EAST MEETS WEST

By Judith Baer '68

The kitchen light is burned out again. I can't change it myself, since it's on the ceiling, I have no ladder, and the table wobbles. I could call the housing director, who says she's available any time but always seems to be in a meeting when I call. None of her subordinates speaks English; Bogazici is an English-language university with respect to instruction, not administration.

My Turkish is not equal to this task. The student assistants do speak English, but, as usual, their office phone goes unanswered. So I walk the 100 meters-50 horizontal, 50 vertical-to my office building and find my assistant. She will telephone the housing office, give permission to enter my apartment and remind them not to double-lock the door and lock me out. If they do, I will have to climb the hill again and repeat the process. I remind myself to get home before 5 p.m., when the offices close. All day, the scold inside my head reminds me that 52 is perhaps not the best age to start living abroad, nor Turkey the best country.

Living abroad was something I always wanted to do, sometime. Every year I perused the Fulbright packet, gazed longingly at its menu of fellowships and put off applying for another year. The inner scold kept warning me that nobody would come looking for me. But in 1997, an Ankara friend of a New York friend approached me about a stint as a "roving lecturer" on religion and the U.S. Constitution. If I was interested, Fulbright would find a host university. If you're less adventurous and resilient at 52 than at 22, at least you know you don't have forever to do everything. I went.

The first hint of what culture shock might mean in concrete terms came when I saw the ashtray on my coffee table. In a country where most people smoke, it's as ordinary a household item as the double-boiler for making tea. I knew I wouldn't have a dryer-I bought a clothesline-but I swallowed hard when I saw the hand-held shower. My first act on the Bogazici campus was to lock myself, my assistant, the department chair and the associate director of the Istanbul Fulbright office in my apartment with my defective key. Fortunately, the phone worked that day.

I knew my personality would be a less than ideal match with a developing country. I like things to work. Even at home, I am too quick to lose my temper when they don't. In Istanbul, where I lived, things do work more often than not. Turkey is speeding toward global capitalism, and Istanbul is the country's commercial center. The taxi you reserve for a 3 a.m. ride to the airport will arrive by 3:05. But the popular local saying that "Turkey is a man running west on a train heading east" expresses the tension between industrial, urban, secular Europe and traditional, rural, Islamist Asia. These co-exist in Istanbul, the world's only bi-continental city. I saw these contradictions in sharp relief the day a colleague found me thumbing through my pocket dictionary for a compliment for the exemplary department secretary, who'd performed yet another miracle. When I asked Ali the Turkish word for "efficient," he paused. "Etkili," he finally said. "But it's not a compliment."

Glitches
It isn't only culture that militates against modernization. Istanbul simply does not have enough space, enough water, enough power, enough transportation or enough resources for its 15 million inhabitants. The population grows by 500,000 a year, mostly migrants from the east. A local joke has it that no matter where you live and how you commute, it takes an hour to get to work. A heavy rain can overtax what locals call the "infrastructure;" mail, utilities, telephones and other public services go more or less to hell. However efficient and organized you are, there is a good chance that, somewhere between you and what you want to accomplish, some glitch will intervene. Improved efficiency and organization on your part will only increase your frustration and anger.

Turks are accustomed to standing in line to pay bills, having the telephone cut off because the company misplaced the invoice, and learning on Friday that the office will be painted the following Monday (the day I arrived). Not surprisingly, people often underestimate the amount of control they actually have over things. Personal convenience, yours or theirs, is not a high priority. Most Turks I met lived up to the cultural stereotype I picked up in my reading. Warm, friendly and hospitable, they would go to infinite lengths to help you out of a jam. But I often wished they were better at preventing jams in the first place. If they had just found a key that worked ...

I managed to turn Day 1 into a funny story. My self-control lasted until 2 a.m. on Day 4 (276 to go), when I found myself sobbing into the phone because I couldn't make the campus operator understand "international" and "credit card number." I lost my temper more than anyone should, enough to permanently alienate some people. But I didn't set a record for Most Obnoxious Foreign Visitor. Once classes started, I even stopped counting the days until I could go home. When that day came, I had not only survived, but, to coin a phrase, I had come out all right. If I left Turkey with a new, painful awareness of my character defects, I took home a new confidence that I could persevere in spite of them. I was glad to come home again, but I knew how privileged I had been to live and work in this extraordinary country.

