Fresh off the backpacking trail, I saw Istanbul as a Lego city mashup of senses to be explored and the country an extension of that. I delighted in exploring the shores of the city split between two continents and seas, watching the bridges’ fishermen cast off their lines while the boat traffic trickled by underneath. I spent hours meandering the buzzing streets of Sultanhamet, learning bartering in the Grand Bazaar, sipping coffee above Ortakoy mosque. In the evenings I’d do what came naturally, combining normal with the sparkly new…red wine and tavla (checkers), cooling beers on warm beanbags in the summer evenings heat, shisha under bridge underneath the fishing rods and most of all I enjoyed sharing all these things with family and friends who visited. Eight years later and not only has my interaction with this country changed so that Eminönü is one of my kids favourite places – the atmosphere of the huddled together the stalls, coming across delightful surprises like the old man selling lemonade from a bagpipe like contraption, or oddities like the working sewing machine that fits in your handbag – also the language has gone from being an exotic background noise to real words and behind them opinions. In this time though, the lives between myself and those I explored the city with have not only moved apart, they’ve have become parallel in almost every single way. This area I once used to dread has some of the best toy shops in the town yet is still not a comfortable area for a western woman to walk freely around, and even sightseeing is not simply straight forward when so many of those sights are, or were, mosques – is it appropriate to stay a while to pray?…is it wrong to leave a mosque without praying? The cafes I used to love no longer tailor to the clientèle cliche I, and by default my husband and kids, are presumed to fit in and my dearest little ones are fishermen in training themselves.
I understand all too easily that it’s hard to understand how the woman who snapped many a stiletto on the city’s cobbled streets, who danced blindly ’til the lights came back on and knew where all the best clothing bargains were to be had in the city now can’t bear to part with her flat, 5-year-old sandles; whose purpose for entering a mosque now rarely centres around the aesthetic and who sips herbal teas in the evening instead of wine. I get it. I do understand how freaky the picture may seem from the outside but understanding on such a fundamental level the ways in which our lives and my choices can be misconstrued, balanced with the same understanding that my past is as much an enigma to people here, it’s not only too complex to begin to explain the odd decisions I make for myself and our kids (even though it’s so glaring important to do so) but explaining risks causing rifts we don’t want.
I swing between the British “who bloody cares what anyone else thinks! I don’t need to justify our life!” to the Islamic ‘don’t sever ties unnecessarily’. On a deep personal level I see no reason to justify my actions or beliefs, but as my actions reflect on our beliefs and when those beliefs define our choices for our kids, and those choices are influenced by so much of here and there, the choice to say “screw the explanations” no longer feels a very valid one. Whether you’re talking about lifestyles, the TV you watch, music you listen to, clothes you wear or food you (don’t) eat, it’s tricky not to appear prude or just preachy. And now as the tensions between Turkey and the West rise and the turmoil in the bordering countries remains as intense, when politics and daily life become impossible to separate, when being obliged to carry passports is a daily reminder of this and in a week we’ve been shown little news other than that related to last Friday; when the Turkish news is our non-stop headlines and in the west its reportage is just a piece of international news, as British news becomes so hard to relate to as the reporting of Turkish news is so distorted, yet you’re not convinced of the impartiality of anything you read here..when you combine all of this emotions churn up more every day. As the week’s gone on I’ve felt more and more stuck between two places and with neither position particularly embracing, neither country a perfect fit, and neither thought process one you completely follow the more unclear your place is and the harder it all is to process.
The more time you spend in a country the more you absorb of its ways. When the western media presents that country as a country sinking into Islamic rule and it’s people as sheep, if you too wear a headscarf, don’t share the same lifestyle or sense of humour as those reading the bias you’re not in a strong position to defend it. The Independents article today – which I still haven’t read in silent protest – headed with ‘Erdogan is using the coup against him to make turkey a fully Islamic country’… the headline just makes my head spin.
Knowing that this will be interpreted as an undoubtably bad thing, my sense of furor takes over my heart. I want to kick and scream – AGAIN – that Turkey is not under a dictatorship, that yes, while the measures taken by the government may appear extreme, they’ve got to be questioned in context – context that includes an ongoing internal battle against terrorism, a war on its borders and its responsibility to the refugees taking shelter within its borders – as well as the very real threat the country just faced. It is frustrating knowing that as a Muslim woman – whether I like the president or not – the AK party itself has done so much to return my rights; those I can’t comprehend not having had. It’s frustrating also knowing that to show support confirms western prejudices against Muslim women and the heavy handed president of Turkey.
