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A Hidden Culture: Traditions and Customs of Turkey

A Hidden Culture: Traditions and Customs of Turkey

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Published by Whitney Olsen
This article reports on Middle Eastern culture, primarily Turkish, and informs new American travelers about subtle traditions and customs that they should be aware of before arriving at their destination. This article focuses on exposing the cultural practices that could potentially take years of living in the Middle East before a newcomer could begin to understand what these subtle norms are. The author draws from personal observation and traveling experience in the Middle East as well as the experiences of long-term residents in Turkey. Furthermore, the author consults cultural experts on Middle Eastern anthropology, history, and traditions. This is a meaningful study because Americans preparing to travel to the Middle East on business or even vacation purposes will have a much easier time adjusting to the culture if they know what to expect and how their own American actions are perceived by Middle Easterners.
This article reports on Middle Eastern culture, primarily Turkish, and informs new American travelers about subtle traditions and customs that they should be aware of before arriving at their destination. This article focuses on exposing the cultural practices that could potentially take years of living in the Middle East before a newcomer could begin to understand what these subtle norms are. The author draws from personal observation and traveling experience in the Middle East as well as the experiences of long-term residents in Turkey. Furthermore, the author consults cultural experts on Middle Eastern anthropology, history, and traditions. This is a meaningful study because Americans preparing to travel to the Middle East on business or even vacation purposes will have a much easier time adjusting to the culture if they know what to expect and how their own American actions are perceived by Middle Easterners.

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A Hidden Culture: Traditions and Customs of Turkey

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By Whitney Olsen December 14, 2011

Whitney Olsen December 14, 2011 English 309- Teston A Hidden Culture: Traditions and Customs of Turkey Abstract This article reports on Middle Eastern culture, primarily Turkish, and informs new American travelers about subtle traditions and customs that they should be aware of before arriving at their destination. This article focuses on exposing the cultural practices that could potentially take years of living in the Middle East before a newcomer could begin to understand what these subtle norms are. The author draws from personal observation and traveling experience in the Middle East as well as the experiences of long-term residents in Turkey. Furthermore, the author consults cultural experts on Middle Eastern anthropology, history, and traditions. This is a meaningful study because Americans preparing to travel to the Middle East on business or even vacation purposes will have a much easier time adjusting to the culture if they know what to expect and how their own American actions are perceived by Middle Easterners. Key Words: culture, Turkey, Turkish, Middle East, travelers, people, family. Introduction American travelers are often not aware of some of the major elements of Middle Eastern culture and can come across as rude or ignorant to native people. The problem is that many aspects of Middle Eastern culture are very difficult for visitors to detect because they are so subtle or hidden. From my own personal experience in Turkey, it was difficult for me to navigate my way through the cities without feeling lost in the culture until one of my resident friends gave me an overview on what was culturally acceptable behavior. Therefore, the purpose of my research on Middle Eastern culture was to be able to make informed recommendations to new travelers of Turkey. After knowing the feeling of being lost in a foreign place, I would like other people to know important details about Middle Eastern culture before they arrive to their destination. Throughout the progression of my research, I interviewed two Americans who have spent a significant amount of time living in Turkey. Laszlo Suto lived in Turkey for one full year, and Sarah Hinshaw has been living in Turkey for three years now and still lives there currently. Both individuals were very knowledgeable on the topic of Turkish culture; they both have had valuable experience in adjusting to a A Hidden Culture | p. 2

dramatically different way of life in a foreign country. Within this paper, I will address some of the main elements of Turkish culture that any visitor would need to know, including cultural taboos, fears and superstitions, relational interactions, hospitality and manners, and religious traditions. All of these issues will be very beneficial for a new traveler of Turkey to be aware of before he or she arrives to the land where the East meets the West. Methods As primary research for this project, I interviewed two originally American people who have lived in Turkey for extended periods of time in order to obtain an accurate understanding of culture. In my experience, sometimes books or other secondary sources are not as current on information as I would prefer. For this project, I interviewed Sarah Hinshaw, a current resident in Turkey for the past three years, and Laszlo Suto, who had just returned from living in Turkey for a full year. Suto was interviewed within 4 months of returning to the United States to be sure that his memory was still fresh and current. The interview questions I created for asking Suto and Hinshaw were aimed at targeting those hidden traditions and gray areas in the culture that might otherwise be difficult to spot. These questions included the following: What are Turkish taboos that you discovered? Are there any fears or superstitions that seem to have a grip on the people? What are acceptable and expected relationship interactions among family members, the opposite gender, strangers, and friendships? What are words, phrases, topics, gestures, or body language that is taboo or could be misinterpreted? What are expected hospitality customs? What is most valued in friendships? How does religion affect the culture? How is “family” viewed differently or similarly in Turkey and the United States?

