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Taking to Turkey

Tales from an Expat Harem
Edited by Anastasia M Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gökmen. Foreword by Elif Shafak

Doğan Kitap

Turkey has been a republic for more than eighty years now, and Turkish women have had the vote since the 1930s, but reality has so far failed to dent Western fantasies about harems, odalisques and terrible Turkish husbands. Even today, a Western woman who so much as hints at the possibility of a move to Turkey will meet with wails of anguish from unenlightened family and friends. Why would she want to give up all her hard-won liberties and privileges? What could she possibly hope to gain? These anxious prejudices form the backdrop to Tales from the Expat Harem. Though its first readers will undoubtedly come from the ranks of the converted, it has larger ambitions. Think of it as thirty-six letters home. Most are writing to worried loved ones in Europe and North America. Most went to Turkey as wives or wives-to-be, but whatever their marital status, they define themselves by their work. There are teachers and executives, archaeologists, artists and journalists; psychoanalysts, designers, hotel managers, systems engineers… All have met with surprises, some unpleasant, but the overriding mood is a grateful and determined humility: having discovered a culture that is richer and more humane than their own, they feel duty bound to spread the word. The stories follow a pattern: a new arrival who has yet to learn ‘how things work’ in this strange country runs into a spot of trouble. An Englishwoman breaks down on a dark and busy Istanbul street, when who should appear but four burly men. She thinks it’s all over, but all they want to do is help her change her tyre. A newly arrived Texan suffers a similar panic as her empty bus approaches Konya long past midnight. She assumes the worst when the driver takes her to a house in the middle of nowhere. It later emerges that he knew the hotel where she’d booked a room had closed its doors for the night and wanted her to be in the safe hands of friends. Perhaps to balance these happy endings there are well told comedies-of-errors about overzealous suitors, landladies who cook too much and Kurdish mothers-in-law whose preferred cleaning implement is the garden hose. Two of the most moving stories are by Christian fundamentalists who decide after being welcomed into Turkish families, that their hosts are better people than they are. But there are many other fascinating insights from women who learn to read the cultural fine print while supervising digs, pursuing dangerous news stories in the southeast, running businesses in Istanbul, or falling ill in Cappadocia. Hamams, coiffeurs and weddings figure prominently and, overwhelming as these rituals can be, there is a consensus that Turkish women are not just happier in their bodies than their Western friends, but also better at looking after them. The story that made me laugh the loudest is by a Guatemalan who finds herself spending less time with her boyfriend than with his mother. The mother is something important at Turkish Television; the Guatemalan likes her but does not wish to apologise for her own modest origins. So she announces, in Turkish, that her father’s farm is home to twenty milk-producing cows. Because she gets one word wrong, what she actually says is that her father’s farm is home to twenty milk-producing homosexuals. Luckily she does not take offence when the mother bursts out laughing and repeats the story to all her friends. This is another of the book’s leitmotifs: the authors’ desire to instruct the narrow-minded leads to a certain reluctance to dwell on the less heartwarming aspects of culture clash. Though some write honestly about heartbreak, isolation and the sudden, crushing loss of confidence that life in a new country can bring, there are no accounts of marriages gone sour, no exes battling it out over custody. Strangely, all but one of the contributions are by women who went to Turkey as adults. But this is a noble effort. Valuable today as an antidote to bigotry, it will, I am sure, serve as an even more valuable corrective to the blinkered historians of tomorrow.

Other Highlights from Cornucopia 35
  • The Grape Survivors

    Kevin Gould waxes lyrical over Château Musar, a legendary wine from the old Ottoman Levant, and salutes the brave new Turkish winemakers who stay true to their roots.

  • Othmar’s Dream

    After the grim years of the early 1920s, Turkey experienced a brief period of euphoria. A new Republic was born, and new faces appeared in this land of hope, among them the brilliant but now forgotten photographer Othmar Pferschy (1898–1984), who turned up on the Orient Express in 1926 and stayed for forty years.

  • James Mellaart: The Man Who Changed History

    We were greatly saddened to learn of the death of one of the great archaeologists of the 20th century, James Mellaart, whose discovery of Çatalhüyük in the 1950s fundamentally altered our understanding of the past. In 2005, on his eightieth birthday, he talked to Christian Tyler. We publish the article here in full, and at the same time offer Jimmie’s family our utmost sympathy.

  • Shafts of Light

    Some like their asparagus translucently white, others prefer crunchy and green. Whatever your choice, it takes lightness of touch to reveal the delicate flavour.

  • Must We Lose Our Temples of Travel?

    You embarked in Paris or Vienna and alighted at Sirkeci station, an Oriental fantasy in the shadow of the Topkapı Palace. This was the train that brought Istanbul into the heart of modern Europe: the fabled Orient Express.

  • By Horse Through the Volcanic Valleys

    Cappdocia, ‘Land of the Beautiful Horse’, was once famous for the fine steeds that bore its valiant knights. Few horses are left, but they can still transport you into another world. The photographer Jürgen Frank captures the eerie magic of the Anatolian plateau, Susan Wirth is exhilarated by five days in the saddle and David Barchard guides us through the epic landscape.

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Issue 35, 2006 Istanbul Elegy
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