dear friends and especially parents – I’m so sorry I haven’t been able to make new posts in the last couple of days – a combination of a full schedule and intermitent internect access/response speed at the times needed – but let me reassure you that the tour is going very, very well – we have had some very memorable experiences and wonderful and productive discussions about issues related to visiting a foreign culture – I will try to capture as much as I can, probably much later tonight – but it has been a true privilege to travel with a very perceptive, sensitive, community-minded, and ethically motivated group of young people – if you’re related to them you should be very proud!
I get a variety of reactions at home in the U.S. when I say I’m a religion major.
Sometimes people are excited. Sometimes they’re confused. Some have offered practical advice: “Of course! You could be a tour guide at the Vatican.”
The responses have been just as diverse on this trip. Turkish politics is vastly about religion and we were warned that conversations about Kemalism or Islamism can become highly charged, so almost every time I’ve shared my major, I’ve braced myself. Will they think I’m a fanatic, I wonder? Or that I’m not into democracy?
But at least in university settings, twenty-something’s must be twenty-something’s everywhere.
“I have no interest in religion, but I should probably learn about it,” Firat, one of our consistent traveling companions from Vocaliz told me. “Do you study all religions?” asked a choir member from METU, trying to clarify.
I’ve found some students to be concerned that Turkey’s current government could be posing a deep threat to its secular status. But because modern America has seen a debate along similar lines since the Scopes Monkey trial, many American students I meet are just as suspicious when I tell them my major as students here are curious.
I’ve read that with Iran and Syria next door, seriously religious governments feel very real for Turks—a lot more real than “Inherit the Wind” for Americans. The Ottoman Empire, in which Islam was the state religion, was a lot more recent than religious intolerance in Puritan Massachusetts.
There are two very different grains against which the sacred/secular debate seems to work in Turkey and at home. So what I’ve found to be different are not what the Turkish students I’ve met imply about what it means to be religious, but rather what it means to be secular in Turkey.
You can gauge it from walking down the university halls. Headscarves have been illegal in public institutions, including universities, since Atatürk’s proclamation that Turkey was a secular state in 1924. In 2008 Parliament revoked the ban, only to be annulled by the courts a few months later. So METU and Anadolu University, where we gave concerts this week, remain places where Islam is invisible. In the U.S., it feels like there is a much larger space between “public institution” and private sphere that I would have never noticed had I not realized what distinguishes the two in Turkey.
America’s secularists are very unlike Atatürk. They speak against Genesis in textbooks and God on the dollar bill; Atatürk undid an entire religious past in a year, or at least tried to. Considering just how different our experiences have been with religion in the past century, it’s not surprising the places over which Americans squabble about religion are very different from the loci of those battles in Turkey.
In the States, a public figure’s body is a space for debate about where to draw the line between church and state. People worried about extremism could balk if they saw a cross or a hijab on the presidential candidate. The institutions up for debate are civic things and symbols. The stone Bible in Alabama’s courthouse. The National Anthem, the dollar bill. More ambiguously, abortion battles rage with the line in clear sight. But moreover, the iconographic side of secularists’ war in the United States takes place around icons that are decidedly more governmental than a university classroom.
Atatürk’s confident, half-squinting face is indeed everywhere here. The flags and ceiling-to-floor photos express a different kind of nationalism than America’s and a different kind of secularism, both growing from two very different histories. In his book about Turkish modernity “Crescent and Star”, Stephen Kinzer wrote that though Islam was discouraged by state for years in Turkey, the cult of Atatürk, especially visually, has cultivated enough materials and doctrines to make it feel like a religion itself.
As we put it in our discussion this morning on the carpet of our hotel’s conference room, Turkey simply defies categorization.
I may not have seen headscarves at METU or Anadolu, but as I sit in my hotel bed I’ve just heard the call to prayer issued after three beeps over a loud speaker. It’s a nudging, surreal reminder that I’m visiting a historically Muslim country for the very first time, and that this entrancing song-chant floats over 100,000 sleeping people in Eskişehir, where tomorrow we will leave for another city that will be woken up by it too.
The sound files from our Ankara concert are now fully available at www.haverford.edu/musc/choral/csingers/tour.html – thanks for your patience!
We had an incredibly fun and exciting day with the students at Anadolu University in Eskiseher today, ending with our second “formal” concert tonight (following one “impromptu” concert at noon in the atrium of the newly built student union building. Off to dinner with our host choir now – more to report later~
Just in case any of you are concerned, yesterday’s 6.0 earthquake, which has cost 41 lives so far, is in southeastern Turkey, 621 miles from where we are in Eskiseher, so we are in no danger from this event, and it is highly unlikely another quake will follow before our departure. See www.hurriyetdailynews.com/ for details (it hasn’t made the NYTimes web site yet).
