Photo of the week: Viking graffiti at the Hagia Sophia


This week’s Photo of the Week isn’t very pretty, considering that it comes from the Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia was built as a Christian cathedral in 537, under the Byzantine Empire when Istanbul was Constantinople. In the 15th Century, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and changed its name to Istanbul. They were completely blown away by the Hagia Sophia because of its commanding architecture and outstanding artistic features. Its dome is gigantic and the stonework and layout was like nothing before it. Despite the fact that it was built for a different religion, they kept it around because they couldn’t imagine the city without it. However, since the Ottomans were Muslims, they converted it into a mosque.

This conversion required a few things, including:

  • Covering up the mosaics. The Hagia Sophia had mosaics that represented Jesus, Mary, disciples, and other popular figures in Christian art. Although these people appear in the Qur’an also, Islam forbids any art that represents humans. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, even artistic representations of the prophet Mohammed are forbidden.
  • The addition of a mihrab. When Muslims pray, they must face Mecca, a city in Saudia Arabia that hosts the holiest mosque in Islam. All other mosques have a decorative area against or carved into a wall in the mosque, which faces Mecca. This is called a mihrab. Needless to say, the cathedral lacked a mihrab.
  • The addition of minarets. Minarets are the pointy towers around mosques. They act as an elevated place from which imams (Islamic priests) can broadcast the call to prayer. The Hagia Sophia now has some of the tallest minarets in the world.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey decided the Hagia Sophia should no longer be a cathedral or a mosque, but rather a museum. This is the way travelers from around the world see it nowadays.

I encourage you to read more about the Hagia Sophia. Here’s a nice, succinct history of it.

Anyway, while it was still under the Byzantine Empire, the Vikings sacked Constantinople. In the process, some punk Viking named Halvdan scratched his name into the marble of the Hagia Sophia. Normally I’d find something like this shameful, but it fits in nicely with the dynamic history of the Hagia Sophia, which has taken on a little character from every major group of people that’s stumbled upon it.



Turkish pop music

Sorry for the delay this week. I’ve been looking for a Turkish friend with a middle school sibling I can interview and write about on this blog. My original plans fell through, and I had a bunch of tests this week, so it’s taken me a little while. Today is Thanksgiving. I was surprised as anyone to find out that Turks do not, in fact, celebrate the Mayflower’s arrival at the shores of Massachusetts, but in an act of solidarity with my family and friends in America, I’m playing hookey today.

The weather got bitter cold today and the forecast is predicting snow. I’m looking forward to being in a snow-covered Istanbul. I feel like Topkapı Palace will look especially grand in the winter. If it does snow, I’ll make sure to get some pictures for you.

This is nearly my last post! After this one, I’ll be posting about my interview with a middle schooler, and then the next one won’t happen until after we’ve met in person (probably in February).  I’ll be sad to not be in regular contact with all of you, but I’m thrilled for the opportunity to see you all when I return.

On last week’s comments

Reading your comments, I was so gratified to see that my post challenged the way many of you think about headscarves. Since it was relatively recently that I stopped understanding them in an oversimplified way, it is obvious that your comments show that you are thinking in a way that is far beyond your age. There’s a stereotype about Americans being Islamophobic that I often encounter. While it’s an unfortunate and inaccurate way to characterize the huge and diverse population of America, the fact remains that Islamophobia is a big problem in the US. It makes me hopeful to read comments from middle schoolers who are fighting this problem by simply not making negative assumptions about people based on their religion.

Ms. Kelly added a lot to the conversation in her comment last week. I added bold to some sentences that especially stood out to me:

In 2010 Oregon lifted its ban on teachers wearing religious clothing at school. In 2013, Quebec bans public sector workers from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols in public. Are you aware that some Orthodox Christians also wear scarves, long sleeves and long skirts for the purpose of modesty. Islam does not make Afghanistan more oppressive; the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam in Afghanistan makes the country more so.

What I really love about teaching is the different cultures that are represented in the public schools. I have taught several female Muslim students who wear their headscarves, because they follow the principles of Islam, and also have fathers who want them to be engineers and astronauts. I have three friends who converted to Islam, who choose to wear their headscarves. They are strong females who husbands treat them as equals. This is a complicated issue.

The preserving of individuals freedoms, should be what is first and foremost. I hope that people understand this: Every woman who wears a hijab is not persecuted; and not every woman who wears a hijab is free.

