Travel Newsletters

The View from Istanbul

[Originally sent to a mass e mail list in 2001]

Water Seller in front of Istanbul University

Wow!

I’ve been in Turkey for quite a while now! I never would have guessed I’d be here for so long when I first came to Istanbul. Teaching here has been fun, yet at the same time the drive to travel again beckons me to lands far away in the East. I left Istanbul on June 29th to continue travelling.

There’s so much I can say about Turkey, it’s hard to know where to start. So I decided to do the newsletter in different issues, which will be mailed out piece by piece. The first issue is about Turkish society and culture, while the second issue will be about Turkish history and politics. And the third part (if I get that far!) will be about Turkish places and anecdotes.

As some of you know, I worked in Istanbul as an English teacher for a few months. My students were great to work with and the work has been fun and relaxing. And I’ve learned so much about English and Turkish.

In my daily life, I lived in a pretty modern part of Istanbul. I spent my time reading, writing, meeting friends, and visiting different parts of the city. It’s a strange condition being a permanent foreigner (yabanci in Turkish), but English speaking people are treated well here. Generally, the worst one encounters is indifference.

The city of Istanbul itself, a very interesting place, is surrounded by water at so many places. The weather is pleasantly mild, and Istanbul is dotted with a variety of ruins, old buildings and beautiful works of architecture. The people of Istanbul are part European and part Near Oriental, bridging the distance between the East and the West. It is also hilly, and like Cincinnati, Ohio, is called the city of Seven Hills.

I really enjoy keeping in touch with people. Send me a note about what is happening in your life and your community. Or tell me what you think about what I wrote. Look forward to hearing from you!
I think the part of this newsletter about family, marriage, and men and women is the most interesting. The part about social problems is also interesting.

If you do not want to receive this newsletter please send me a message at.


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TABLE OF CONTENTS

I. Turkey- Intro
1. Family, Marriage, and the Roles of Men and Women
a. Family
b. Marriage
c. The Roles of Men and Women
d. The Dress of Women and Men
2. Islam
a. Features of Islam
b. Islamic Holidays
c. Muslim Groups
3. Turkish Social and Ethnic Groups
a. Turks
b. Kurds
c. Gypsies
d. Foreigners
4. Culture
a. Food
b. Music
c. Architecture
d. Language
5. Social Class
6. Poverty and Social Problems
a. Poverty
b. Crime and Violence
c. Prostitution
d. Drugs and Alcohol

i. disclaimer

Tunel Tram at the End of Istiklal Street, Istanbul

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I. Turkey- Intro

The first thing everyone must know is that Istanbul and the rest of Turkey (mostly Anatolia) have some vast differences. Istanbul, thelargest part of which is in the southeastern edge of Europe, is the most Westernized and modern part of Turkey from a European perspective. In Istanbul, the subtle conflicts between modern ideas and Turkish tradition are most apparent. Side by side in Istanbul live people with values approximating those of people in Western countries, and others who still have one foot in Anatolia. The second group is still quite traditional in their behavior and outlook.

Many of the things I discuss in this article are affected by this tension in Turkey between the influence of the West (Europe and the US), and the influence of the East. In the second newsletter about Turkey I discuss Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the person who is responsible for so much of this tension. Ataturk helped Turkey preserve itself as a nation by defeating the major world powers after World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman empire. As President of the newly formed Republic, he instituted far reaching reforms which have dramatically shaped Turkey today.

I should also state that most of my experience in Turkey is in Istanbul, and that there may be wide variations in other parts of Turkey.