What differentiates politicians from each other is not so much the words they choose, but the demeanor and language with which they say it. Having followed the attempted coup and the political situation that’s followed it both in Turkish and English I know that not only can the meaning get lost under literal poor translation; when transcribed by the British press, the emphasis, intent and in the case of the attempted coup, impact, is 1) rarely explained 2) rarer still put into context. As many repercussions as there are to unfiltered sharing, not sharing is equally so. I do not want my kids to pick up a newspaper and think that one half of their passport views the other with contempt or pity, anymore than I want them to feel that the headline is in any way Islamophobic. Reading statements like this is western coverage of the events of this week has me worried that by the time they do understand, this will be all that they know.
In the lovely escape that is ‘Four Meals For Fourpence’ so much of the lifestyle is appealing. The depictions of a childhood spent skipping stones playing hopscotch and where cockles were sold from a bucket, remind me so much of the kids simit and lake days and make me smile. Even so, it’s a delicate balance between embracing the love that you have for these routines and both the concern (and again, explanation) that it is in fact not a backward-looking life. I can’t help long for the simplicity of the world as the UK was back then. In a world that’s rejected this simplicity of life, how do I explain that in Turkey with all its problems this simple life is my happy place, and the way that feels right to raise our boys?
It’s not just my head that’s spinning in circles. Here in Turkey the coup d’etat of 1980 is a very vivid, very real memory to all but the youngest generations. It was a time when nobody felt safe and were instinctively wary of each other and it’s that feeling that feels echoed now. We often watch Big Bang while we’re eating and the freedom with which Howard jokes about his Judaism that was once so unremarkable now seems as enigmatic as the girl who lost so many shoes to the cobbles of Istanbul. The more time I spend here the more things get jumbled. The more I learn the language the more the history makes sense, and the more I understand the context the more incomprehensible it all ultimately seems. While we have the Arab Spring as a reference to draw on to explain how terrifying, absurb and unembraceable a concept the idea of Islamic rule in Turkey would be, I have no way to explain that in itself “full-scale Islamisation” needn’t be a statement that incites instant fear when there’s so much counter “proof” that the word Islam and terror are connected.
How do you explain that Islam’s not dangerous, living in the world that we do; that seeing our kids wake up to eat before the fasts they so eagerly want to join in is nothing but a beauty to see? That as an educated, opinionated feminist this is the religion that sits right with my soul and a blessing I want to pass knowledge of to my kids just as much as I want them to debate the shit out of everything.
How do you explain to non-Muslims that Islam is not behind this global spread of terror anymore than the KKK represents Christians, when so much of it is actively claimed in the name of Islam? How do I explain that our religion is being twisted so horribly in so many terrifying ways that even Muslims fear to trust other Muslims? How do I explain to British family and friends that the suspicious-of-each-other feeling post 1980s coup had already begun creeping back into Turkey way before last weekend and it’s far more complicated and not as simply the result of one man grasping for the power; power he didn’t grasp his way into but was elected into by the people of this country.
When so many aspects in your life, from the lifestyle to the personal, are under close and (oft) misguided scrutiny that to know where to start explaining is impossible and you know misinterpretation inevitable; when the line between the political and the personal become so blurred in the constant flurry of news thanks to the internet we’re all enveloped by; when you’ve lived the reality of being estranged from family and rely so much on these renew bonds as deeply on friends who understand you on a Muslim/Turkish level as those who relate to you only on a human/love level; when you’re not sure who you can trust nor how your words will go down; when the implications of misinterpretation affect more than just political leanings; when you put all of this together, how do you hold onto the ties both Islam instructs you to preserve and your heart doesn’t want to risk loosing? When the thread holding so many things together is precarious, how do you get over the very real fear of the severing of these ties when you already know how to loose loved ones feels?
When it’s impossible to yourself to explain to yourself how the relationship you feel to the country you live is at once polar opposites of love and hate and gratitude; when the complexities of the life you’re living are made manageable by medication and the line between feeling sane and happy is such delicate a balance; when happy as you are it’s objectively hard to see where real emotions start and the buzz of the drugs ends; when all of this combines where do you start typing it out even when the ‘need’ to write it down is so tangible you can’t sleep and is a perfect diet tool.
When you in no way want to tell people what to think but see through the British non-religious eyes still so natural to look through that the therapy you find between spewing words unconditionally, un-thought-through onto the page can be seen as preaching even to those who know you best; when episodes of favourite tune-out tv shows leave you feeling split and divided on more levels than you knew trash TV could contain, when every day is a roller-coaster of happiness, concern and doubt, and when the ways you express and handle these conflicts in the practical, emotional and daily realms of that life can’t just be explained in one language only, where the hell do you begin to start?