Follow Me To Turkey
6,234 miles to Izmir, Turkey.
3 connections and 23 hours later, I arrived to my home for the next 3 years. I remember feeling excited, exhausted and nervous. Then it happened! As it would a million times over.
“Merhaba! Yardimci olabailir miyim?”
“I don’t speak Turkish…what does that mean”
I was soon to find out.
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I lived in a beautiful city in the western coast of Turkey called Izmir. Shot out Izmir! The weather in Izmir is unpredictable but it’s normally sunny and dry. The weather there is awesome for Bahamians. (Below 60 degrees Fahrenheit we get a bit chilly!) Although arid, the skies are normally blue and it’s not dreadfully cold like in the Far East in winter and autumn. I was fortunate to reside as a government scholarship student attending Dokuz Eylul University.
Before I arrived, I prayed and asked God for a community of believers and he answered my prayers faithfully. My church became a community of strength and guidance. This was important because Turkey is a Muslim country. I was afraid that I would have to dress differently or wear a head scarf. However, although Turkey is Islamic, it has a secular government thanks to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (essentially the father of modern Turkey).
The immigrant community and TÖMER (Turkish Language Preparatory School) put me in daily contact with people from literally every nation imaginable.
Turkish men and women come in so many varieties. Generalizing a country of 80 million is absurd. However, in my experience I find Turks to be very curious, passionate in relationships, and lovers of foreigners, especially Americans. Turkey also has a heart for other nations, holding the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world. They often offer you food and çay (tea) that you cannot refuse, literally.
A helpful tip: Turks will NOT tell you when they do not know something. So if you are ever lost in Turkey and need directions, verify with at least 3 people as to ensure you actually get to where you are going.
Izmir is the third largest city in Turkey with 5 million people and a large expat community. Public transportation is reliable and inexpnesive. Despite escalating inflation in the last 4 years, the cost of living is affordable.
I adopted the culture of saying “Afiyet olsun” (Literally “May your food be nourishing”) at meals, drinking tea several times a day, hanging out in the parks or cafes to meet friends and shopping in Alsancak and Karşiyaka for fun.
Turks are social beings. The streets are always busy and as parents work all day, it is normal to see them with children on playgrounds until very late at night, particularly in the summer months.
Socializing and eating seem to go hand in hand. Turkish food is tasty and heavy (oily), especially dinner. Popular foods include yogurt, cheese, nuts, vegetables, rice and meats. There are few international restaurants in Izmir. Surprisingly, Ayran (yogurt drink) grew on me!
During my stay, I was timid to travel around Turkey because of the language barrier, but as I became comfortable the climate in Turkey began to change. Most Turks only speak Turkish. Turkish is an Altaic language that is very different from Germanic or Latin based languages, which made it a real adventure to learn and absorb.
Despite the travel setbacks, I was able to visit çeşme, Kuşadası, Istanbul and Ankara. Istanbul is the cultural and economic capital of Turkey, known for its vibrant activities, lively crowds, tourist attractions, terrible traffic and diversity. Ankara on the other hand is the poshe capital city which seems like the runway capital for top executives, diplomats, and fashionistas. Each city has an amazing atmosphere that made me feel comfortable to walk the streets and interact with others. Turkey is no doubt a beautiful country, with many clear beaches, tall mountains and thick forests.
Kapkara Günler (Dark Days)
A week before my thesis dissertation, martial law was declared in Turkey. It was July 15, 2016. So many of us confided in each other, wondering what would be our fate. If indeed martial law was declared and a coup d’état had ensued, successful completion of our program would be a distant dream. Most importantly we feared for our lives and safety. Many Turks flooded the streets in protest to the eventually failed military coup and over 200 people lost their lives. Bombs and gun fire could be heard around the Istanbul and Ankara cities. Gunpower and screams filled the night’s air. (Thankfully, it was quiet in Izmir, not a peep.)
I pay tribute to those fallen citizens, because of them order was restored as the voice of the people was greater than that of the military. Turks want change, but they desire it in a way that is wholesome and sustainable for the majority. I admire how Turks love Turkey. They are always fearless to stand up for what they believe, whether it is for Berkin Elvan (young boy killed by police in Istanbul during the Gezi Park protests), Özgecan Aslan (young woman in Manisa killed after an alleged rape) or any other cause.
If there was a time in my life I prayed fervently, it was in Turkey.
As a young black Christian woman, I met challenges that seemed to be presented daily. It appeared I had all strikes against me. Notwithstanding, being pulled by strangers to take photos, strangers touching my hair without asking and being questioned about why I was in Turkey before the asking party even said hello was something that I eventually ignored and got use to.
After I had some command of the language, and started helping other Turks with English, I made friends with a group of young Turkish women in university. They all wore hijabs (Muslim head scarfs) except one and frequently invited me over for dinner and sleep-overs. It was there I learnt how they prepared meals, what they believed, how they prayed and the meaning of other Muslim holidays and rituals which are embraced and celebrated year round. The call to prayer can be heard five (5) times a day from anywhere in the city. During those times, conversations were minimized to assume a posture of prayer.
Turks claim to have a love for black people and find them to be “sympathetic or cute” (A word I am really still struggling to understand as it is defined in Turkish and not English). I cannot deny or confirm this claim as many Turks have offended me because of my skin tone while others have embraced it. Once a Turkish is your true friend, I find they treat you like family. Children call you “Abla” (sister) to show respect and dear friends add “cim” to your name to show love.
Thankfully, the coup d’état failed and the government regained legitimate control. However, many people, innocent or guilty, would pay the price for it. Over 50,000 students, professors, officials and military personnel were incarcerated and many foreign students were deported. Private universities and hospitals were closed and the president has since not eased up. The current civil tensions between Turkish and Kurdish counterparts also adds to the terror. Debates on religion, sex and politics are taboo.
Turkey is a country that I have truly grown to love. Despite its difficulties, the experience there facilitated a lot of my personal growth. We find that in our difficulties we learn the greatest lessons and become the best version of ourselves.
The people of Turkey have an enduring spirit and are nationalists at heart. They can tell you everything about the 81 provinces that make up Turkey and this somewhat compensates for their general ignorance about the world, apart from America.
In light of the past events, I sincerely hope that Turkey gets on track and experiences true democracy, freedom of expression, and peace.
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