Not Constantinople: 9 Misconceptions About Istanbul, Turkey

Misconceptions about Istanbul and Turkey
The country of Turkey has been getting a lot of bad press this year, due to the tragic disappearance and murder of American Sarai Sierra in Istanbul, and the suicide bombing at the U.S. Consulate in Turkish capital city Ankara, which was quickly linked to a Marxist group protesting the Turkish position on the war in Syria (a Turkish security guard was killed, no Americans were harmed). Both events are scary and horrible, but their discussion in the news highlighted a lot of ignorance and hate about Turkey and against Muslim countries, women and solo travel.

As a as a female traveler, mother and former Istanbul expat, Sierra’s disappearance especially resonated with me and many of my friends. I arrived in Istanbul for a visit the day her body was discovered, and the Turkish and American press were full of rumors and speculation for weeks following, with no real evidence or leads at solving her case. Several fellow expats – all women who have spent plenty of time solo in Turkey – have responded with their feelings about being female in Istanbul, writing about relative safety in America vs. Turkey, the greater issues of domestic violence and sex trafficking and the risks all women of the world face. We feel disturbed that such a thing could happen in a place we feel safer in than many other world cities, defensive about our adopted country, its people and their faith, and disappointed in the misinformation and bigotry about Turkey and the Muslim world.

If you have reservations about travel in Turkey, alone, as a woman or both, please look beyond the hateful and incorrect comments to the many people who have happily traveled and lived in Istanbul and Turkey. In case you read no further than this paragraph, I will say that in my three years in Istanbul, I never felt unsafe, harassed or threatened, and in traveling in 13 countries with my baby, Turkey remains to me the most child-friendly in the world.Based on what I’ve read in online discussions, and have heard from friends, these are the common misconceptions about Turkey:

1. Turkey is part of the Middle East – Geographers may quibble, given Turkey’s borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran, but it also borders EU members Bulgaria and Greece, as well as Central Asian countries of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, so it could claim membership in several regions. Politically, many of the people of Turkey would rather align themselves with Europe, and they have been bidding to get into the European Union since 1987. Better to say it is part of the Muslim world (which includes counties in Asia and Africa) than to lump it in with the Middle East.

2. The women all wear burqas – A little background: when Mustafa Kemal (aka Atatürk, the most recognizable man in the country, whose face you’ll see in every Turkish business and on the money) founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, he made it a strictly secular state. One of his reforms was to ban religious headgear from state universities and public buildings. This is now being contested as a point of religious freedom, but in essence, Turkish women are not required to cover their bodies or hair, and many dress the same as women in the U.S. or Europe. You will see some women who wear a headscarf and long jacket, but you will also see women uncovered, even dressed immodestly. After “East meets West,” one of the biggest cliches in Istanbul travel writing is to mention the contrast of “miniskirts and minarets.” Often, the women you might see on the streets in Istanbul wearing a full black hijab or burqa are Arab tourists, or immigrants from the East. The headwear law also applies to the fez hat, so that red tasseled hat you bought at the Grand Bazaar would actually really offend the founder of modern Turkey.

3. You can’t drink alcohol, find pork or eat during Ramadan – In addition to being a secular country (there is no official religion, and the 99% Islamic demographic includes the many non-practicing Turks who might only culturally identify as Muslim), Turkey is very liberal and lenient. While the country has many observant Muslims who do not drink alcohol or eat pork, there are plenty of others who enjoy their Efes beer and a pizza with prosciutto. I’ve heard the explanation from many Turks that the Koran doesn’t say not to drink alcohol at all, but rather not to become intoxicated (though you’ll see plenty of drunkenness around Taksim on a Saturday night). I’d rather not try to dissect or debate religious doctrine, so just know that Istanbul has a thriving nightlife scene, and while alcohol is becoming more expensive due to increased taxes, it’s readily available. Turkey even produces many beers, wines and liquors, like the anise-flavored raki, also known as “lion’s milk”, of varying quality and price points. Pork is harder to come by, but you will find it in many larger supermarkets and some upscale restaurants, usually at a high premium. I’ve found fewer Turks who eat pork than drink alcohol, mostly because they haven’t grown up eating it, but they won’t begrudge you a bacon craving. Finally, if you are visiting during the Ramadan holiday, you’ll find it mostly business as usual in Istanbul and other major tourist areas, and unlike other Muslim countries, foreigners are not expected to fast and are often invited to share in the nightly iftar feasts.