In one sense, this newsletter is really about Istanbul. On the other hand, I learned a lot about the rest of Turkey by reading the newspaper regularly, and through conversations with my students. It is also true that many of the trends in Istanbul exist to a lesser degree in other major cities such as Ankara.
My Turkish friends would also probably feel more comfortable if I emphasize that some of the things which Western folks might find more repellant about Turkey, such as polygamy, arranged marriages, and honor killings, are not widespread. I mention them because they reveal something about the overall cultural landscape.
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1. Family, Marriage, and the Roles of Men and Women

Talking with my students about family, marriage and the differing roles of men and women has given me some of my best information about Turkey.

a. Family
Family is probably more important in Turkey than it is in the United States. One of the first thing I noticed was that almost all of my students in their twenties live with their parents. It is very common for a young person to live with their parents until they are in their late twenties, even thirties, or until they marry. It is also common for all the members of a family to live in the same city, facilitating stronger bonds.
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b. Marriage
While many young people fall in love and marry a person of their choice, the idea of romantic love is not so enshrined in Turkish culture as it is in the West. Even if two people do “marry for love”, it is likely that practical considerations play a very important role in the decision.

Some others, however, especially in Anatolia, have arranged marriages. In this situation, the efforts of the parents to find the child a marriage partner in the community is most important, and the couple may only meet a few times before they are married.

My students also tell me that polygamy is still practiced to a small degree in in Anatolia. While polygamy is illegal according to laws that were passed during Ataturk’s era, it is tolerated in some parts of the country. In another strange twist, my students tell me that a tribal structure is still in place in some parts of Southeast Turkey. By a tribe, my students mean a group of people who are all theoretically related to some ancestor, and who recognize kinship bonds to each other.

The role that women and men play in marriage is quite different. Even before marriage, women are usually expected to be virgins, while men are allowed more freedom sexually. This rule seems to follow throughout married life, and people in Turkey seem to accept that men will not be faithful. Women, on the other hand, are very likely to be faithful, and even get in serious trouble if they are not.

Divorce happens in Turkey, but not nearly so much as in the United States. While some people interpret this as a strength of Turkish society, others may say that there are fewer divorces in Turkey because it is less accepted in Turkish society. In addition, because women are so often dependent on men financially, they are in no position to get a divorce even if their marriage is quite bad.
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c. The Roles of Men and Women
Turks follow a gender based division of labor in the family that is similar to middle class Americans of the 1950s. Even if a woman worked before marriage, she will often become a housewife after marriage. The percentage of women who are housewives in Turkey is very high. Some women I know look forward to this role, and indeed the feeling that this arrangement is “correct” is quite common. While some of these women may actually go on to enjoy being a housewife, I expect others will find it to be quite isolating and redundant once they experience it in reality.

For women who DO work, they are likely to be expected to continue doing a full load of housework. If they complain to their husband that this is not fair, their husband may tell them to stop working if they don’t like it.

Additionally, women appear to be the primary caretakers of children, as can be seen from the presence of women and children together in parks, and the hooded women waiting outside the school near my apartment.

The differences in the roles of men and women is reflected in other ways. It is clear that public space belongs more to men than women, as reflected by the sheer numbers of people in public, as well as the fact that many public professions, such as selling in the market, are held by men. There are usually a lot more men than women at bars, and certain all male preserves, such as teahouses where men play backgammon or cards, are deeply ingrained in Turkish culture.
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d. Dress of Women and Men
One of the most obvious differences between men and women is in dress. While many women in Istanbul have a modern appearance, wearing slacks, jeans, a blouse and leaving their hair uncovered, other groups of women wear outfits which are more orthodox. They wear dresses that go down to the ankles, a long jacket which extends down just above the knees, and most notably a shawl or scarf which covers all of her hair and her neck. Her whole body is covered except for her face and hands. The intended effect of this outfit is to reduce the physical attractiveness of the woman. Periodically, one may see a woman whose face is also covered except for the eyes. This kind of outfit is often entirely black, making them look a lot like Catholic nuns.

A third look is seen in women who are peasant immigrants from Anatolia. These women wear floral dresses which show some of the leg, usually a patterned cardigan sweater, and a lightly worn shawl, which doesn’t cover all of the hair.

Almost all men wear some variation on a common theme. They have a relatively western look, since they invariably wear jeans or slacks, button down shirts, a sports coat, and loafers or dress shoes. This outfit is worn by almost all Turkish men, even if they are relatively poor. Only a closer inspection may reveal the poor condition of his shoes, or the quality of his clothes.

