"Talking Turkey"

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Talking Turkey

By Carter Latendresse

The Catlin Gabel middle school is fortunate this fall to welcome Nagme Karamustafaoglu, a Fulbright exchange teacher from Turkey, who will be teaching 6th grade math. In part because I was a Fulbright exchange teacher in Turkey and in part because I teach 6th grade language arts, I have been asked to act as Nagme’s mentor teacher this year, a job I readily embrace.

In the 2004-05 academic year, I participated in a Fulbright Teacher Exchange, just as Nagme is participating this year. Five years ago, Mr. Volkan Oguz, also from Istanbul, came to the school in Hawaii where I worked, and he taught my 7th and 8th grade English classes while I went to Istanbul, Turkey, and taught in his school. This exchange was the fulfillment of a dream my wife and I had shared for some time: to live and work overseas.

Naturally, people want to know what Turkey is like; it after all abuts Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and six other nations that are in our nightly news but about which most of us know so little. The rumors of Turkish hospitality are true: you are unlikely to meet a more gracious, humble, and hardworking people.








 My family and I felt safer in Istanbul than we have in other huge cities such as Los Angeles, Athens, or London. How to describe Turkey?








Turkey is unique among nations in the Middle East. It is not an Arab nation, but it is a Muslim one. It is both part of the Middle East and part of Europe, though it is not yet a member of the EU. It has upheld the separation of mosque and state since the founding of the modern republic in 1923, but it teaches religion in its public schools. It is a nation that resists simplification and dualistic either/or thinking. The country is at a geographic crossroads where West and East meet, and within the country itself the traditional relaxes, casually enjoying a glass of tea with the modern.









Turkey’s jewel is Istanbul, not its capital, but certainly its greatest city. Istanbul is an impossible city to describe adequately in an article, but a hypothetical tour of some of its historic places may head us in the right direction.







 You wake in Kadikoy, Nagme’s district on the Anatolian or eastern side of the Bosphorus, at sunrise to the day’s first call to prayer. God the just, the merciful is being addressed in song in Arabic, one of the languages with which the Divine addressed humanity when the Divine spoke to Muhammad. Kadikoy, you remind yourself, was once called Chalcedon, and was the place where, in 451, the 4th ecumenical council of the Christian church proclaimed that Jesus was one person with two natures: fully divine and fully human. You amble out onto the cobblestone street to see the simit dealer who sells you two sesame bread rings for one lira, about 80 cents. Then you head to the café for your morning coffee, knowing it will be either Nescafe or Turkish. No drip coffee in this old borough.









After taking care of your week’s shopping in the labyrinth of ivy-covered alleys around Moda and Kadikoy, you walk your five bags of produce, costing 20 dollars, back to the shelves in your place. You make your way down to the iskele on the water to watch the European side of the city awake over the Bosphorus.








Fenerbache soccer fans are in their team colors—blue and yellow—already beginning to congregate around the statue of Ataturk in the meydane along the water. It’s also the end of the month, a day to pay the phone and electric bills, so you watch the early go-getters with fists full of cash beginning to line up at the post office to pay their bills. At quarter to 8 your ferry arrives, and you hop aboard over the rubber tire bumpers. The ride of the Bosphorus is always enchanting: you see Galata Tower on the hill in Tunel built by the Genoese in 1348, and to the north you see the two modern suspension bridges spanning the length of the waterway.






You dock at Besiktas, Fenerbache’s rival tonight, and their fans are also in their team colors—theirs black and while stripes. They are milling about the square there, with the skate punks, taxi drivers, and knick-knack cart salesmen hawking evil-eye key chains and faux-silk scarves. They are not yet ready to head over the water to the stadium in Kadikoy—that exodus of fans won’t take place until noon, until seven hours before the game.

You hop on the 40 or the 25 bus, anything heading north toward Sariyer, where the US has recently relocated its embassy in order to be more defensible against terrorist attack. You pass through hip young Bebek and the old fishing village of Arnavutkoy. At noon you know you’ll see handsome young Turks enjoying cold beers in terraced cafes overlooking the water. The windows are all shut on the bus even though the morning sun is beaming in and the bus is packed. No one will open a window because folk belief says a draft brings sickness. You get off just past Rumeli Hisari, the impressive siege fortress assembled in four months by Sultan Ahmet and his men just before they took Istanbul for the Ottoman Empire—thereby converting the region to Islam—in 1453.




