- The Washington Times - Monday, April 10, 2006

Sometimes one wonders exactly what it means when people refer to Turkey as a bridge between the West and the East. Westerners who do not support Turkey joining the European Union say it is not compatible with Western culture. Arabs say Turks are not true Muslims because Kemal Ataturk, the country’s founding father, abolished caliphate, changed the alphabet and, most importantly, introduced a secular democracy.

Sometimes that bridge means understanding between the West and the East. Sometimes it means hope amid the clash of civilizations. But,Jennifer Eaton Gokmen explains, it is important to make clear Turkey’s real identity, especially at a time when there is a war in Iraq and the country has opened its EU accession talks. It’s a unique time for the bridge — detailed in a new book that Mrs. Gokmen co-edited, “Tales from the Expat Harem,” a chronicle of Turkish life by foreign women who have lived there at least a year.

It is a thought-provoking guide to Turkey, written by 29 women from seven countries on four continents. Few of them still live there, but they seem to have built a bond not only with present-day Turkey, but also with the Turkey of the future.

Author Amanda Coffin talked about her experiences traveling the country. “erendipity set me down in Bursa,” she wrote. But when she decided to travel east, Mahmut, one of the shopkeepers whom she frequently visits for tea and a chat, advised her not to go alone. “The men will assume you are a prostitute,” he said. Having only traveled in the western part of Turkey, she did not take the advice seriously, and found out for herself while traveling to Batman, Urfa, Mardin and Diyarbakir that he was right.

Pat Yale’s experience in Goreme makes one wonder whether Turks impose their culture on foreigners like missionaries. When Ms. Yale decided to buy a house in Goreme, her neighbors expected her to slaughter a sheep in gratitude for her good fortune in acquiring the property.

“Turks thought that the dead animal’s spirit would carry the soul of the sacrificer to heaven, and that they believed that sharing the meat served to consolidate a sense of community,” Ms. Yale wrote. But she would not sacrifice a sheep. Instead, she decided to repair the town’s Ramazan drums — the drums that awaken Muslims before sunrise so they can eat and then fast through sunset. “There was so much I had to learn, so much that I still did not understand and it hardly helped that the pace of change was so fast that it left even the locals struggling to keep up with what passed for normality,” she wrote. But her decision to fix the drums forged an unbreakable friendship with the town.

Eveline Zoutendijk, owner of Sarinc hotel in the historic Sultanahmet area in Istanbul, faced a religious standoff with one of her best employees. An Osman Hamdi painting hung in her hotel lobby — a painting that her employee, Halim, said was against Islam. At first, she didn’t think the issue was serious, but ultimately Halim offered up an ultimatum: Choose between the painting and him. “He explained his reasoning: The lady was blasphemously sitting on a Koran stand, and one of the books at her feet looked very much like the holy Koran,” she wrote. Halim said “[t]he lady was sitting in the mosque’s holy prayer niche, a sacred area where only an imam, or Muslim preacher, is allowed.” Ms. Zoutendijk liked the painting, and didn’t want to give in.

So she offered to do some research and figure out whether it really was disrespectful to Islam. She learned that Halim was right; that painting was always controversial. So she kept her word and took it down. “[I] was consoled by the fact that Halim hadn’t the slightest victorious air about him,” she wrote. “He came up to my office the next day to thank me, and it was clear he meant it. In fact, he began to treat me with even more respect.”

This book is a frank anecdote of the foreign women’s experience in Turkey. Yet it again raised the question about what it means to be a bridge. Through these women’s eyes, we are reminded that Turks come from many different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Turkey is a melting point of the West and the East.

It also clearly states that the bridge is going in the right direction, but given the uncertainties it faces between the West and the East, it is almost impossible to know whether it can achieve a homogenous stability and development throughout the country.

Tulin Daloglu is the Washington correspondent and columnist for Turkey’s Star TV and newspaper. A former BBC reporter, she writes occasionally for The Washington Times.

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