My wife is German and I am American. We live in Hannover, Germany, and though I’ve learned a lot about Germany over the past couple years, I know virtually nothing about other countries — especially those to the East. I hate flying and I’m a bit of a misanthrope, so in the Spring of 2015, when my wife informed me we would be taking a 1-week trip to Konya, Turkey, my mind was assaulted by a dazzling slideshow of Middle Eastern stereotypes, misconceptions and false expectations — all of which contributed to a borderline panic attack followed by persistent numbing of the testicles.
Before our trip, I could not have found Turkey on a map, and my only real experiences with Turkish people had been here in Germany. (All of which were positive — and that’s a damn good thing — because at 5% of the population, Turks comprise the largest ethnic minority in the country.) Therefore, I am ashamed to admit this — and will deny it vehemently should the subject arise in mixed company — but here is the sum totality of what I expected to find when I arrived in Turkey:
- Women wearing veils on their heads
- Men calling me an infidel and attacking me with flaming scimitars
In terms of sand, heat and overpopulation, well, that was just my childlike brain transposing Turkey for Egypt — a version of Egypt based entirely upon Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. I did see women wearing hijab (veils covering their hair), but obviously I was not attacked by anyone, and not once was I called an infidel. My wife and I have since returned from our trip and I am now sitting in the safety of my home office blogging about it while I should be working, but my pre-trip ignorance went well beyond this initial, fearful, knee-jerk reaction. What follows is a list of the top 10 assumptions I’d made about Konya — and Turkey as a whole — and the resulting knowledge I probably should have had in the first place:
1.) Turkey is in the middle east, right?
The definition of the term “Middle East” varies wildly depending upon who you ask, but one thing is absolutely, 100% certain: it scares the merry hell out of a lot of Americans. For many, the Middle East is a blanket term for any Muslim country residing to the southeast of western Europe. (You know, where things start to get weird.) But until World War II, Turkey and its neighbors along the Mediterranean were known as the “Near East.”
Since traveling from Germany to Turkey and back, I am of the opinion Turkey is more like a bridge between Europe and the Middle East; a Middle East-Lite, if you will. The flight time from Hannover to Istanbul is only 3 hours, and Turkey and Germany have been flirting with each other since the Ottoman Empire. Hell, Turkey has been negotiating to join the European Union since 2005, so, if anything, I was a little disappointed by how “Middle Eastern” Turkey wasn’t.
2.) Turkish Airlines sucks, I bet.
As I’ve said before, I hate flying. To me, one airline is no different than the next: just a pleasant logo slapped up side a dick-shaped coffin. But I figured Turkish Airlines would suck just a little harder than the rest. I didn’t even have a good reason why; just straight-up judgement — no facts.
You know how, when you see that MADE IN GERMANY stamp on a certain product, you kind of think to yourself, “Well, those Germans probably know what they’re doing…” yet when you see MADE IN CHINA, you just assume it’s a toxic piece of shit? It was kind of like that, only I really didn’t even know Turkish Airlines existed before this trip, so in my mind, it had neither a positive nor a negative reputation — I just wrote the whole company off because I literally knew nothing about it.
Oh, and as it turns out, Turkish Airlines was ranked 5th among the top 100 airlines in the world in 2014. Jesus Christ, they beat the hell out of my beloved Lufthansa (ranked 10th), and KLM was way down there in 32nd place. And as for the airlines of my homeland? Sheeeeeeit: Delta was 49th and American Airlines came in at 89th place. Last place was some company called Kulula, operating out of South Africa. (Let’s all agree not to fly that one.)
3.) Turkey is totally, like, Muslim, isn’t it?
Again, I’m still not really sure about this one. Islam is the largest religion in Turkey, with well over 95% of the population registered as Muslim, but since 1924, the country has been secular and does not recognize any official religion. Of course, all public schools — from elementary to high school — hold mandatory religion classes teaching Islam, so… I guess so.
All I know is, in Konya, I saw a lot of mosques. Those pointy sons of bitches where just everywhere, and each one staggered its call to prayer by a couple minutes so as not to barrage worshippers all at the same time. The effect upon foreigners like me, however, was like being encircled by bullhorns, each one taking a turn blasting my eardrums out my anus.
In retrospect, I think it just seemed like there was a mosque on every block because we specifically visited a bunch of mosques. That, and their pointy towers — or minarets — can be seen from really far away, so they appeared to surround us. As for the Muslim call to prayer, well, in Konya it was actually only 6 times per day. (But still, it was played over loudspeakers, and I hate loud noises, so that shit was truly annoying.)
4.) Muslims in Turkey are super extreme, right? Just like in those other scary countries?
