Reflections on Turkey

Turkey has always been a country that I, personally, have felt a great deal of conflict about. Having lived and worked for many years amongst the Turkish and Kurdish communities of northeast London I have grown to love the people. Living for some time off Green Lanes has ensured that Turkish food is firmly my favourite. Yet I also know from those who have fled Turkey for fear of persecution and my work in human rights that it is not somewhere I have wanted to endorse by visiting. As Erdoğan’s grip on power has only intensified in recent years those concerns have grown.

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So we spent a lot of time over winter talking, thinking and reading about going. From Crete we were so close and knew that it was a country that would offer us rich experiences and incredible landscapes. I knew that we might regret not taking the opportunity to see and feel the country for ourselves. So at the London Boat Show in December the decision was made and we bought the charts and pilot books.

People

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Hoşgeldiniz means welcome in Turkish and it is a word that you not only hear and see but genuinely feel over and over again all over Turkey. Hoşgeldiniz more often than not comes with the offer of çay but always with a warm smile. There is a universal friendliness amongst the Turkish people. Our attempts at our own Turkish greeting merhaba (hello) always elicit an enthusiastic response and often a stop for a chat.

Simple everyday interactions, on the quay, at the market, at the barber’s, were accompanied with a positivity and energy even when language proved a barrier. There is a universal and friendliness to the Turkish people. Offers of help and acts of kindness are not extraordinary but everyday. Asking for directions to find a particular shop is met with the offer of a lift to get there. Getting an engine part fixed involves half a village mucking in to get the job done. Extra vegetables find their way into your shopping bag. Going above and beyond is part of the Turkish psyche. As Osman said in Bozburun “in Turkey, anything is possible”.

Turkish people effuse a deep love for and humble pride of their country which is hard to resist and you don’t have to be there for long to understand why. It also doesn’t take long to work out who might be behind their national pride.

Atatürk

One man whose presence you cannot help but notice everywhere in Turkey is Atatürk. Literally translated as “father Turk”, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk led Turkey in the War of Independence with Greece and became President of the newly formed republic of Turkey in 1923. His vision of a secular, modern country born, out of the long, slow death of the Ottoman empire, saw the abandoning of the Arabic alphabet in favour of a new Latin based language and the adoption of the Gregorian calendar. He banned the wearing of the fez for men and the headscarf for women along with other defining symbols of religious and cultural groups. He sought to promote Turkishness as a distinct and new identity, making it a crime punishable by imprisonment to speak out against Turkey and Turkishness. He promoted greater rights for women, giving them the vote and the right to hold political office.

His portrait is on the wall of every office and home, his statue in every square. His face adorns bags, car stickers, t-shirts, everything. Huge flags bearing his image fly in the streets, off school buildings, on boats. He is depicted variously as a revolutionary hero, an arched eyebrowed Bond style villain and romantic film lead but is clearly still revered for creating modern Turkey.

Politics

The Turkish flag is also an ever present symbol of this national pride. It flies everywhere as a reminder of Atatürk’s desire to unify Turkey and Turks. This desire, however, has led to some of the greatest tensions in Turkey since independence – the persecution of distinct ethnic groups such as the Kurdish and Armenian communities and the prosecution of journalists who speak out against the ideology of Atatürk, against Turkey and its government.

For all of Atatürk’s modernist reforms Turkey remains troubled politically. In a lot of our conversations with people we have heard reference to “the political situation” or “the political problems”. Few will elaborate but it is clear that there is unease amongst some about the growing grip of current President Erdoğan on Turkey’s politics. We asked one gullet owner how business was. “It depends what Erdoğan said yesterday”. It seems the President only has to open his mouth and Turkey’s currency nose dives. Erdoğan and his AK Party has been in power since 2003 and his grip on power has seen constitutional changes that have ensured his progression from Prime Minister to President. Whilst we were there he announced a snap election, banking on the opposition parties ill-preparedness to challenge him and thereby ensuring his continued reign. The announcement’s immediate effect was to devalue the lira by another 10%.

There has been a definite shift from courting the EU for membership to stronger ties with the Middle East. Although Erdoğan denies wishing to challenge the secularism of the Turkish State, the AK Party promotes religious conservatism ensuring the support of Turkey’s conservative heartlands. In 2013 the ban on the wearing of the headscarf in state institutions including parliament was lifted and introduced alcohol free zones in previously liberal areas of Istanbul. He has spoken out against the use of contraception, against feminism and promotes women’s role within the home.

Religion

Atatürk’s desire to see a separation between state and Islam is something that many we have spoken to in Turkey are very proud of. Islam is very definitely observed widely throughout Turkey but that it currently does not seem oppressively linked to the state is testament to his legacy. Only in a few the very religious places did I feel out of place not covering my head and it was noticeable that although an increasing number of religious women are wearing hijab, Turkish women, particularly in the villages wear a headscarf more as part of their cultural rather than religious identity.