These interview questions revealed a great amount of experiential knowledge on Turkish traditions that most first time visitors would either miss entirely or discover through trial and error – most likely by offending a national with their actions and not understanding why. Results Some of the facts I have discovered about Turkish culture in this process have been surprising and intriguing. According to Laszlo Suto, cleanliness is a very important part of Turkish culture. This theme of cleanliness affects much of their A Hidden Culture | p. 3

customs and traditions. For example, Suto shared that it is considered to extremely offensive to not remove your shoes once you enter a home. Suto said it is also rude if you walk around someone else’s home barefoot; it is non-negotiable that you must wear the slippers or sandals that your host provides. The same would be true if you invited Turks over to your house; they would expect to be provided slippers. Suto declares that he had to buy five pairs of slippers to keep in his house for guests. It is considered to be very unclean for anyone to place his or her backpack or purse on the floor, according to Suto.

Fig 1. Remains of the ancient Byzantine Wall in Istanbul, Turkey (original photography) A giant superstition that Turkish people have is a fear of cold temperatures. According to Sarah Hinshaw, Turks, for this reason, don’t drink ice in their cola (for fear of freezing their throats), always wear house slippers (cold can enter through your feet and make you ill), close windows if there is a breeze in homes or cars (the breeze can make you cold), and always put something like a newspaper between you and a concrete surface when sitting because the cold from the concrete can freeze your ovaries. Basically, if you come down with an illness, they attribute it to their feet getting too cold. According to Hinshaw, even though Turkey is primarily a Muslim culture, animism is actually an underlying worldview and plays into the people’s superstitions in life. For example, the people do lots of things to ward off evil. Both Hinshaw and Suto claimed that the Evil Eye is one of the most A Hidden Culture | p. 4

predominant signs around Turkey. People will pin the evil eye on everything from a new necklace to their babies to ward off jealousy. Suto discovered that the Evil Eye is essentially a “look” that can bring injury or bad luck, and to protect yourself from this, the people guard themselves with their own Evil Eyes. In its essence, the Evil Eye is a like a good luck charm for the average Turk. Finally, according to Hinshaw, the Turkish language is loaded with blessings and curses that they will say when a child is born or when someone dies. People want to be sure about their future and will read their coffee grinds with local fortunetellers or have their tarot cards read. Suto also discovered that a common Turkish superstition is if you see a black cat after 9:00 at night that means that danger is upon you.

Fig 2. Walking around the city (original photography) In Turkey, hospitality and manners are highly valued and expected much more than in America. According to Suto, it is extremely rude to show anyone the bottom of your shoe while crossing your legs and sitting. It is also rude to reveal your teeth while cleaning them with a toothpick. Suto also said that, surprisingly, even though they value cleanliness so much in their culture, it is expected that you leave your garbage on the table at fast food restaurants, unlike in America. Suto also discovered that it is polite to refuse an offer or gift the first time it is offered to you. It shows respect to not take advantage of your Turkish friends by accepting something the first time it is offered. It is expected that you refuse the first time, but it is also expected that you accept the 2nd or 3rd time it is offered to you. On the flip side, it is A Hidden Culture | p. 5

expected that if you offer a gift that you will insist at least twice that your friend accept it. Suto claims that it in general, Turkish people are extremely hospitable and generous. Because Turks are very focused on people and not events, it is common for a Turk to miss an appointment or class or meeting so that they can continue to talk with a friend. According to Suto, it is expected for you to be tardy to events or meetings. Being a half hour late to appointments is considered to be no big deal. In fact, quality time and loyalty are considered to be the most important elements of friendships in Turkey.