I can only speak for the city of Konya on this one, and judging by the dozen or so friends we made there, I can safely say no, no one seemed radical or even particularly conservative regarding their faith. A couple of our friends would just slink off once or twice a day for a couple minutes, then rejoin the group. I seriously thought they were using the bathroom or taking a smoke break or something. They were like prayer ninjas. One of our best friends said she didn’t even bother with mosques; she just prayed at home — once in the morning and once in the evening.
But you know what I liked best about the way I saw Islam being practiced there? It was subtle. Yes, the calls to prayer were obnoxious, but the people were super chill about their religious beliefs. They didn’t even talk about religion unless I asked some stupid question, like:
TURKISH FRIEND: “From right to left, it reads, ‘Allah.’
ME: “Yep. Shoulda seen that one coming.”
5.) Aren’t women totally subjugated in Turkey?
This is a tough one. It would seem the rights of women are far more respected in Turkey than in countries like India, but two things still gave me pause:
Many women still wear the hijab, or traditional headscarves.
Muslim women wear hijab for lots of reasons, and not all of them are religious. Sometimes it’s just tradition or the style of a particular area. What I don’t like is when women are required to wear them — especially not when it’s done for the sake of men. If a guy wants his wife to hide some aspect her beauty, I immediately suspect that dude of having a little wiener.
Interestingly, head coverings were banned in Turkish universities, libraries, public buildings and government buildings until late 2013. The ban has since been lifted, yet roughly half of Turkish women still cover their heads for religious or cultural reasons. In the big cities, like Istanbul and Ankara, most women actually don’t cover their heads at all. In Konya, for every woman I saw wearing the hijab, there was one standing right next to her who did not. Either way, it seemed like there was no pressure to wear one, and women were free to dress however they liked. (Hell, they could have gone completely topless, if anyone had been interested in my opinion.)
Women are separated from men during worship.
The idea behind separating women from men inside of mosques has to do with distraction during prayer. Diversions, especially those of a potentially sexual nature, are thought to hinder both men and women, and distance them from Allah. This results in a tradition where the men pray up front, and the women pray while hidden behind a wall.
I respect the religious traditions of all people, so long as they don’t include hurting anyone, but this one still bugs me a little. It figuratively and literally places women in a position of secondary importance — at least to my American sensibilities — and I know for damn sure my German wife wouldn’t stand for it:
ME: “Honey, I don’t feel close enough to God when I can see you in my peripheral vision. Please go behind that wall with the rest of the ladies.”
THE WIFE: “Good idea. You’re gonna need to pray really hard for a new wife.”
6.) What’s with all the Whirling Dervishes in Konya?
The Whirling Dervishes — more accurately known as the Mevlevi Order — were outlawed in 1925 by the Turkish Republic, and survive today as a nonpolitical organization for cultural history. The twirling performances of the Mevlevi have since become a big tourist draw, especially in Istanbul and Konya.
The Mevlevi believe in performing their dhikr (Islamic devotional acts) in the form of a twirling dance known as the Sama. This dance represents a spiritual ascent through the mind and through love, literally turning toward truth as the follower abandons his ego and arrives at the “Perfect.” Apparently, the dancer then returns from his spiritual journey as one who has attained a higher level of perfection and is able to love and be of better service to creation as a whole. (We Americans achieve this exact same state by rubbing one out to internet porn and reaching for a cold beer.)
I’ll be real honest with you; except for these statues in the Mevlana Museum, we didn’t see a single Whirling Dervish while we were there. Why, you might ask? Because in Konya, they only perform on Saturdays — exactly the day we arrived in and departed from Turkey.
Next time, you dizzy dancers. Next time…
7.) What are those weird rock formations? Anthills or something?
This would be Göreme National Park, home of the Rock Sites of Cappadocia. The Cappadocians (later known as the Cappadocian Greeks) actually lived inside these caves before the time of Herodotus, so we’re talking in the 400s BC here. Early Christian frescoes decorate the insides, and I’m sure archeologists find them very interesting, but I gotta say… if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all. That said, it’s easy to forget there was a time when being Christian meant somebody was probably trying to kill you.
Cappadocia contains several underground cities, like the Kaymaklı Underground City, which was used as a hiding place before it was chill to be Christian. You’ll find all kinds of very creative traps inside, like large round stones to block doors and holes in the ceiling through which defenders could drop spears upon invading armies. (Like a child’s drawing of just the coolest dungeon ever.)
The crazy mountains, hills and “fairy chimneys” of Cappadocia were formed when volcanic eruptions blanketed the area with lava. Wind and water eroded everything except the isolated pinnacles you see today, many of which look exactly like giant horse dongs.
8.) Isn’t alcohol illegal there? Great. This trip is gonna suck.
The consumption of alcohol is prohibited within the Islamic faith, but to my surprise, I learned alcohol isn’t actually illegal in Turkey. However, according to one of our Turkish friends, it is a huge pain in the ass to find. Supposedly there are a few stores and restaurants which sell it, and apparently you can arrange to have alcohol at special events, but I sure as hell didn’t see any hooch in Konya.