'Clueless foreigner days'
It wasn't the differences they talked about at Fulbright orientation that bothered me most. It was the things I never imagined could be otherwise than the way they are at home-things your hosts don't tell you because they don't imagine it either. I had more than my share of what I called clueless foreigner days. Nobody told me you had to reserve a different classroom for a midterm exam, usually at a different time from the class meeting time. Nobody told me a holiday on October 29th means the university closes at noon on the 28th. Nobody told me that students routinely take courses that meet at the same time. Since the final exam schedule is keyed to the class schedule, just as it is in the U.S., students will have conflicts; therefore, you must prepare at least one make-up exam. Trivial? Well, try writing a test at the last minute and getting it duplicated while contending with a language barrier.

One cultural difference I did not expect was the conflict between Turkish and American notions of privacy and personal space. The day I walked into my office to find my computer-well, the university's computer in my office-in use, I was the only person surprised. The assistant dean had given some visitors permission to use it. My efforts to suppress my anger were good practice for the day I found students leafing through my grade records. The regulars in the faculty lunchroom peppered me with questions about my age, religion and family background. One colleague told me, "Turks don't mind personal questions." True; but like many people who must share tight spaces, they construct their own boundaries. If my hosts wondered why I never married, they never asked. And I cannot recall any conversations about such staples of American academic chitchat as divorce, infertility and psychotherapy.

Making an effort
I had to adjust to cultural differences, but I was not helpless before them. Within limits, I could choose what I would and would not accept. I put the double boiler to good use. American-style coffee is scarce and expensive in Turkey, so I switched to tea during my stay. But the ashtray went into a drawer the minute I was alone in the apartment and stayed there until just before I left for the airport. I cheerfully answered personal questions; I tolerated the loan of the computer; but I told my students that their reading my grade records violated my cultural norms of privacy and they must not do it again. Well, it was a human rights class, and we had discussed cultural relativism.

I found cultural similarities alongside the differences. Turks don't appreciate being yelled at any more than Americans do. But they do their share of yelling; rigid self-control is not the norm in Turkey. Instead of reacting to my outbursts with icy silence, my hosts responded in kind, which made me feel less like a spoiled brat. I discovered I had assets as well as liabilities. I joked that I studied Turkish because I was lousy at pantomime, but in fact my language skills helped compensate for my temper and impatience. My hosts, who were surprised that I learned any Turkish at all, realized I was making an effort. My Turkish class provided a welcome relief from those clueless foreigner days. For two evenings a week, I was the smartest kid in the class again-and mature enough not to gloat openly about it.

Cultural differences do not always work against the visitor, or in favor of one's home country. For the first time in almost 30 years of teaching, I gained a reputation for exceptional concern for students. How? I held regular office hours, telephoned students to arrange makeup examinations and alphabetized the students' papers before returning them. If I could have taught my hosts some easy ways to keep students happy, an incident during my first week on campus showed me that the Turks have valuable lessons to teach Westerners. I had retreated to the canteen to drink tea and read the International Herald Tribune. A little girl, about 8 or 9, sat down at the table and practiced her English by asking me questions. I was polite, but not pleased. It wasn't until I told the story to another American that I realized its implications. In Turkey's largest city, a child can safely approach a stranger and start a conversation!

I had come to a complex, changing country to lecture on a sensitive, controversial subject. "You see their intimidation," one professor told me after I spoke to a large group of students who had no questions. A young person who committed himself or herself on the religious issue risked offending either the secular academic elite or a growing populist movement of poor and devout Turks. The authority belongs to the professionals, but the votes belong to the women in headscarves who get off the buses each morning to go clean the rich people's houses.