Fig 3. Istanbul, a giant city with fascinating culture (original photography) One aspect of the culture that was most difficult for Suto to adjust to was the physical display of affection in Turkey. Unlike the large bubbles that Americans typically put up around themselves, the Turks have no problem being affectionate in public. According to Suto, most people – both men and women – greet each other with a kiss-kiss, which are kisses on both sides of the cheeks. Suto also discovered that men are often affectionate with each other and would often walk together down the street linking arms or holding hands. In America, this is demonstrates that the men are gay. However, in Turkey, this is normal even for straight men that are good friends. It is even normal for a man to place his hand on the leg of another man as a symbol of loyalty and friendship. According to Suto, something else that is common in their culture is the public display of romantic affection. It is normal, even expected, for a couple to make out on a public bench or in a coffee shop for an hour A Hidden Culture | p. 6

or more. Suto said that, since Turkish relationships spring out of nowhere (the girls don’t act like they are interested in a guy until he pursues), making out in public is a sign to everyone that a guy and girl are officially together.

Fig 4. Istanbul University, Turkey (original photography) There are many cultural taboos in Turkey that many American travelers are completely unaware of, but are perceived as extremely rude. Suto said that a huge taboo is to assume that a Turk does not speak English; it is taken as an offense. Suto found out that it was best to try to speak to them first in English and then practice speaking in Turkish later; this is true especially in tourist areas. According to Suto, another giant offense is to shake someone’s hand with your left hand, which is considered unclean. Traditionally, Turks use their left hand to clean themselves after going to the bathroom. Many bathrooms in Turkey still do not supply toilet paper (and yes, they use their bare left hand to wipe themselves). For this reason, it is considered to be one of the worst insults to shake left hands, communicating that the other person is the equivalent of a pig or a dog. Hinshaw and Suto both said that Turks tend to keep a low profile in public which is opposite of how Americans usually act. Americans are often loud and animated in public, especially as tourists. However, Hinshaw says that it is very important and respectable for tourists to be aware of how locals act in public and follow suit. According to Suto, it is disrespectful to laugh or talk loudly in public and that chivalry is valued. For example, it is common and expected of men to give up their seats on a bus for elders A Hidden Culture | p. 7

and pregnant women. Finally, according to Suto, there are some gestures and American words that have very inappropriate meanings in Turkey. For example, a double finger snap and a clap is an inappropriate gesture, whereas it is normal in America. Also, it is important to avoid the American words “peach” and “sick” because they have offensive meanings in the Turkish language.

Fig 5. Walking in Taksim, Istanbul (original photography) According to Hinshaw, when a Turk meets a foreigner, it is not uncommon for the Turk to ask how much the foreigner makes in salary and how much they pay for different things. This subject is taboo for Americans, but is normal for Turks because they just want to know, in the scheme of things, where they fall economically and whether or not they are getting good deals. Hinshaw also said that it is taboo and actually illegal in some places to talk about the Prophet Muhammad or the government. There is a lot of suspicion in Turkish culture because they are a country that has been continually overthrown and overtaken, so they live in fear of that happening again. Hinshaw warns that it is important to avoid those types of conversations. According to Suto, it is never acceptable to even jokingly speak badly of Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. To many Turks, he is like a god and to speak poorly of his name is to defile it. Suto said that Ataturk’s pictures are everywhere in Turkey and are required to be the highest photo found in the entire room. His face is in almost every home and business and on all the Turkish Lira, which is the type of currency. Suto warns Americans to not ever mention the A Hidden Culture | p. 8

Armenian genocide in 1915. This is a taboo topic because the Turkish government still won’t admit the fact that they massacred thousands of civilian Armenians.

Fig 6. A Turkish street market (original photography) Another thing for new travelers of Turkey to be cautious of is social interaction between men and women. According to Suto, many Turkish women flirt with American guys, and Turkish men flirt with American women because Americans are stereotyped as “easy,” “loose,” and “promiscuous.” So especially as a female visitor to Turkey, it is essential to be aware of your surroundings at all times and not allow yourself to fall into the stereotype. Suto says that, in their culture, blonde hair is considered to be a huge sign of beauty. Many Turkish women attempt to dye their hair blonde, but end up with orange looking hair instead. Suto cautioned all blonde female tourists to pay particular attention to their surroundings when out in public places. Suto said that it is not unusual for Turkish men to holler at women they think are pretty. For Turkish women, it is considered taboo to make eye contact with guys or to link eyes for longer than a second. Suto said that eye contact communicates to men that a woman is available and wants to get to know them romantically. Many friendly American women have ended up with an unwanted Turkish man by their side because she smiled at him and made eye contact. According to Hinshaw, it is important for a tourist to keep interaction with the opposite gender to a minimum. It is acceptable if you are interacting with a waiter A Hidden Culture | p. 9

or shopkeeper, but they will quickly make poor judgments about you if you talk too much. In some cases, conversation is necessary when bargaining down the price on goods. Hinshaw insists, however, that in general, you should not make eye contact or smile to those of the opposite gender when walking down the street. If you become friends with people in a mixed crowd, that becomes a safer environment for mixed socializing.