Another interesting part of the mens’ uniform is a series of beads on a string, which men often have in their hands. These beads represent a kind of prayer, like the rosary in Catholicism. Almost all Turkish men have short hair and are clean shaven, except perhaps for a moustache. If a man is wearing a beard he may well be a more conservative Muslim. Some older or more conservative men also wear a small hat which looks a little like a Jewisk Yamulka (I know I got that spelling wrong), and is often referred to as a “skull cap”.

One of the more bizarre parts of Istanbul’s culture is the contrast between women who are so fully covered, and the soft porn for sale all over the city. These magazines are visible in kiosks, and are complemented by most of Turkey’s newspapers which feature partially naked or lingerie clad women. In the case of some newspapers, there is real doubt about whether the paper is really about news, or if it exists solely to sell pages of beautiful, bikini wearing women (while still maintaining the ruse that it’s a newspaper).

Yes, I would say that in many ways life for women in Turkey is harder than for women in the US. On the other hand, at least in Istanbul, life for women is probably better than in many other parts of the world. Yet the image of traditional women- old, often slightly overweight from lack of exercise, covered, with less confidence and in a more restrained role- is fresh in my mind.
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Woman Cleaning in Midyat, Turkey

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2. Islam

As in Morocco, Islam is woven into the fabric of Turkish culture. But while 99% of Turkish people are Muslim in name, the role of Islam in Turkey is not as strong as in Morocco.

While Morocco is ruled by a King who claims to be a descendant of Mohammed, Turkey is ruled by an uneasy balance between the military and the politicians. Under the Ottomans, Islam had a stronger role, as religious figures made moral doctrines through an elite body called the “ulema”.

After the Turkish War for Independence, however, Ataturk strove to make the state secular and to lessen the traditional impact of Islam. He was not totally successful, though, and Islam continues to have a strong impact on culture, and to a lesser extent, politics.

a. Features of Islam
To me, the most notable manifestation of Islam is the call to prayer, which is when muezzins in all the mosques get on the microphone and sing the lines of a short prayer. Difficult to put into words, the call to prayer doesn’t suit every foreigner’s taste. However, I quite like the sound of it, and the effect created by hearing each unique call at varying distances away from my window is memorable.

While Islam is also seen in the dress of women, clearly its biggest impact is in the minds of Turks, who have thought of Allah, said Arabic prayers and heard the call to prayer so many times over their lives. This becomes more clear when one visits the courtyard of a mosque before or after a prayer and sees all of the people coming and going.

Islam involves a sermon by the imam (the Islamic version of a priest or minister) on Friday, the holy day in Islam. I’m curious about the content of the imam’s sermons. Apparently, it primarily concerns how to treat people or about social relations. The political content of the talks is curtailed by a law making it illegal to criticize Ataturk. In fact, the imams are hired by the government, which was a strange twist to me, since in the US all of the Churches are independent from the government.

Attending the mosque is a very male affair. While there are usually a few women hanging around the mosques, most of the people praying are men. Further, the men pray on the main floor, while women stay in the back or in the balcony. Muslims believe mixing the sexes during prayer might make the prayers less pure, if people are attracted to each other or… In fact, I met many women who, while committed to Islam, rarely or have never gone to a mosque.
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b. Islamic Holidays
Experiencing Ramadan revealed another face of Islamic culture. I entered Turkey halfway through this holy month, during which committed Muslims don’t eat, smoke or drink any fluids from sunrise to sunset. At sunset everyday, Muslims would gather together to share meals, smoke their first cigarette, and drink tea. In fact, I think my first impression of Turks was that they were a bit grumpy, but now I think this grumpy behavior came from the fasting.

One day I was walking through an old section of Istanbul near sunset. I saw a big line of people stretching toward a mosque. “Great!” I thought. It was free food! I got in line and solemnly joined the masses breaking the fast. It was one of those unique moments: the muezzin called the prayer, and we ate in silence, the light in the sky fading as a light rain began to fall.