I found myself waking up ready to go at 6:00 am again, but instead of taking a “second sleep” and waking up groggy after another hour, I decided to look up a few subjects on line that had come up in various conversations on the bus yesterday. I ended up finding two online references that pertained directly to issues on our trip, and so went ahead and emailed them to the students and my faculty colleagues on the tour in advance of our first small group discussions among ourselves this morning where we will try to “debrief” some of the wide range of intensive experiences we’ve had in just a couple of days.
The first had to do with today’s observance of “National Women’s Day” which our Turkish tour guides brought to my attention yesterday, and which I had never heard of before – see www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=international-women8217s-day-to-be-celebrated-around-country-2010-03-07
for background on this.
But what I wanted to share with the parents and friends reading this blog is the email I sent out to our gang related to a book review in yesterday’s Sunday NYTimes which fit in perfectly with what we will be discussing in our groups this morning: what does it mean to encounter an unfamiliar culture, and what are we to make of all the experiences this encounter brings? Of course, it is silly of me to think that any of the students will see my email or have time to read it before returning home even if they do – but I sent it anyway, mainly in a halting attempt to organize my own conflicted thoughts before our discussions, and partly for later reflection by the students after we return home, which they know is an important part of the whole experience. Here is my morning missive:
There happens to be a review in yesterday’s NYTimes Book Review of a book by Christopher de Bellaigue, an English writer for The Economist who moved to Turkey in 1995 after falling in love with a Turkish woman, became immersed in Turkish culture and fluent in the language, but becomes so enthralled with the Kemalist nationalist version of history that he exposes himself to blistering international criticism for a piece he writes in The New York Review of Books in 2001 “containing a blandly pro-Turkish account of the fate of the Ottoman Armenians.”
After moving to Iran (following another love affair, this time leading to marriage) he decides to reinvestigate the complexities of the modern history of southeastern Anatolia by spending a good deal of time in the town of Varto, beginning in 2005, resulting in this latest book which takes a much more complicated view of the genocide and overall issues of ethnicity and history in Turkey.
I pass this along as an illustration for us, as we are now visiting Turkey for the first time and for only ten days, of how easy it is to think that we as outsiders can understand a culture, its people, and its history even after lengthy exposure. This is not a reason to avoid contact with an unfamiliar culture. Quite the contrary. It is a cautionary lesson that the goal of travel abroad to an unfamiliar cultural landscape for any length of time should be to make ourselves more aware of how much we don’t know about the experience and perspectives of others, to question the common wisdom and assumptions about a culture and its history whether coming from outside or inside that culture, and to appreciate even more acutely how illusive the “truth” is about any human story, especially when we delude ourselves that we can “possess” that story and allow ourselves the pride of privileged understanding. – Tom
Sunday was our first travel day since arriving in Turkey. The landscape outside of the urban and suburban sections of Ankara looks quite barren to us coming from the wooded landscapes of southeastern PA. Only occasional small scrub trees and every once in a while grazing fields for sheep and crops of hay just starting up in short rows of green. Sometimes we spot a snow-covered peak ahead in the distant northeast mountains.
But coming up along the road is a village where the mayor has had the foresight to restore the old part of the village to something resembling its Ottoman past (a past rarely viewed in the post-Ataturk republic, though with increasing exceptions) – with the hope of drawing Turkish tourists to give the craftsmen and women, shopkeepers, and restaurateurs of the town jobs in a tough economy. To our eyes (including our veteran Turkey travelers Maud and Sooyong) the village has managed just the right combination of being attractive to tourists but retaining the character of a living community with a traditional way of life as well as traditional buildings.
In addition to the shops with locally crafted copper-ware, fruits and spices, jewelry, and rustic restaurants with local dishes (such as the one we had a pre-paid lunch in (I really have to take it easy on these Turkish deserts – but how many ways can you make nuts and honey taste better in every combination?), there were stores with practical things that everyone needs to stay alive, like everyday cooking and washing utensils and tools. There were several mosques, one of which broadcast a recording of the call to prayer, in Turkish, used all over the country (too bad there isn’t more work for religious singers!) – here without much in the way of movement to the mosque or other signs of piety.
In front of some of the shops and in courtyards, there are groups of older men sitting in a circle, sipping tea among themselves and talking quietly. Maud tells me that the women in the village would typically be out in the morning during shopping time, but never be seen gathering in the same square at the same time as the men. The people are soft-spoken and gentle – the shops each very different and fascinating in layout. (I wish I had my usb cable to show you a couple of them!)
The road to the university town of Eskiseher takes another 3 hours, with a break along the way – this is the longest travel day by far (within Turkey). We arrive in the city after dark – a brilliantly lit modern, lively metropolis – fancier than an Ann Arbor or other Big-Ten college town in the US, but still very much a place dominated by youth. A group of about ten very fashionably dressed singers from the university choir are waiting to greet us at our hotel, and then take us off to dinner at a favorite place of theirs. Before we leave the restaurant, the owners demand a song (or two (really, I tell the students – they asked for it, not me! – this happens all the time in restaurants on trips outside the US whether in Venezuela, or Poland, or Ghana, or Costa Rica, but would be unimaginable in the US – why is that so??) – first we sing our up-tempo opening spiritual “There’s a great camp meeting” by Hall Johnson, which gets an enthusiastic response – and then the rivetingly fast Yavuz Geliyor, which has everyone – university singers and restaurant staff alike – singing along and shouting for joy at the end. Then we totally embarrass Sarah Glaser, who has just received the special banana pancake desert she ordered and was patiently waiting for, with a sparkler and a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday” before we head back for an early bedtime before a full day tomorrow that will end with our second concert!