Fig 7. The Bosporus Strait and traditional boat transportation (original photography) In Turkish culture, the family unit is given much more importance than it is in the individualist American society. According to Hinshaw, families are much closer to one another than in the United States. They tend to all live in the same neighborhood and live in the same homes their whole lives. Many families share family business and pass the work down from generation to generation. There are very few social services provided by the government because most care comes through the family unit for those within their family. According to Hinshaw, it is expected that the younger generations take care of the older generations. Most of the time, younger families either pay rent for their elders or have them move in with them. Hinshaw says that if there is a conflict in the family, they “Kus” each other and do not speak for many years. When they return, they act as if nothing ever happened and life resumes are normal. Every holiday is spent with family by first visiting the graves of the deceased, and then visiting the elders, and finally the younger family members. The culture completely centered on the family unit according to Hinshaw. A Hidden Culture | p. 10

About the close-knit family units in Turkey, Suto says that the reputation of family is extremely important in their culture. The family’s name means everything. Individuals strive to make their family name known rather than their own personal name and success. Suto also stated that Turks have serious issues with forgiveness because loyalty is considered so important. For example, Suto said that if you hurt a friend, the friendship could end instantly. Friendships are very close and people are often friends for life. For this reason, it is hard for a Turk to enter a new community group and be fully welcomed as an insider. Analysis After interviewing Suto and Hinshaw as primary research on Turkish culture, I studied and researched some secondary sources to see what other people had discovered about Middle Eastern traditions. All of what Hinshaw and Suto reported matched up with what cultural experts were reporting as well. However, I did discover some elements of Middle Eastern and Muslim culture that were not mentioned in either of the interviews. According to Hoskins, author of A Muslim’s Heart, “Honor is the ship that floats all of Muslim culture. It is more important than logic, truth, and even life itself” (Hoskins, 9). Hoskins explains that in the Middle East, honor is actually a commodity that can be bought and sold, added to, and subtracted from. And anything that adds to family honor such as education, wealth, or generosity, is highly valued; anything that subtracts from family honor such as female sexual immorality or changing religions is avoided at all costs (Hoskins, 10). Hoskins used the following example of how shame and honor is viewed in Middle Eastern culture: One day, a man was killed accidently in a car accident. The dead man’s son grabbed his gun and chased after the driver with the full intention of killing him in revenge (Hoskins, 11). Hoskins explains that this is expected behavior and that a man has full “rights” to kill someone in revenge of blood. Hoskins said, “A friend instructed me that if I was ever involved in a serious car accident in the Middle East, I should immediately drive away. If the car wouldn’t drive, I was to ‘get out and run.’ If I was caught, I was told, ‘Deny everything.’” (Hoskins, 11). According to Stephen Kinzer, author of Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds, the Islamic religion inevitably plays a giant role in Middle Eastern cultures considering that it is by far the most popular religion there (Kinzer, 57). Kinzer argues that in every culture that has ever existed throughout history, people have sought answers to the great mysteries of existence and usually turn to religion (Kinzer, 59). Kinzer also points out that governments often seek ways to separate religion from state policy and that wise leaders, even the most atheistic, know they must balance the sacred and secular aspects in their societies (Kinzer, 59). According to Kinzer, “Those who governed the Turkish Republic for the first eighty years of its existence were unable or unwilling to strike that balance. This led many Muslims to conclude that they had to choose between their religious faith and allegiance to the state” (Kinzer, 59-60). This aspect of religion is one thing that Suto A Hidden Culture | p. 11