I arrived in Antalya on Sugar Holiday, or the 1st day after Ramadan. It’s called Sugar Holiday because everyone celebrates by sharing candy. Everyone was taking it easy, wandering around in Antalya’s seaside parks, smiling and chatting. The gypsy women were having a heyday reading people’s palms. Everyone seemed quite relieved to be eating, drinking, and smoking again.

In March there was another holiday called Kurban Bayram, or “Sacrifice Holiday”. Most Muslims in Turkey slaughtered a sheep or cow in remembrance of the biblical (and Koranic) story when Abraham was asked by God to sacrifice his own son Isaac to God. At the last minute God relented and let Abraham slaughter an animal instead. As a vegetarian, I was fortunate enough to be leaving Turkey for Greece during this holiday, but not without a few choice visions from the train window of axes swinging towards cow carcasses on the ground. Muslims take this holiday very seriously, though, and to them it is a holy act.
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c. Muslim Groups
The majority Sunni Islam is supplemented by the Sufi groups, who I know only a little about. They are like Muslim mystics, and each group is usually related to one saint, who is honored by people in that sect. The most famous of the groups are the Mevlevis, who are based in Konya. Some members of that sect turn around and around for many minutes in order to enter a trance and achieve union with God. Hence they are called “Whirling Dervishes” and are one of the best known cultural symbols of Turkey.

Another group is the Alawites or Alevis. They are the descendants of the Bektashi sect which combined elements of Islam and Christianity when the Ottomans were pushing the Byzantines out of Anatolia. They are notable because many of them are radical leftists politically, and they make up a significant slice of Turkey’s population.
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3. Turkish Social and Ethnic Groups

a. Turks
It may seem silly to say that the vast majority of people living in Turkey are Turks. But whether this really has any real genetic ethnic meaning, or whether Turks are a melting pot of formerly assimilated people is difficult to say. We can imagine that the original Turks migrated into Anatolia from Central Asia, and mixed with the people already living there. Since then, and especially during the Ottoman period, it is very likely that masses of other groups were assimilated; first the Byzantines, then conquered peoples who moved to the Turkish mainland, as well as Armenians, Greeks and Kurds who were assimilated. Indeed the people in Istanbul are widely variant in appearance. Some people have blue or green eyes, blond hair and very light skin. The most common looking Turk is relatively light skinned, brown eyed and dark brown haired. Some Turks have darker complexions, and some have a rather mongolid, or “Asian” appearance.

The important thing is that, although probably of widely variant genetic background, the Turks identify themselves and think of themselves as Turks, and speak the Turkish language.
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b. Kurds
The largest minority in Turkey is the Kurds, whose ethnicity is a source of controversy and authoritarian media coverage. The Kurds were originally based in Southeast Turkey as well as bordering areas in Syria, Iraq and Iran. However, since there has been long standing conflict over Kurdish autonomy, many Kurds have migrated to Western parts of Turkey, especially Istanbul. Many have also emigrated to Europe.

Some people I met questioned the idea that Kurds are really a separate group, claiming that Kurds consider themselves to be more Turkish than Kurdish. While this may be true for some Kurds, my quess is that the Kurds have been under a lot of pressure to assimilate. The sheer fact that many of their villages have been destroyed, that they are forbidden to broadcast in Kurdish, and that they must attend school in Turkish, has probably had a destructive effect on their culture.

The issue of Kurdish autonomy will be covered more thoroughly in the politics section of the next issue.
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c. Gypsies
A second minority group in Turkey are the gypsies. While I met some people who were sympathetic to the Kurds, Turks I talked to were united in their dislike of gypsies. As in Romania this seemed to focus on the belief that gypsies are dangerous and commit crimes. They seem to be uniformly looked down on for not working, for unclean living, and perhaps for not being pure Muslims. Whether the gypsies are really so bad, or whether this is just prejudice, is the stuff of significant research.