I found it interesting that many of you thought America was doing a poor job of preserving freedom of religious expression. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I wonder what sorts of events or policies have given you that impression.

I had never heard of the book Molly mentioned, Does my Head Look Big in This?, but it looks like an interesting first-hand account of what it’s like to be a teenager wearing a headscarf in a predominantly non-Muslim society.

Turkish pop music

I haven’t talked much, if at all, about pop culture in Turkey. In today’s post, I’d like to show you a little bit about modern music in Turkey.

American pop music seems to be popular all over the world, so my trip to Turkey hasn’t provided an escape from Taylor Swift, Robin Thicke, or Lady Gaga. However, the music scene in Istanbul offers a great deal more than just DJs or cover bands playing American music, though those are around too.

The music I hear most often in Turkey is Turkish Top 40 – a collection of the most popular Turkish pop music. Though I’m not well-versed in these artists or songs, I can’t leave my house without hearing the same familiar tunes.

Aşk Yok Olmaktır is the number one song in Turkey right now. I’ve never chosen to listen to it, but it’s often stuck in my head because I hear it everywhere. When you listen to it, you’ll notice the tune and singing style is different than American music, but it still fits into the modern pop genre. Turkey has a long heritage of combining elements of Turkish folk music with European and American rock/pop music. One of the oldest examples of this is a genre called “Anatolian rock,” an unmistakable style which was born in the 1960s.

Erkin Koray is the so-called king of Anatolian Rock. His music is equally inspired by psychedelic rock of the time (from the US and UK) and Turkish folk music. Many young people still listen to music by Erkin Koray and other Anatolian Rock artists of the time. There are lots of bars around Taksim dedicated to this kind of music, but they still consider it “oldies,” the same way we’d regard The Beatles or the Beach Boys. I think Erkin Koray’s pretty neat.

Like all pop music, most of the themes in Turkish pop music revolve around love or dancing or partying, but some music takes more political angles. During the Taksim protests, more music was written that reflected the ideals of the young activists: more personal liberties, less religion in government, and more involvement from the citizens in the political process. A Turkish rock band, Duman (meaning ‘smoke’), recorded a song that became the unofficial anthem of the Taksim protests. The lyrics are written as a sarcastic “cheers” or expression of thanks to the Turkish government and police, who attacked protesters with pepper gas, batons, and other forms of brutality. The title of the song, Eyvallah, means ‘thank you.’ The translation below isn’t totally accurate, but the words still reflect a popular sentiment among many Turkish citizens during the protests.

There’s a whole lot of music that’s completely free of modern or European/American influences that, surprisingly for me, is extremely popular among young people. Around Taksim, which is a haven for people in their late teens and twenties, there is a strong presence of especially Turkish, Balkan, Kurdish, and Gypsy folk music. Upon my first visit to İstiklal Avenue at night, I was struck by how connected young people were to centuries-old music of their different heritages. It seems Turks in our generations are just as likely to learn how to play bağlama (a plucked string istrument), clarinet, kemançe (a type of Turkish/Persian violin)or tulum (Turkish bagpipes) as they are to learn how to play guitar. Here’s a group of young people performing Turkish folk music on authentic instruments on İstiklal. The quality of the video isn’t great, but this is something you can see on İstiklal any night of the week: young people playing folk music while passersby sing along, do folk dances, and maybe toss a couple liras in an open instrument case.

It made me think of young people in America. What are our folk traditions? How do we connect to our past, or do we even do this through music?

For me, these are hard questions to answer. Sometime in the more recent part of my 22 years of existence, I’ve noticed young people becoming increasingly interested in bluegrass and other forms of traditional American music, but I feel like it’s a larger part of the youth experience in Turkey.


The headscarf and women’s rights


On last week’s comments

(Spam and bacon aside,) Your comments on last week’s post were very thoughtful. Many of you asked about the traditional division between East and West, wondering how it can be explained geographically. The answer is: it can’t. The cardinal directions – North, South, East, and West – are helpful for knowing where we are and how to get to the next place. However, the Earth is round; when we divide it up vertically, we have to choose what goes where. That is to say, the Prime Meridian is made up (but the Equator is real because it’s the exact halfway point between the Poles), but even the Prime Meridian places the U.S. in the Western Hemisphere and Germany in the Eastern Hemisphere. The Prime Meridian, then, does not help us understand these old definitions.

