hard enough on myself as to my mothering skills, or lack perhaps of such. I really do not need, and will not take, unsolicited comments from uninvited people. You want to judge me? First get to know me. Advice to give me? Kindly share, but offer a hand of help, too.
Living in this country as a Mum is challenging daily, as a Mum to two littles it’s definitely even more so and encounters such as the metro lady make me wish nothing more than the chance to pack up our life here and move somewhere people are more restrained in their judgements, perhaps. Though as my Mum said when I regailed this, at least here they give it me straight. That’s something I guess.