While gypsies are said to be dark skinned, and dress in a distinct way, I could not always differentiate them from peasant women who dress in a similar way. Apparently Turks can tell gypsies by their accent, but since I barely speak Turkish this wasn’t possible for me. The gypsies I met were usually selling flowers or reading palms in the parks, or I saw them in one of their neighborhoods in Istanbul.
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d. Foreigners
Finally, a wide array of foreigners call Istanbul home. Many of them are English teachers, while others work in business. And then there are Eastern Europeans, many of whom are either working illegally or as sex workers, since the economy in Turkey is better than in Eastern Europe. And there are a visible amount of African immigrants living in Istanbul, some selling African wares on the streets.

The shadow of other foreign ethnicities is also interesting. In Ottoman times, Greeks and Armenians made up a large portion of Turkey’s population, and were important as businessmen and craftsmen. During World War I, the Armenians were either killed or forced into exile (this is another highly politicized issue that will be discussed in the politics section). At the end of World War I, the Greeks tried to invade Anatolia, but they were defeated. After this defeat, Turkey expelled all of its Greek citizens, while Greece expelled all of its Turk citizens. As a result, there is almost nothing left of these two once prominent minorities.
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Women Selling Flowers in my Neighborhood of Besiktas, Istanbul

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4. Culture

a. Food
The food in Turkey is notably moderate,and a lot of it is based on meat, such as kebab; something like meatballs, which is called “kofte”; sandwiches with meat in it; a special pasta with meat in it called “manti”, etc. Of course I didn’t try any of this because I’m a vegetarian.

At restaurants I lived primarily on a diet of lentil soups; gozleme, which is like rolled tortilla with cheese, potatoes, or spinach inside; dolma or stuffed grape leaves; and a variety of eggplant dishes. Turks have a lot of great desserts, such as sutlach, like rice pudding, and many varieties of baklava. Another great Turkish food is borek, which is a very soft filo dough with cheese, spinach or meat in it.
Turks are also voracious tea drinkers. In the bazaars a man will come around with a tray with little glasses of tea on it, then returns to pick up the glasses later on. It is a ritual during a business meeting to call the pitiable tea servant in to deliver tea or coffee to the guest of honor.
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b. Music
There are a few different genres of Turkish music. Probably the most common is Turkish pop, which has the typical pop hooks and fancy dance rhythms, but with a distinctly Turkish flavor. Then there is Turkish folk music, which uses more traditional instruments and scales. In one simple form the music consists of a singer with a clear voice, and a stringed instrument like a dulcimer. And Turkish classical or art music heralds back to Ottoman court music, though I’m not familiar with this music.

Arabesque is another famous style known for its sad laments about lost loves. It has a distinctly Middle Eastern sound to it. Sometimes restaurant groups, consisting of musicians playing a hand drum, a violin, a lyre, and an instrument resembling a hammer dulcimer, play a mixture of folk and Arabesque for diners.
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c. Architecture
Some of the architecture in Turkey is quite good, primarily that constructed in the Ottoman period. The Ottomans were always trying to beat the grandeur of the Byzantine Hagia Sophia, a huge church which still stands in Istanbul. By far the most famous Turkish architect is Mimar Sinan, an Ottoman period architect who built numerous mosques all over Turkey, especially in Istanbul.

So many of the mosques in Istanbul are magnificent from an architectural standpoint. Usually they consist of a large dome, with two or four minarets rising beside them from the ground. A minaret is a thin cylinder which reaches vertically into the air. In the old days the muezzin would make the call to prayer from this structure.

The mosques are decorated in a variety of ways depending on the period of construction, but there is usually some ornate design (but no statues or pictures). In many mosques there is a courtyard around the mosque where people gather and wash before and after prayer. Inside the mosque the inner dome is usually painted with some intricate design or decorated with fine tiling. Some of the mosques in Istanbul are old Byzantine churches which have been converted.

Another example of high Ottoman architecture are the palaces. The Topkapi palace features magnificent “kosku”s, which are like sitting rooms. They are round in design, with colored glass windows and beautifully decorated inner rooms. These koskus are situated on a courtyard with a fountain and some amazing tiling. Similar koskus are located at Yildiz Park.