You pay your four lira and spend the morning clambering up and down the narrow stone staircases of the castle, where you gain the same vantage points that Ahmet’s men had 600 years ago as they prepared to take the greatest city of the known—and, at that time, flat—world. Vertigo threatens at some spots high on the parapets, and you note that there are neither handrails nor signs advising caution. The Turks are not a litigious bunch.
After your climb in the castle, you catch the 40 heading the opposite way, south along the Bosphorus to Taksim, the heart of modern Istanbul. Walking down a street in Taksim today—a trendy neighborhood packed with throngs of young people on their ways to bookstores and restaurants—you can see women in head scarves and long, modest skirts walking, arms locked, with other women wearing tight Gap t-shirts hiked up to reveal their navels. They are perhaps heading toward a French matinee with subtitles in Turkish at one of the six movie theaters in Taksim that host the annual Istanbul International Film Festival.

Head a bit further south and cross a short bridge over the Golden Horn and you come to Haghia Sofia, the largest and most grand church in Christendom for 1,000 years, built in 536 by Emperor Justinian I. A millennium’s worth of important political and religious decisions that impacted the empire stretching from Turkey through Bulgaria and Greece to Italy were announced in this church.







In this church the findings of four of the first eight ecumenical councils were first enacted, from 381 to 870. The misnamed, finalized Nicene Creed was intoned in a mass in this church for the first time, making this building the founding edifice of Christian orthodoxy. Head toward the hill just northwest of the now-historic neighborhood Sultanahmet, in which Haghia Sofia sits, and there is the awesome sight of Suleymaniye Mosque. Here the enlightened ruler, Suleyman the Magnificent (wouldn’t it be great to have the moniker “The Magnificent”?) erected a free hospital for the poor and a vast complex of soup kitchens that fed one thousand people a day for more than 300 years.






This is the same Suleyman that took Jerusalem and rebuilt the walls of the old city there from 1536 to 1541—the same walls one can view stretching west from King David’s Tower and the Jaffa Gate. Suleyman, in a truly magnanimous gesture, approved the freedom of religious practice to Jews and Christians in Jerusalem at a time when popes were burning fellow Christians at the stake for differences of doctrinal opinion.
Back in Istanbul: Continue northwest and you pass Fatih Mosque, where Sultan Ahmet is buried—his tomb deliberately placed, in symbolic superiority, over another great conqueror, his predecessor—on the same site where the tomb of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor, once sat. You realize that Constantine was the man who in 330 moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople. Visiting Fatih Mosque you are therefore aware that two of the world’s most important leaders are buried here. The first man turned the known world Christian; the second turned it Muslim.








Continuing a bit further west you pass the Kariye Museum, which houses some of the world’s greatest Byzantine mosaics and frescos.








Finally you arrive at the awesome walls that Theodosius II had built in 413, the walls enclosing the city of Constantinople, 1,500 years before the city would be known by its current name, Istanbul. These walls are crumbling in many spots, but they remain intact in others, 1624 years after Theodosius I released his imperial edict making Christianity the official religion of the empire. One was forced to attend a Christian church on Sunday or face excommunication or death. You note it was Theodosius I who therefore imposed the world’s first state religion and quasi-theocracy.


Noting this is rather like discovering one’s grandparents were leaders of the Taliban. It’s difficult to claim cultural superiority when one acknowledges that the origins of one’s beliefs are morally suspect. The pendulum swings across borders and time. The great cultural and political achievements of our own American culture are made possible, Emerson said, because we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Sometimes these giants were tyrannical, sometimes benevolent, sometimes both. In Istanbul you are aware that you are meeting these giants of human civilization at every turn.

In your long day’s travels through Istanbul’s streets you can thus follow the threads of history and religion—together weaving the marvelous Turkish kilim that is Istanbul. You also become enlivened with the appreciation that so much of our own western cultural inheritance—even here in Portland—was forged there, half a world away, under the crescent and star of Turkey.

This month we have the great good fortune to embrace a native daughter of that astounding heritage. Your children will be awakened to the bridges that connect us all over centuries and continents. We will learn more together with readings and discussions about Turkey. We will also be exchanging letters and participating in a special event videoconference with some students at Nagme’s school in Turkey. These experiences will help us to interlock our arms with greater knowledge of our shared pasts as our two countries journey together through this new century.