4. It’s a hot, desert climate and everyone rides a camel – Possibly due to the Middle East connection, people seem to imagine Turkey as a desert with hot weather and no change in seasons. Istanbul is actually on the same latitude as Chicago and New York City, with similar weather patterns; winters are cold, even snowy, and summers are humid. The country has nearly every type of climate, and there are many bodies of water around and throughout, including the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Seas (and the Bosphorus Strait, dividing Europe and Asia, of course). Not sure where the camel idea came from, likely the same misguided idea that it’s a desert country in the Middle East, but I’ve yet to see any camels in Istanbul. You might find them as strictly-tourist photo ops in Cappadocia, or even camel-wrestling matches on the Aegean coast, but you aren’t likely to see any ambling down Istiklal Caddesi.

5. The food is spicy – Possibly all those pictures of colorful saffron piles at the Spice Market (actually called the Egyptian Bazaar) have given many the impression that Turkish food is very hot and spicy. While there are many varieties of dishes, and some can pack quite a punch, most of the popular foods are rather mild: roasted lamb or beef kebabs, kofte meatballs, grilled fish, manti ravioli and the many varieties of pizza-like fast foods like pide, lahmacun and the like. Compared to the hot spices of Morocco or Southeast Asia, Turkish cuisine is downright cool, but still totally delicious.

6. Men have harems – Assuming that Muslim men have many wives is about as offensive as assuming Mormons all live like the TV show “Big Love.” Again, you can thank Atatürk for making polygamy illegal back in 1926, and it’s a jailable offense. While it’s possible that you might find a few rogue polygamists living out in the far east of the country, the only harem you’ll find in Istanbul is at Topkapi Palace – which has been a museum for nearly 100 years. Turkey has come a long way from the days of the Ottoman Empire, and likes to distance itself from the old ways of the sultans. Women are highly respected in Turkey, and afforded all the rights and privileges of “Western” women.

7. They speak Arabic – In case the above points haven’t made it clear, Turkey is a country of Turks, not Arabs, and the language is also distinct. With a few additions and subtractions, Turkish has a Latin alphabet, thanks to yet another Atatürk reform (see why they love him?), and while it has some “loanwords” from Arabic (it also has many from French, Persian and English), it’s closer linguistically to Mongolian, Korean and Japanese. The concept of vowel harmony and subject-object-verb grammar have confounded many new speakers like myself, but you’ll have a much easier time reading Turkish than Arabic. At the airport, will you hail a taksi or a تاكسي?

8. It’s a war zone – Turkey has had a few small-scale bombings in the past decade, which are scarily detailed on the U.S. State Department’s page on security threats. This has resulted in increased security in large hotels, malls, museums and office buildings, and it’s common (if a bit jarring) to see metal detectors and car trunks checked on entry in such public spaces. All that said, you aren’t going to see tanks rolling through Istanbul, and you aren’t likely to be in danger unless you are in the far east of the country. How about their neighbors in conflict? Turkey is a huge country, slightly larger than Texas, and Istanbul itself is closer geographically to Athens, Milan, and Zurich than it is to Tehran, and over 500 miles from Syria. The possibility of terrorist attacks are, unfortunately, a part of life no matter where you are, and Istanbul is as safe as any major world city (and with lower street crime than most other European capitals). In many ways, I feel safer in Istanbul than New York.

9. They hate Americans – Despite the above mentioned security threats and February’s embassy bombing in Ankara, the U.S. State Department does not warn against general travel to Turkey, and Turkey is considered an important ally of the United States. You are advised to “stay current with media coverage of local events and be aware of their surroundings at all times” in Turkey, as with anywhere in the world. Turkey does not condone the actions of Al-Qaeda or any other terrorist organizations. On a micro level, you will rarely encounter anti-American sentiment in Turkey, and you will find most Turks to be friendly, helpful and big fans of American culture (“Mad Men” and “How I Met Your Mother” are quite popular).

Of course, it’s impossible to make blanket statements about any one culture or country, and many of the current events and issues happening in Turkey are beyond the scope of a travel blog, but we hope more Americans will discover what a safe, modern and hospitable country Turkey is and plan a trip there themselves (Turkish Airlines is one of the world’s best airlines and has some great deals this spring).

Any other myths or generalizations you’ve heard about Turkey? We’d love to set you straight! Share your experiences traveling in Turkey with us.

[Photo credit: Flickr user James Cridland]

Gallipoli battlefield being mapped by GPS

Gallipoli
Archaeologists in Turkey are making a detailed survey of the famous World War One battle of Gallipoli. Using period military maps and GPS technology, they’re mapping the old trenches and redoubts used by both sides.

Gallipoli was the scene of fierce fighting starting in 1915. A peninsula with highlands dominating the Dardanelles strait linking the Black and the Aegean seas, it guarded the western approach to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, now Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire was on Germany’s side during World War One and the British Empire’s high command believed an attack on Gallipoli would be the first step to knocking the Ottomans out of the war.