The mosques are often situated among more modern architecture. This modern architecture is usually simple functional housing, and varies from unattractive and dirty to some quite presentable examples.
Old Ottoman style housing, primarily from the end of the 19th century, still populates the city, although this housing is often in bad condition. Often built of wood, it features the classic room which juts out vertically 2 or 3 feet over the street, and has some kind of decorative fringe. Advanced examples of this are built on the shores of the Bosphorus. Apparently Turks fancy this style, for modern imitations are often constructed.

The last major architectural style hails from the Taksim/ Beyoglu region of Istanbul. This area was a European expatriate community during the Ottoman period, and hence there are a variety of Euro styles here. Walking down Istiklal Street, one is witness to a variety of fine examples of European architecture, ornately decorated and imposing.
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d. Language
The Turkish language was really strange to me for a long time, and I only became accustomed to it after learning some of it. It is a Central Asian language, and hence is not in the Indo European language group.

Before the time of Ataturk, Turkish was written in the Arabic alphabet, and there were a lot of words from Arabic and Persian in the Turkish language. When Ataturk controlled Turkey, the government switched to a Roman letter alphabet, and purged the language of Arabic and Persian words. But there are still a lot of Arabic words in Turkish, for example: merhaba (hello), sabah (morning), hava (weather), moomkun (possibly), and sana (year). At the same time as Ataturk’s alteration of the language, a lot of French words were “Turkified” and added to Turkish, usually modern words or
concepts which weren’t previously in the Turkish language. Turkish people say that the old, Pre- Ataturk Turkish is very difficult for them to read.

From an English speaker’s perspective, Turkish is quite quirky. It is similar to German in that there are a lot of words that are quite long, constructed by adding together a lot of little pieces. The negative is made by putting a “ma” sound in the middle of a multi-syllable verb. Quite a challenge!

Word order is completely whacked out, and I haven’t advanced far enough to understand how it works. As an example, prepositions come at the end of the word referred to, (like saying “house my at”). And seemingly everything comes before the verb in a sentence, including the object of the action. For example, “Bize nereye alayorlar?” translated in its natural word order is “(us) (to where) (are taking) (they)?” Or in real English “Where are they taking us to?”

One of the strangest features of Turkish is called vowel harmonization. In this scheme, the vowel sounds of adjacent parts of a word must be similar. Some parts of the word don’t change. For example, verb stems, in which the sound carries a meaning, never change. But the verb endings, which indicate the tense and the subject change their vowel sound to match the verb stem. Other parts of speech which change their sound to harmonize are prepositions and special question indicators.

I should also mention the way that many Turks say “no”. Instead of using a word, Turks sometimes lean their head back a little bit, raise their eyebrows, and make a “tisk” sound. It may sound complicated, but after you do it a few times it is quite an easy way to say “no”.

With all of the challenges I discussed, not to mention that the sounds bear no relation to English meanings (unlike French or Spanish), its not surprising that I didn’t master the language while I was living here.
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5. Social Class

Class in any country is something that is very difficult to talk about unless one has a lot of research handy. The only research I’ve read claims that the gap between rich and poor in Turkey is the seventh largest in the world. But despite this lack of research, I’ll try to talk about it anyway.

Because of relative underdevelopment, industrial workers are not the huge class in Turkey that Marx envisioned, though they are significant. Peasants and country folk make up another huge portion of the lower income group (they are perhaps the biggest social class in Turkey). The most startling aspect about the underclass in Turkey, though, are the marginally employed.

Although unemployment figures are relatively low, this is very deceptive. By marginally employed people I mean people who make a living by shining shoes, selling odd bits and ends, or pushing little carts of fruit or other food items around for sale. In Istanbul there is a veritable army of these people, and some of them really are quite pitiable. Some of the poorer ones have nothing more to sell than a few socks, a few pens, postcards… the most successful ones have their own cart or a whole blanket full of merchandise.

Even more pitiable are those who comb through garbage for paper, aluminum or old scrap parts. Some people on the street charge a dime for customers to be weighed on a scale, or sell lottery tickets or administrative forms. All of these people are standing and waiting around for hours only to earn a pittance. The combination of industrial workers, peasants, and the marginally employed probably make up the vast part of the population, perhaps 80% or more.