Not many pictures yet to share yet (most of us forgot our usb cables!) but lots to share about a day that was full of unexpected gifts (and check the mp3′s of our performance last night if you haven’t already, at www.haverford.edu/musc/choral/csingers/tour.html) – planning a tour like this requires setting some basic parameters of what will happen (concerts on certain days with certain choirs, times set aside for informal or formal discussions with local students, hotels to sleep in, meals to eat, buses to take us where we need to go) – but this structure is all for the purpose creating opportunity for spontaneous encounters to happen as opportunities arise.
We altered the schedule right away to leave at 10:30 instead of 9:00 for our morning tour of the Anatolian Civilization Museum and the Ankara Castle. Everyone was in much better spirits as a result. For the museum we had a wonderful tour guide – a sociologist and mother with a love for telling the story of the layers and layers of ancient civilizations in Anatolia (the peninsula we now call “Asia Minor” that comprises the Asian part of modern Turkey) – the students especially enjoyed her penchant for assigning them to role play the various rulers and sultans in various eras to make sense of how political and social power worked in different eras. She also didn’t mind taking hard questions (one of our students is doing a research project on women in modern Turkey for her anthropology seminar, and was asking about the current state of arranged marriages and honor killings in different parts of the country).
As expected, the incredible depth of the history and recovered artifacts was a little overwhelming, but important for American students to experience in a tangible way how new our cultural and political traditions really are compared to most of the world. It caused me to wonder for a moment about how much less we know (or are culturally aware of what already is known) from the centuries and layers of native American culture.
At the end of the museum tour we climbed up to the top of the historic castle of Ankara which was a fascinating exhibit of the many layers of Anatolian history – it seems there was so much archeological debris lying around, that when it was time to build a new turret or wall for the castle, whatever stone was available was used, whether it showed cuniform engravings or Roman signs, or altar stones that today in themselves would be considered invaluable relics.
It also offered a great climbing challenge with a spectacular view of the old and new city from the top of the curving walls – just in time to see dark rain clouds move in as we hustled down the stairs just in time to miss most of it.
Then we went back to the campus of the choir we sang with last night – Middle East Technical university – and spent an hour having lunch at several different small, inexpensive restaurants in a circular atrium building with four floors – the food was interesting and fascinating, and cheap – we sang our way out at the end, finding an open spot on one of the middle floors – one of our spirituals and one of our Turkish pieces, greeted by warm applause and whistles.
After some down time back at the hotel, we went off to a performance by a modern dance group at METU – originally we were just planning to attend the short program – but once we arrived, we were invited to become part of the performance – part of which was to be an improvised jam session involving the dancers and an ensemble of electric guitars and drums (at first the students were really raising their eyebrows at me, sure I had suggested the idea because of some of the more “unexpected” performing opportunities I’d come up with on the spur of the moment in the past – but I reassured them that this one came entirely from the METU students!). It was definitely a “go with the flow” moment – I had no idea what we would sing, and just waited to see what the dancers did in the first couple of segments to recorded music, and then an improvisation with the instrumental ensemble. It soon seemed obvious that the perfect music for this modernist experimental group would be the first movement of David Lang’s the little match girl passion – but would we have enough light to sing it by? (a minimalist piece not easy to memorize) – the show took place in a large open indoor space with theater lighting focused on various parts of the dance flooring, but the sides in the dark – we had just enough to pull it off, and from what our students told me (my back was turned), the dancers really had a great time with it – then our tour guide ran over to ask for something up tempo – one of our spirituals – so we pulled together Hailstork’s Go Down, Moses which also turned out to be just what they were looking for – then it was time for the instrumentalists to take back the musical side – but the METU students invited our students to join in the dancing, which three of them (two girls and one of our guys) readily responded too.
This was an event not even on the schedule before we arrived…and turned out to be the highlight of the day…and captured on video by a METU student cinematographer who happened to be there.
Contact with the METU students continued at our “welcome” dinner, which was some of the most wonderful food we’ve tasted so far – and Turkish cuisine is one of the few where the level of the desserts matches the level of the main courses – and then met us at the hotel to go dancing at a local club (but don’t worry parents – they were accompanied not only by METU students but one of our guides and one of our faculty leaders – and the club is a short walk from the hotel, in a gorgeous part of town
Tomorrow we head to Eskiseher – after so many serendipitous encounters, it’s hard to believe we’ve only been here two days!