Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Turkey: Interesting and confusing

     The topic of Islam and the Moslem lifestyle are very current today because of current events and the constant fear of increase in terrorism. We recently visited a country where 99.9% of the population is Moslem. That country is Turkey, where the desire to join the European Union has magnified all things European.. Istanbul is a very cosmopolitan city with all modern conveniences, up to date and even cutting edge public transportation, a desire to become a fashion leading city, and recently with a new nationalistic spirit in all things. When we were there, the annual Tulip Festival was apparent with beautiful beds in full bloom throughout the city. Our guide explained that Turkey wanted the world to know that the tulip originated in Turkey. Indeed the Ottoman Empire was the first to cultivate the tulip commercially. Of course, where did those hundreds of thousands of tulip bulbs planted around the city come from? Holland of course. Also while we were there a Shopping Festival was in progress. There were competitions for window decorations in shops and there were fashion shows and other events that celebrate the spirit of going out specifically to buy. What could be more Western and fit more into our known lifestyle than these two festivals?
     And yet in Istanbul and indeed in many Turkish cities there are mosques about every 10 to 20 blocks or so. Five times a day the recorded muezzin's call to prayer blares from the loudspeakers attached to the minarets. No longer does the muezzin need to climb up there and sing out his call to prayer. Someone just hits a button or more likely a timer turns the switch to play the recording. In one case, the call to prayer ended with three notes that were purely digital in sound, like the signals on a computer that ends a recording. Our guide told us that the current administration which is trying to increase the religious lifestyle has ordered that the volume on those loudspeakers be turned up. These calls to prayer are broadcast 5 times a day: at sunrise, at the zenith of the sun ie about noon, in the afternoon when an object's shadow reaches twice its own length, at sunset, and then when it is completely dark. The sunrise call to prayer seems to be a particularly long one or maybe that is just because that is when you most want the sound to cease. Our guide said that there are some extra sentences in that 5 AM call that say something to the affect: You must get up to pray. You would much rather be praying than sleeping. At any rate, hearing these loud broadcasts throughout the day and particularly at 5 AM makes you aware that you are not in a typical US or European city.     
     As a woman one thing that I was particularly conscious of was my own hair, and how the local women treated their own tresses, and for that matter their clothing and dress. My understanding is that in Islam a woman covers her hair to symbolize her purity and modesty, to indicate propriety, to demand the respect that a religious woman deserves, and to perhaps prevent the attraction or perhaps distraction that she would otherwise be to passing men. The degree of religious fervor varies from city to city and from one area to another in Turkey. Istanbul is decidedly cosmopolitan. Some interior cities are much more religious. Generally the cities along the Mediterranean, especially Antalya are much less religious. I only saw two women throughout our tour of turkey who wore the black hijab. But in general, I thought that about 60% of women covered their hair usually with decorative head scarves. Some of the older women wore typical silk head scarves, long coats, and long dresses underneath. They had sort of a "babushka" appearance. Many younger women wore a head scarf and even had an additional piece of head gear underneath like a wimple to hide the front hair more than the headscarf would do. And yet  with the head coverings, many of these young women wore very heavy facial makeup and wore fashionable boots, very close fitting leggings, and even blouses or tops that even this American would regard as revealing. I just am not sure what message this is sending. I asked our guide about this. He really didn't have an answer. He just said women tended to do what they wanted to do. I guess from my feminist Western view, this is a good sign. They are free to do what they want to do with their dress. There are certainly a fair percentage of women who do not wear any head covering at all. But inside the door of most mosques are head scarves provided for the member or visitor who enters.
     To increase the confusion, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, first President of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 started a vast reform of political, economic and social institutions in Turkey. He more or less abolished the Sharia type law of the Ottoman Empire and instituted a secular movement. His government made it illegal for women to wear headresses in the Universities and in public buildings in Turkey. This law is still on the books, though not everyone follows it. Now the current government is striving for an return to more religious standards.
     I learned a lot about the mosques. Islam is not allowed to have any images of God or Mohammad or any other being inside the mosque. Only calligraphic writing of the names of God and the prophets are allowed to be displayed. That is why the interior of many mosques is somewhat plain, at least compared to what the Roman or Orthodox Catholic are used to. I learned that in my travels around the world when I have entered a mosque I have inadvertently transgressed accepted politeness. When Islamic worshipers are kneeling and praying and bowing, facing the niche in the mosque located in whatever direction is Mecca, if anyone walks between the prayerful individual and the niche, that person has to start his whole sequence of prayers over. That is why often inside mosques, people are kneeling next to pillars or against a railing so that no one can walk immediately in front of them. I will certainly be more careful in the future knowing this little bit of information. We Americans are not very good at learning some of the basic cultural requirements to become polite and welcome visitors when we travel around the world.
    Below are just a smattering of photos of the "huge" sites in Turkey. More may appear later in my blog. Or perhaps you will see something in the future as one of my Mystery Photos.

From the Bosphorus: Blue mosque on the left, Hagia Sophia on the right.

The silk market in Bursa

Memorial to Ataturk, Ankara, the capitol city.

Sunset over Cappadoccia, one of the most unique places in the world.

The Celsus Library, in Ephesus, the best preserved and largest Roman city ruins in the world.

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