and Hinshaw alluded to in the context of Turkish culture but did not focus on. Kinzer, however, shows us that religion plays such a profound role in Muslim countries that many of the conflicts and much of the cultural traditions arise from their central religion. According to Kinzer, Ataturk and his secularist movement in Turkey banned the use of headscarves in the business, medical, and college places. However, the headscarf is a traditional and ancient article of clothing for women and is crucial for Muslim-practicing women to wear (Kinzer, 78). Kinzer uses the example of two bright women that he met that were expelled from medical school simply because they refused to remove their traditional headscarves. According to Kinzer, these women said, “We believe in our religion and we want to apply this religion in our lives. What has happened in the last few weeks makes me very angry. I am protesting as much as possible because I really want to become a doctor. It’s bad to become a fanatic, but they are pushing us toward fanaticism” (Kinzer, 79). With this headscarf example and many others, Kinzer shows us that Turkish culture practically revolves around Islam and that much tension and resistance occurs when the government attempts to secularize the country. According to Kinzer, forcing secularism down the throats of the Turkish people always leads to protests and violence. This is an aspect of any Muslim culture that tourists and visitors need to be aware of and expect whenever in the Middle East. It is not uncommon for there to be giant protests, even bloody protests, in the cities and on the streets. Another book, Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East by Daniel Bates and Amal Rassam, really drives home the point that cultures and people change. According to Bates and Rassam: Scholars agree that it is difficult to generalize about a way of life as varied and changing as is urban life in the Middle East. The great metropolitan centers of Baghdad, Cairo, and Istanbul have long symbolized the civilization and cultural accomplishments of the Islamic world. These cities, however, are quite distinct from one another, each reflecting its own unique historical experience. (Bates and Rassam, 161) Bates and Rassam caution the reader and explorer of Middle Eastern culture against making sweeping assumptions about their ways of life. They argue that even within one country, the people and culture can vary widely (Bates and Rassam, 161). Knowing this advice from Bates and Rassam, I think it is important to realize that the results of my primary research from the interviews of Suto and Hinshaw should only be applied to Turkish cities on the Western side of the country. East Turkey will have its own unique culture, and other areas in the Middle East will also have cultural differences. While many of the facts that Suto and Hinshaw shared about Turkish culture may very well apply to many locations in the Middle East, it is important to not assume that they apply in all situations. Each new location requires its own unique investigation and research.

A Hidden Culture | p. 12

Discussion Throughout this research process on Turkish culture, although I have obtained a significant amount of knowledge, I have realized more than anything how much there still is to learn. While it is possible to learn many beneficial facts and tips from others with experience in a different part of the world, it is impossible to ever fully understand how another culture works unless you spend time there yourself. I can see that some of the areas of culture that I researched for this project, such as religion and social structure, still need much more research and study in order to obtain a more well-rounded and complete understanding of those aspects of culture. I think that the interviews with Suto and Hinshaw worked well for this project because they both have spent extended periods of time in Turkey recently, allowing me to get a very current glimpse into Turkish culture (primarily Turkish city culture). For further research in the future, I would like to interview other people from different and diverse parts of the country, such as a farming village in Eastern Turkey. I realize, however, that interviewing an individual in Eastern Turkey would be a difficult task and may require me to actually travel there myself.

Fig 8. Ancient Ruins of Ephesus in Southwestern Turkey (original photography) As a word of advice to all future travelers and tourists of the Middle East, I highly recommend that you take the time to really study and learn about the history and culture of Middle Eastern people. Their culture is so rich and unique, and I can A Hidden Culture | p. 13

guarantee that your experience abroad will be much more rewarding if you learn more about it in advance. If ever you walk down the streets in a Turkish city, you will want to know the significance of the countless ancient historical sites that cover the country. If you ever find yourself in a Middle Eastern country, you will appreciate the culture and personally benefit greatly from understanding how to behave appropriately and in an acceptable manner. Therefore, I want to challenge all travelers to Turkey and the Middle East to be observant of a different way of life and to be an open-minded learner as a foreigner. It will not help you at all to try to bring your own American culture to the Middle East and expect others to adapt to your ways. Instead, adapt to the culture of the people around you and earn their respect by learning how to be one of them. Learning how to blend in will give you many more opportunities to experience a new culture than you could imagine. Take into consideration the research that I have done on Turkish culture and be willing to accept the recommendations and warnings of people who have spent extended time in the Middle East. So whether you go on a literal adventure to the Middle East or just desire to understand a different culture, I challenge you to pick up a book and learn with an open mind.

A Hidden Culture | p. 14

Sources: Bates, Daniel and Rassam, Amal. (1983). People and Cultures of the Middle East. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. Hinshaw, Sara. (2011). Interview by W Olsen [Personal communication]. Hoskins, Edward J. (2005). A Muslim’s Heart. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress. Kinzer, Stephen. (2008). Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Suto, Laszlo. (2011). Interview by W Olsen [Personal Interview].

All photography within this paper is original.

A Hidden Culture | p. 15

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