At a time of heightened misunderstanding, fear and hatred of Muslims, it was good for us to use our time in Turkey to increase our understanding of Islam.

In Konya we could not fail to be captivated by its beauty and mesmerised by the whirling of its Dervishes. We could also, however, not fail to notice the scale of new mosque building and fear for that clear distinction between state and religion that Ataturk introduced.

Food and drink

In Turkey our daily coffee habit was replaced with çay. Turkish coffee is too thick and strong for us and we adapted to the ubiquitous long-stewed black tea served without milk. Served in small glasses with dainty saucers, everyone drinks it all the time. You can’t enter a shop or an office without being offered one. Çay cafés are everywhere, largely the domain of men playing backgammon and they will deliver – you will often see usually young men running around the streets carefully balancing several cups on a silver tray to wherever it is needed.

Another new drink to us was ayran. We had seen it being drunk usually with a kebap at lunchtime and it seemed to come as a kebap + ayran deal in most cafes. So having no idea what it was we thought we would give it a go. This salty, yogurt drink is a lot nicer than it sounds – a bit like an Indian lassi. And whilst we’re on the subject of yogurt, the Turkish eat it in vast quantities. So much so that the smallest tub you can buy in the supermarket is 500ml. We ate a lot of it on board – for breakfast with honey or local orange jam or for caçik dip (tzatziki in Greece).

Our favourite meal was definitely breakfast. The Italians and Greek don’t really do breakfast – it’s a quick coffee and croissant affair. But in Turkey breakfast is a veritable smogasborg of sweet and savory, vegetables and fruit, honey and tahini and cheese – lots of cheese. One of my favourite Turkish foods has always been börek – cheese in a filo pastry wrap. When we were served freshly cooked borek for breakfast in Konya my dream of being able to eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner came true!

Gözleme was our favourite lunchtime snack. Usually vegetarian, these pancakes stuffed with herbs, potato or cheese sometimes also came stuffed with spicy minced meat for Stefan.

The markets and roadside stalls offered the best fresh fruit and veg – no surprise given the large scale farming we had seen. In our time in the orange capital of Turkey, Finike, we ate and drank a lot of oranges. It was also broad bean and pea season and shelling them became a regular passage-making pastime.

Having struggled sometimes to find tahini for making houmous in Spain and Italy, Turkey was definitely somewhere to stock up. Great big jars of it, along with honey and olive oil, were to be found at stalls along every roadside.

My foray into fish eating took off in Turkey. Beautiful fresh calamari and sea bream at Fethiye’s fish market kick started it. I loved the bream and even had my first freshwater trout in Pamukkale.

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Turkish food can be summed up as being simple and fresh with great flavours. Meze offers the perfect opportunity to try a little bit of all of those flavours and we even forgive it for just that once in Datca giving us food poisoning!

Undiscovered histories

After all the Roman and Greek history of Italy and Greece discovering whole new ancient civilisations in Turkey was refreshing. We got to know

the Lycians,

the Carians

and the Dorians.

We found underground cities,

underwater cities

and cities seemingly in the sky.

Turkey also gave us an opportunity to think about much more recent history and the people exchanges of the 1920s which, as the Ottoman Empire finally crumbled, formed modern Turkey and Greece.

Geography

From the snow capped mountains that greeted our arrival in Finike, Turkey’s diversity of landscapes never ceased to amaze and sometimes shock us.

Driving for hours and hours across the seemingly endless Anatolian planes gave a sense of the enormous distances traveled across Asia by ancient caravans. Only occasionally did miles of farmland give way to sprawling cities.

As well as exploring the much pictured and other worldly landscapes of Cappadocia and Pamukkale, we found lesser known but equally spectacular sights in places like Kapikiri. These were all places where you have expected a hobbit or fire breathing dragon to appear around the corner

and on the slopes of Mount Olympos we might just have found one of those!

Dogs and cats

Finally one thing we couldn’t help but notice was the funny relationship the Turkish people have with dogs and cats. There are strays everywhere. Fewer cats than in Greece, but still lots hanging out around the fishing boats and the bins. But there are so many stray dogs and big dogs at that. They hang out in the street and you often have to climb over one sleeping in shop doorways!

Despite being strays the dogs and cats are so well looked after. They are mostly tagged and although homeless there are shelters built for them and food and water provided for them in the street. Whilst the people don’t seem to want to have them living with them in their homes, they certainly make sure they are looked after.

And just like their cats and dogs, that is how they treat their visitors – they made sure we were looked after and, for that, we cannot recommend Turkey highly enough.

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