And you know what? It wasn’t necessary. We had an awesome time. But having never visited an effectively dry city before, I noticed two interesting phenomena:
- Omnipresent Smoking
- Polite Conversation
Holy Christ do they smoke a lot of cigarettes in Konya. Especially the younger men. Never before have I seen so many packs of swarthy youths — all dressed to the nines — standing around chain smoking cigarettes. Just strutting around, gabbing endlessly, hoping to catch some young woman’s eye. They’re like strutting peacocks with absolutely nothing better to do on a Saturday night than suck coffin nails and look dashing.
As for polite conversation, this was something I noticed only after going out to dinner in Konya a few times; we met up with our friends, walked into the restaurant sober, and walked out of the restaurant sober — our bellies full and our heads clear. This meant everybody stayed nice and polite. No risky jokes. No swearing. In an odd way, sober conversation feels a little less honest than one had over a few drinks, because everyone has their impulses under control. People are little less themselves. On the other hand, sober conversation is generally of greater value, because people’s thoughts aren’t overly emphatic. There’s nuance and insight to be gleaned. So maybe, just maybe, a little bit of inhibition is a good thing.
Then again, beer rules, so here’s to you, Konya. Prost!
9.) Do they really drink that much tea in Turkey?
YES. Oh my God yes. In Konya, we drank a lot of çay (pronounced Chai), which is a black tea, though it appears dark red when served in traditional Turkish glasses. It’s also served with cubes of beet sugar and a tiny spoon. (I heard it was a compliment in Konya to loudly clink your spoon inside the glass as you stir it, so I made sure to clink the holy hell out of mine.)
I saw people drinking tea at all hours of the day, but especially after lunch and dinner. In fact, if you order one glass of tea, you’re pretty much obligated to drink 3 or 4, because they’re gonna keep parading the stuff out until you do. And if you’re like me — a nonsmoker with no access to alcohol and precious little to contribute to any given conversation — there’s really nothing else to do, so you’re gonna keep right on drinking those little cups of tea until you barf.
I kept asking people if there was actually any caffeine in the tea, and the answer seemed to vary from person to person. What I gathered, by the end of our trip, was that what we were drinking contained no true caffeine, but rather natural and/or herbal stimulants of some sort. Of course, this was concluded through a massive language barrier, so for all I know, we could have been drinking hot goat piss.
10.) Do they have real toilets in Konya?
It depends upon your definition of “toilet,” but if you mean the sitting down, flushing kind, the answer to this one is: sometimes. I saw a lot of stalls like the one in this picture — squat toilets — where you perch yourself over a simple hole in the floor, drop your stink nuggets, then use the pitcher and faucet to rinse your shame away. I also saw stalls with holes like this one, but with running water and a flushing mechanism. And of course I saw a few Western-style flush toilets too. It depends where you are. Posh restaurants in the middle of downtown Konya are more likely to have Western-style toilets, but little villages on the outskirts of town? Oh, you’re squatting. And if there’s no toilet paper, just pray there’s running water to use when you’re done, because you’ll be using your left hand to clean your sweet little cinnamon ring.
I think my wife used a squat toilet exactly one time in Konya, and only to go pee. Still, she was not at all happy about it when she came out of the bathroom. She was even less happy after regaling me with her experience, only to have me shrug my shoulders and say, “Hey, when in Rome…”
Now, you may be asking yourself if I used a squat toilet while we were in Konya, and the answer is, no; my bowels have the ability to power down like a cowardly robot when confronted by unfamiliar surroundings. But the second I got back to our hotel room? Oh my God. Fireworks.
I can’t speak for any other cities in Turkey, but I do know one thing for sure: Konya rules. You should definitely visit this place. It’s beautiful. We had a fantastic time, saw amazing sights and learned a lot, like how to do Konya’s traditional spoon dance, and the fact that we really like ayran — the national Turkish beverage consisting of cold yogurt, water and salt. (The yogurt is pretty gamey, and it might even make you gag the first time it hits your tonsils, but you’ll learn to love it like a porn star.)
Of most importance, however, are the Turkish friends we made. My wife and I can tell already some of them will be lifelong friends. Now, I know there are exceptions to every rule, and jerks can be found in every country of the planet, but I’m gonna go ahead and make a sweeping generalization anyway: There’s just something inherently warm, friendly and inviting about Turkish people. They’re nice as hell, and for some inexplicable reason, they love Germans. And that’s really the way to my heart: Be nice to my wife, and you’ve got me as a friend for life.
If you would like to read another post regarding our international travels, check this one out: German-American Couple Visits the North Sea, Denmark and a Whole Hell of a Lot of Sheep