The middle class are people who have decent apartments, maybe a car, and whose kids go to University. Perhaps they own a sizable shop or are professionals or business people. Even these people are really not very wealthy by American standards, and in fact it may be difficult for them to find jobs in their field.

And of course there are big capitalists who are native to Turkey, as well as foreign corporations who operate in Turkey. These are the big dogs, and like in other countries they keep kind of a low profile, working behind the scenes. The wealthiest family in Turkey is the Sabanci family, who have their paws in a lot of different sectors of the economy. The name Sabanci is plastered on a lot of public schools as Sabanci has donated money to them. One member of the Sabanci family was murdered by an extreme leftist.

In my opinion, though, the real question about class in Turkey is “how do Turkish people perceive class? Are they aware of class differences? Are they aware of conflict between classes? Do they seek to preserve class differences or lessen them?”
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6. Poverty and Social Problems

a. Poverty
The face of poverty in Turkey is gentle despite the fact that the average person earns only about $150 per month (some estimates are lower.) Surprisingly, there are not hordes of homeless people, nor is there a vast problem with crime. This relative stability in the face of vast poverty appears to result from strong family bonds, deeply instilled community values, and cheaper prices.

The majority of Turkish people manage to survive by living together in family units, in which the few who have jobs share their wages with the the old, young, and unemployed members of their family. It seems that Turkish people are also adapted to this situation, having lived with it for so long, and have perfected the art of surviving on so little.

I’m not saying that there is no hardship. On the contrary, life is very difficult for the vast majority of Turkish people. In fact there are some homeless people (although relatively small in proportion to the amount of poverty) who are seen sleeping in parks and begging in heavily populated areas.

Turks are not as conscious of homeless adults as they are of a group called “street children”. These are children who wander around busy public areas trying to sell Kleenex or chewing gum, or who play accordion to earn money. Some of these kids, when older and into their teenage years, appear to be addicted to sniffing inhalants. They are seen publicly breathing in and out of bags containing paint thinner or other inhalants.

Many of the people I talked to tried to persuade me that some of these children are not homeless. They claim that the childrens’ parents make them do this work on the streets. While it wouldn’t surprise me if this were true in some of the cases, it does not make them much less pitiable to me, since this is a form of child labor. Further, I wonder what the economic condition of their parents must be to make their children do this. And finally, the existence of such a situation reveals the absence of any government agency which protects children from such abuses.

In fact, newspaper articles reveal that child labor in Turkey is quite common, and that some children are unable to get an education as a result of it.

Like many developing countries, in Istanbul huge numbers of people are migrating from the countryside to the city. People tell me that, as a consequence, a large percentage of Istanbul’s poor live on the outskirts of the city. As I understand it, most of them live like squatters on previously undeveloped land. I haven’t visited these areas, so I can’t comment on the living conditions there.
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b. Crime and Violence
As I already noted, crime is not as serious a problem as one would expect given the living situation here. One thing that struck me is how people leave their possessions unattended here, apparently with little fear of theft. I saw countless bikes sitting by the road, innumerable pushcarts with goods for sale left unattended, as well as a variety of other things left on the sidewalk. Apparently everyone knows that these things belong to someone, and no one steals them!

There is also the problem of organized crime, which people talk about and which is covered in the newspapers. I have no knowledge of how serious a problem this is, but there have been incidents which revealed that the mafia is interwoven with politicians and police officials.

Another serious problem seems to be terrorism, or what some might prefer to call “extremely violent activism”. The groups committing acts of terrorism usually fall into the groups of Kurdish separatists, extreme left wing groups, extreme right wing groups, and radical Islamists. This politically motivated violence seems to be a far more serious problem than violence between acquaintances, or personal violence.

On Mother’s Day of this year a young man in the east of Turkey killed his mother. This bizarre incident is apparently a culturally embedded practice called an “honor killing”. In this case, if a woman is suspected of committing adultery, her own family will kill her in order to avoid having dishonor brought upon the family. To my understanding the family need not even be certain that she committed this act, but merely suspect it.

