Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Turkey is simply Turkey

Before I came to Turkey three years ago, what impressed me most about its history was that for thousands of years, various peoples had been rampaging back and forth across the same piece of land. Sometimes it was the West going east. Sometimes it was the East going west. Whichever way they were going, and whatever they were doing, pretty much everyone had been through here at one time or another.

I found this absolutely fascinating, and at the end of my first day here, the concept finally came to life right in front of my own eyes. It was at that moment that I fell in love with this country.

At the end of that first day, my wife and I were sitting at a café above Istiklal having dinner. Our table was next to the window, and I was staring outside at all the people passing below. I was completely fascinated. Everyone looked so different.

I don’t mean some people had blond hair, or some people had light skin while others had dark skin. I mean there was so much variety in the facial structures and body types. It seemed like every single person had a completely different body structure, and I thought, these aren’t people who grew from the genetic stock of just a few people. These are people who grew from the infinitely mixed genetic stock of all those different peoples who had spent thousands of years rampaging across this piece of land.

The people I saw on the streets of Istanbul that night were not the children of Germans, they were not the children of Persians, they were not the children of any other single place or nation. They were the children of the world.

I had ready many books about Turkey, and every single book, it seemed, asked the question, “Is Turkey European or is Turkey Asian?”. I imagined that when I got there, I would find a place that needed to ask that question, and needed to answer it.

But sitting there in that café above Istiklal that night, I realized that was an entirely irrelevant question to be asking. Turkey didn’t need to be European, and it didn’t need to be Asian. Its strength was its own, and I saw the source of that strength walking right past the window in front of my eyes. Turkey was Turkey, and it didn’t need anyone else’s strength, because it already had it.

Turkey didn’t need to answer the question. It needed to stop asking it.

Others outside of Turkey will continue trying to resolve that question for themselves for years. They might be debating that question forever. But you can’t control what other people do, you can only control what you do. When Turkey stops trying to answer that question, when Turkey starts to laugh at that question, it will find a unique strength and confidence it forgot it had.

Sometimes people give up on that question, and instead they describe Turkey as a bridge between East and West. I think this is the wrong way to look at it, too. A bridge is a relatively weak and temporary structure connecting two very strong, very permanent pieces of land. The bridge does not produce its own strength, it merely draws on the strength of the land around it and below it.

Even Istanbul’s own Bosphorus bridge, which looks so big compared to the tiny cars that cross it, is nothing but a temporary structure. The bridge has only been with us for about 35 years, but the land was here millions of years before that. And when, for whatever reason, the Bosphorus bridge leaves us, the land will still be here. Bridges don’t have their own strength, but Turkey does. Turkey is not a bridge between anything.

When Turkey stops asking itself this question, when it stops trying to be European, or Asian, or, failing that, a bridge, it will find an inner strength and unity that sometimes it seems to have forgotten.

Turkey is not European. It is not Asian. It is not a bridge. Turkey is simply Turkey, and it can stand alone perfectly well.

1 comment:

Jennifer Eaton Gökmen said...

I agree that Turkey need not turn to other templates to categorize itself. It is a unique place.

My view of Turkey's liminality is that its ever-changing flux is what makes it resonant and satisfying for so many people--precisely BECAUSE it is a threshold, a constant reinterpretation, a wondrous paradox, the country is aligned with the psyches of the melting pot of people here who also must continually reinterpret who they are (doubly so for istanbul, a city filled with foreigners from other countries or Turks from other parts of the country who are in the flux of assimilation).

This deep kind of alignment in "terminal liminality" creates an amazing bond between the land and the people who step foot on it.