Secularism
The essential starting point for understanding modern Turkey is with its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. (Whether or not American scholars accept the "great person" theory of history, Turkey definitely does.) American readers can get some notion of his influence by imagining that Washington, Jefferson and Madison were the same person and died only 60 years ago. Ataturk-the name, which he gave himself, means "father of the Turks"- regarded Islam as an obstacle to Westernization and modernization. He did not ban religion, but the 1923 constitution declares Turkey a secular state. The U.S. Constitution has a similar dichotomy, between the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment. But in the U.S., free exercise trumps official secularism; this is why we have military chaplains. In Turkey, secularism trumps religious freedom; this is why several women have been expelled from medical school for wearing headscarves.

Most Turkish intellectuals are second only to the military in their staunch defense of secularism against Islamism. Almost 99 percent of Turks are Muslims, but at Bogazici virtually no professors, and only a minority of students, were observant. Ramazan (the Turkish word for the month of fasting) passed unnoticed and unremarked, even though it coincided with fall semester finals. One of my exams was scheduled from 3-5 p.m., not the best time for someone fasting during daylight hours. At my home university, a Muslim student would ask to take the exam at a different time; if I refused permission, the administration would overrule me. But at Bogazici, no one said a word about it.

What surprised me most about Turkish intellectuals was the openly anti-religious remarks they made. They exhibited the attitudes that Stephen Carter attributes, I think wrongly, to American academics in The Culture of Disbelief. My colleagues associated orthodoxy with body odor on the bus, having more children than you can afford, and pocketing your scholarship stipend. These attitudes are, of course, similar to those some Americans have held about specific religious groups. But they would raise eyebrows in American universities. As I told one audience, "you say things like that only behind your locked office door and only in a whisper." Everyone laughed when an anthropologist remarked, "We have universities like that in Turkey, too." Those were not the universities which invited me to speak.

Religion and gender
Like Americans, Turks are constitutionalists. They have few qualms about thwarting electoral majorities to protect what they consider fundamental values. The headscarf issue was a no-brainer for both me and my hosts-but we came down on opposite sides. Women professionals, in particular, fear that permitting Islamic dress is the first step toward requiring it. Events in Iran and Afghanistan make their fear impossible to dismiss. But sometimes I was reminded of the recurring "Red Scares" the U.S. experienced during the Soviet era, and their devastating effects on American freedoms. I hope the Turks can learn a lesson from our history of over-reaction to threats, even though we have not learned it ourselves.

Religion, the subject of my lectures in Turkey, was closely linked with gender, the subject of my research at home. What surprised my colleagues most about me was that I was one of four children and my mother had been a full-time homemaker. Ataturk's ideas about sex roles were advanced even for Westerners in his time, and he had the political backing to implement them. Women got equal rights and equal education with men-which means that class, not gender, determines career opportunities. Although only 35% of Turkish women work outside the home, my colleagues were the second generation of women professionals in their families. Their mothers were judges, professors and physicians. Most women academics are, or were, married to a fellow professor and have one or two children. The "second shift," the unequal division of household labor that burdens women in the U.S., is equally a reality in Turkey-but no woman professional I met seemed ever to have doubted that she could have both a career and a family.

Capitalism train heads west
My Turkish friends fear religious fundamentalism. They see the train heading east, the train of a growing popular majority, as a threat to their way of life. But the Islamist movement is not the only force acting on Turkey. The train of global capitalism is heading west. When one of my listeners complained of long waits because bank tellers went home early during Ramazan, I recounted the fate of Sunday closing laws in the United States. "Capitalism will change that," I predicted. But economic development may change some aspects of Turkish society that nobody wants to change. Many experts believe that capitalism is a greater threat to Turkey than religious orthodoxy. Turkey is growing more modern and Western all the time. The entrepreneurial virtues of efficiency, planning and rationality are taking root. I have little doubt that in the next generation, "efficient" will be a compliment. But I wonder if the girl in the canteen will let her children talk to strangers.

Author's note: Bogazici University and the surrounding area escaped the worst impact of the massive earthquake which killed several thousand people and caused severe property damage in the Istanbul area on August 17, 1999. Although the families of many students, faculty, and staff members were affected, I am happy to report that the people I worked with are safe.

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