Since men in Turkey are renowned for having affairs, this practice is cruelly sexist.
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c. Prostitution
Depending on your perspective, you may or may not consider prostitution to be a social problem, but I am including it in this subject grouping anyway. Given that Turkey is an Islamic country, I didn’t expect there to be much prostitution here. I was quite shocked when I found out that there are legal brothels here! In fact, I’m told that there may be one in every major town. Apparently, the logic is to protect the “good girls” from those voracious male appetites, as well as give some boys practice before marriage. And those men who are too poor to marry may be able to string together a few Turkish Lira to visit the brothel. One of my sources claims that the women at these legal outfits are regularly tested for disease. In addition to legal prostitution, there are a lot of illegal prostitutes, many of whom are foreign. The fact that prostitution appears to be widespread reinforces the sharp dichotomy between “good girls” and “bad girls” in Turkey.
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d. Drugs and Alcohol
And last in this list of dreaded social ills, drug use. I was surprised at how much drinking there is in Istanbul, given that alcohol is forbidden in Islam. In reality, there is probably quite a bit of alcoholism in Turkey, although the amount doesn’t touch the US or Europe. On the one hand, there aren’t many Recovery resources for people who want to stop drinking. On the other hand, Turks seem much more likely to consider you an alcoholic if you drink a moderate amount. In other words, their subjective definition of addiction is different.

As I noted before, some really down and out kids here sniff inhalants. The only illegal drug that appears to have any prominence is marijuana or cannabis, although again it seems somewhat uncommon compared to the US. While other illegal drugs surely are in use, I saw almost no evidence of them at all. The drug crisis of the US seems almost non- existent here.

Of course I’d like to have all of the answers, but in many cases I’ve had to be satisfied with impressions and educated guesses. Many of the subjects of this article are difficult to put into words, like food, music, and architecture. I hope you’ll forgive me for the times when my ignorance and inability to put things into words revealed themselves.

Part Two of Turkey will be a behemoth focusing on the politics, history and economics of Turkey. I hope you enjoyed Part I, stay tuned for the next part.
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DISCLAIMER

In the previous paragraphs I tried to make a commentary about Turkey. A great deal of it is based on my impressions, the opinions of Turkish people, and not on hard factual information. Thus it cannot be said to be a perfect interpretation nor wholly accurate. It is hard to get exact information about my host countries in English. I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies or offensive misinterpretations.

The statements of any other authors in the newsletter are not necessarily my own.

If you disagree with what I´ve written please tell me! Send me an e mail or a letter!

Responses

  1. Hi,
    I love to do like a voluneteer. i care so much about charity work, although im still a student, and im not rich enough to do charity but i try to help people around me.
    i also love reading, tralvelling …
    hope to hear from you soon,
    regards,
    Cherry

  2. Hi Cherry,

    thanks for all your comments and visiting this website.

    I encourage you to do any volunteering. You don’t have to be rich. You can just find a place you like and volunteer there when you have a little free time.

    Maybe you can do something related to your studies?

    I think you will enjoy it and find it to be rewarding…

  3. I’m a congolese but I’m staying in south africa, I need to be a volunteer, i like charity work,I like travel, I got honours degree of internationals relations and diplomacy, Can you give me advice please?

  4. Well, I’m not familiar with South Africa, but I’m sure there are many opportunities to volunteer there for NGOs. Volunteering may provide you with opportunities to find work in the long run, since you will have gained valuable experience.

    There are also many websites which provide information on volunteering, and I think some of them provide e mail updates on volunteer positions. I’m not familiar with these sites, but you could look at http://www.idealist.org. I’m sure if you look around on the internet you will find many sites related to volunteering. You could also apply for UN Volunteers.

    Best of luck to you and thanks for visiting this site!

  5. Please subscribe me to this site and many thanks !

  6. I really found this article , “Travel Newsletters International
    Issue Forum”, really interesting plus it was in fact a good read.
    Thank you,Aidan


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