They were wrong. The Ottoman Empire, long dismissed “the sick man of Europe”, put up a determined resistance and the British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, and French troops got stuck on the beaches as Ottoman troops pummeled them from the highlands. After nine bloody months, the allies sailed away.

The international team of Turkish, Australian, and New Zealand archaeologists and historians have discovered large numbers of artifacts from the battle and are busy working out a complete map of the complicated network of trenches, many of which can still be clearly seen today.

The battle started 25 April 1915, and this date is marked as ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand. ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, who did some of the toughest fighting in the campaign. Many people in both of these countries feel the soldiers’ efforts proved the worth of the two young nations.

Last year archaeologists discovered the HMS Lewis and a barge sunk off the shore.

Knocked up abroad: foreign baby names in a foreign country

foreign baby namesJust arrived? Read more about pregnancy in a foreign country, Turkish prenatal care, travel in the first trimester, and Turkish superstitions on Knocked up abroad.

“Whatever you do, if it’s a girl, don’t call her Natasha,” was the first bit of advice a Turkish friend gave me about having a baby in Istanbul. While a common and inoffensive name in the US and Russia, in Turkey and many other European countries, Natasha doesn’t have the best connotation. It tends to be slang for, well, a certain kind of professional woman from Eastern Europe, or just a gold-digger; not things with which you want your baby to be associated. Naming a baby is always a difficult decision, but when you live a place where local names sound foreign to you, your own country’s names become foreign names as well.

Since the beginning of my pregnancy abroad, I’ve been certain I wanted to learn the baby’s gender as soon as I could, feeling that enough things were a mystery when having a baby in a foreign country and I didn’t need to add to them. My husband and each of our mothers disagreed, feeling a surprise is nicer, but suddenly my husband came home from work having changed his mind. He explained that he could never get the Turks to understand why he’d want it to be a surprise and try to tell him that he could find out nowadays. “But you know they can tell now? They can see in the ultrasound,” they’d say, perplexed. This is a similar reaction to my questions about cloth diapers or natural childbirth. There’s a newer and better way, they argue, so why wouldn’t we want that?While my husband and I are both American, we initially considered a name to reflect our baby’s Turkish birthplace. We loved Sofia, for Hagia Sofia, and it works with many languages and pronunciations. Unfortunately, we aren’t the only ones: Sophia/Sofia is now the most popular baby girl name in the US, meaning that in 2016, kindergartens will be full of Sofias. While we are also big fans of Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, the names Mustafa and Kemal just wouldn’t go over so well in America as they do here. Perhaps Constantine for a boy, in honor of one of the city’s former names? The one season I watched of American Idol with the smarmy contestant Constantine Maroulis ruined that name for me, and I couldn’t deal with a boy nicknamed Connie. Maybe something to reflect our neighborhood of Nişantaşı, but spelling and pronunciation would be tricky in English.

The Turkish alphabet is mostly similar to English (thanks to Ataturk!), with a few notable exceptions. The letter C is pronounced as a J, so the Turkish name Cam is actually more like Jam, but if you add a tail under it, it becomes a “ch” sound. English amight have the “ch” and “sh” sounds, but our keyboards don’t have Ç or Ş. The Turkish alphabet lacks X and substitutes it with “ks,” familiar if you’ve taken a taksi to Taksim Square. There are two forms of I: with the dot sounds like “ee” and without the dot is “eh” or “uh.” Then there’s the tricky Ğ, which has no sound at all, except elongating the vowel before it, often making it a “ya.” Hence the former royal residence and now luxury hotel Çırağan Palace is pronounced “Chuh-ran.” Let’s not forget the pesky umlauts that sometimes accompany O and U, and mean that months after moving here, taxi drivers still don’t know what I’m asking when I say Ortaköy. I won’t even get into vowel harmony, which often changes a letter’s pronunciation entirely, but otherwise Turkish is relatively phonetic.

Language lesson over, there are many names which just don’t translate culturally. The best example is the Turkish boy’s name Ufuk, which sounds perfectly respectable in Turkish, but not so nice in English. Kıvanç is a popular name that sounds nice in Turkish but to English ears “kuh-wanch” sounds like a polite euphemism for a rude body part. Berk is common enough here, but say the name to a Brit and learn what it’s slang for in the UK (idiot is the nicer way to say it).Americans would also snicker at Tuba, Voltan, and Fatih, while Turks would think Adam (meaning man), Dennis (sea, spelled Deniz) Dana (veal or calf), or Erik (plum) are a bit silly. An American/Turkish couple I know have named their son Aslan, which means lion in Turkish and sounds cool in either language but I hope he’s called Lan for short on visits to the US.

