AIRMAIL - Letter from Istanbul:
Fear & Wishing a Bridge of this "Innocence"
View from the author's terrace; Photo by Catherine Salter Bayar
A peaceful weekday mid-September morning on our seaside terrace in a working class Istanbul neighborhood. I make the coffee: Kurukahveci Mehmet’s finest, brewed in a French press, a method that would bring reproach if I were a Turkish housewife. But I’m an American who has learned to blend my independent Californian ways with more established Turkish traditions into a hybrid life, in my nearly 14-year residence in Turkey.
I flip open the laptop to start the workday by perusing emails, a process that could take hours if I let it. But I’m immediately drawn to three personal notes in the midst of entrepreneurial newsletters, new Twitter followers and political requests for support, in this fraught period leading up to the US presidential election.
Though the emails are from people in separate locations in the US, they apologetically say much the same thing: “I’m afraid I will not be traveling to Turkey as planned, due to the unrest in your region”.
Our plans to host a handcrafts workshop, as part of the business my Turkish/Kurdish husband and I own, are curtailed by events taking place nowhere near our bustling megacity. This time because of riots and murders sparked by a 14-minute film trailer, conspiracy theories flying over who made it, and the intentions behind it. The 24/7 news cycle needs constant feeding, and the Internet is happy to oblige with a new crisis. Previously, it was the ongoing crisis of refugees pouring over the border from Syria, 1300 kilometers away, or the Arab Spring occurring in countries even farther removed. Before that, it was the Iraq War, 9/11 or crazily enough, the ‘70’s movie Midnight Express.
I’ve always had people question my safety living here, something that never happened when I lived in downtown Los Angeles or worked in Manhattan. I’ve traveled to far more dangerous places alone, but it’s Turkey that arouses concern from Americans who’ve never visited. When I first moved here, the big scandal was Bill, Monica and a blue dress from the Gap. I long for those days, because at least it was easy to explain to the local Turks and shrug away with an embarrassed laugh.
But Islamophobia isn’t. While I abhor the fundamentalist insanity that took over a group of about 50 to murder a US ambassador, 3 other Americans and the 10 Libyans trying to protect them, I’m hard-pressed to explain to the people around me, friends, family and co-workers, all Muslims in varying degrees of devoutness or secularity, why the Western focus of this tragedy is not on the victims, the murderers’ motivation, or those who may be behind the scenes, but instead another indictment against an entire religion with 1.7 billion followers. At least 23% of people on the planet. Less than 1% of Muslims worldwide rioted this week, but the Western media portrays the Middle East and North Africa as ‘on fire’. The fact that half of Istanbul actually lies in Southeastern Europe is lost on most who’ve never been here; just the fact that 98% of the Turkey’s population is Muslim is enough.
Most Turks are not surprised. As a nation they are accustomed to the strange phenomenon that those who’ve never visited Turkey are afraid of it, yet those who’ve been here fall in love, coming back time and again, hating to leave. This is not a country easily understood even for those of us who have been here awhile, with its layers of history, civilizations and multiple ethnic groups, not to mention religion. It’s not at all a homogenous society, but one grappling – poorly at times - to be an example for the world that Islam and democracy can exist.
Most Turks view religion as something deeply personal. As one Dutch journalist and longtime resident here put it, they are “calm believers”. As far as I could tell from television and online reports, Istanbul experienced two days of protest, crowds of about 500 each day, mostly representing a religious political party. They gathered after noon prayers in front of the Fatih Mosque, conservative central in Old City historic Istanbul within the Theodosian Walls. American flags burned, numerous "US stop supporting Israel" signs waved.
This city gets larger protests over the rising price of bread or gasoline, worker’s rights or a recent failed attempt to ban abortions. Those issues draw angry crowds by the thousands to Taksim Square, the heart of this city of more than 13 million. In fact, any given Sunday is liable to draw a crowd protesting something in this complex country, a nation that loves public debate, an odd combination of optimist and fatalist, well -versed in conspiracy theories of all types, especially in the past 10 years.
The real issue behind the disconnect in understanding is the West’s freedom of expression versus the East’s sanctity of belief. Living here, I’ve had to temper my American individualist self against the collective will of the group. Marrying into a large Kurdish tribe has taught me that in such cultural collisions, the Western idea of being responsible for one’s own actions does not always fly in a culture in which the actions of one reflect on the honor of all. Therefore, an individual’s right to express anything, no matter how vile, makes little sense to those who were taught to value the beliefs of the group, often more than their own lives.
In the selfish view, I could look on recent events as just more fodder for contemplation as I work on a memoir, itself a tale of cultures coming together, colliding in our differences, yet more often bridging them with our similarities. I am aware that our setbacks in business are nothing compared to the larger picture of these fractured times. I’m grateful for life I live, with a foot in each culture. I only wish I could span the gaps of understanding, could explain one culture to another as the hybrid human I’ve become, as the global citizens I want everyone to realize we are.