Going back to the Natasha problem; after a few months, my Leningrad-born-but-US-naturalized husband decided he wanted a Russian name and only a Russian name for the baby. I immediately nixed names like Svetlana, Vladimir and Olga, giving elaborate descriptions of the sour-faced old Russian masseuses I associated the names with (apologies to any Svetas, Vlads or Olgas reading this, I’m sure you are lovely people).My husband speaks fluent Russian whereas I only know a few basics and curse words, so anything I can’t even pronounce like Nadezhda (long form for Nadia) is out. Nikita is a cool name and while it’s for a boy, the movies and tv shows La Femme Nikita have permanently associated it as a feminine name. Ditto for Sasha, actually a diminutive for Alexander, but better known now as one of the first daughters. I began to call the baby Rasputin partially to mock my husband until it started to actually seem like a viable choice.

In case you wondered, we did finally see our baby’s gender and it turns out we are having a Natasha, er, a girl. I’ve been leafing through the book Russian Fairy Tales as a source if I want to name the baby after a swan maiden or bear hunter’s wife. I imagine we’ll continue to argue about her name until she is born, so if you have good ideas for Russian girls names, I’m open to suggestions. If you want to learn more Russian, Turkish, or other foreign names, check out HearNames.com. Each listing has an audio sample as well if you are still wondering how to say Ufuk without getting slapped.

Image from Cafe Press Turk Onesie store.

Stay tuned for more Knocked up Abroad.

Knocked up abroad: getting pregnant in a foreign country

pregnant in a foreign country My first clue that something was different came when I woke up one night on vacation in Kiev at 3am, proceeded to eat 3 slices of toast with caviar spread, went back to bed and woke up a few hours later wondering if they made blueberry muffins in Ukraine (tragicially, they do not). That “time of the month” hadn’t happened but flying tends to always mess with your body, so I didn’t give it much of a thought. Since moving to Istanbul from New York in May 2010 for a work project, my husband and I take frequent trips around Eastern Europe (see my Weekending posts) and that week we spent exploring Kiev and Warsaw while Turkey celebrated Kurban Bayramı (the Muslim festival of sacrifice).

When we arrived back home in Istanbul a few days later, I dug out the Turkish pregnancy test I had purchased a few months earlier after a previous false alarm. Though the instructions were in Turkish, peeing on a stick is fairly universal, and the “POZITIF” results were hard to misinterpret. Excited and nervous to be pregnant in a foreign country, my husband and I wondered what a mountain of paperwork we’d have to provide U.S. Customs in 9 months, what the medical system in Istanbul would be like, and if we could get away with having a baby in Turkey not named in some way for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of modern Turkey and namesake for millions of Turks. Being pregnant in a foreign country is the ultimate way of “going native,” the most “authentic” travel experience you can have. It’s also challenging, sometimes scary, and limits where you can travel, but can be a great way to discover a culture, their hospitality, and traditions.Once I confirmed that I was in fact hamile with bebek, I noticed how child-friendly Turkey is, though not without challenges for the expecting expat. I could only find one English-language pregnancy book (co-written by Oprah’s fave, Dr. Oz, who is of Turkish descent), I’ve heard C-sections are pushed on many women as the only option for childbirth, and I’ve found maternity clothes are mostly limited to childish t-shirts and denim overalls. Turkey’s also a dream for the pregnant traveler: fresh fruit juice is cheap and easy to find at most cafes, vaccinations aren’t needed to visit, and Turks treat pregnant women with the utmost respect and care.

Having a baby, especially a first, in a foreign country isn’t for everyone. My family and support system is far away and I don’t know where to go for things I can find easily in my hometown. My doctor speaks excellent English but many of the nurses and hospital staff do not, and my Turkish is hardly fluent enough to cover every situation. Though the cost of domestic help is low, I’m not sure I want a lady with whom I can’t fully communicate telling me how to raise a baby.

Pregnancy also changes how you look at travel, both where you go and how you do it. I’ve been fortunate not to have morning sickness, but I’m just as at risk for disease as other pregnant women and have to weigh the risks of visiting countries with suggested vaccinations or food- and water-borne illnesses. Growing a baby is tiring work, and it’s hard to reconcile my usual travel self (lots of walking, few breaks) with my pregnant self (tired and hungry almost all the time). The best part about pregnancy travel is learning how each culture values pregnant women and mothers, hearing childbirth experiences from locals and foreigners, and seeing how kind strangers really can be. And all the food cravings help you discover the local cuisine, too.

Stay tuned for more on pregnancy travel, including Turkish superstitions and customs, the lowdown on prenatal medical care in Istanbul, where to travel in each trimester, what to eat when pregnant abroad, and more on having a baby in a foreign country. Check here for further updates.