Consider Australia, whose population is mostly white, English-speaking, and Christian. Australia is considered to be a Western country despite the fact that most of its landmass is directly south of China, which is a classically Eastern country. I hope this helps illustrate that these labels are culturally-determined and have little, perhaps nothing to do with geography.

You also had a lot of comments about Turkey’s attempts to join the EU. Most of you supported Turkey’s membership because you felt that the EU’s reasons for rejecting Turkey were invalid. For the most part, I happen to feel the same way, but there’s a complex web of (mainly economic) factors in this decision that I can’t pretend to understand thoroughly, so I didn’t include them in last week’s post. This is a good time for a reminder that I am no expert on these matters.

The headscarf

Today’s post topic gives us an opportunity to combine a lot of things we’ve learned about Turkey’s history, culture, politics, and religion. It’s also a relevant way to introduce the topic of gender equality in Turkey, something you’ve asked about in comments.

First, I’d like to clarify what the headscarf is exactly. The simple answer is that it’s a garment commonly worn by Muslim women. In the Qur’an, Mohammed asks women and men to be highly modest in the way they dress and behave. Though he does not actually command women to wear a headscarf (or similar piece of clothing), he stresses the importance of hijab which literally means “barrier” or “partition.” This word has since taken on a broader meaning; Muslims use the term hijab to refer to a general way of being modest. It is interpreted differently in different parts of the world.

A few types of headscarves (note: the names vary depending on region and language)


Not all Muslim women believe the headscarf is a necessary part of Qur’anic modesty. A recent study showed that about 62% of Turkish women wear a headscarf, but as we know, Turkey’s population is much more than 62% Muslim. Of course, there are a lot of reasons why women wear – or don’t wear – the headscarf. It should come as no surprise that Turkey’s dramatic political history has influenced the wearing of headscarves.

The headscarf and women’s rights

Shortly after the Republic was founded, women were discouraged from wearing the headscarf. In fact, they were prohibited from wearing it while working in public positions as lawyers, teachers, or members of government. Apart from this, women could wear headscarves in public, though the new Republic’s spirit of secularism made it so they sometimes faced discrimination; for example, some employers were less likely to hire “headscarf women.” Many argue this still happens today.

The wolf prohibits the headscarfed Little Red Riding Hood from entering his forst.

The wolf prohibits Little Red Riding Hood from entering his forest because she is wearing a headscarf.

The reason headscarves were banned at all is that Atatürk believed religion shouldn’t play a role in public life. He thought that, if women wore Islamic attire in governmental positions, it would represent a dangerous integration of religion into political affairs or public education.

In the 1980s, the government passed a more restrictive ban on the headscarf, which prohibited university students from wearing headscarves. This ban wasn’t consistently enforced though; sometimes women were able to wear headscarves to class, sometimes not. Women were able to get away with wearing a headscarf, but they often had to hide it in ridiculous ways or simply enroll in a more headscarf-tolerant university. Here’s how the Turkish Review explains it:

The actual implementation of the ban was left to the discretion of the universities themselves, resulting in the emergence of various ways to get around the ban on the part of the students, including transferring to a different university, wearing an obvious wig on top of the headscarf (or more simply, wearing a hat) and taking examinations without coming to school.

My own university, Boğaziçi, has alternated between allowing and prohibiting the headscarf. In 2008, a time when there was no official ban on the headscarf, Boğaziçi’s director of the department of education (where students study to become teachers) imposed the ban on his own students, saying “I’m the boss here . . . If you’re going to come to class wearing a headscarf, then change departments!” Many female students, both headscarf-wearing and non-headscarf-wearing, organized protests against this policy. Now, there is no ban against headscarves at Boğaziçi.

When I asked some of my female classmates about their opinions on headscarves, I found out they are generally opposed to any sort of ban. My friend Elif is very liberal and a non-Muslim. She argues that the headscarf ban is oppressive not only to Muslims, but to women in general. She and many other Turkish women feel that the decision of whether to wear a headscarf should be a personal matter, not a political one. Although women and men are officially considered equal by Turkish law, many Turkish feminists believe that the problem with headscarf bans is that they represent authority of men over women.

Although she doesn’t wear a headscarf, Elif also mentioned that some non-Muslim feminists have donned headscarves as a protest against headscarf bans. This came as a huge surprise to me. It reminded me of the way I used to think about headscarf-wearing women when I was younger. I thought the headscarf was a symbol of oppression against Muslim women. It didn’t even occur to me that they might prefer to wear it, and I certainly would’ve never thought of it as a statement for women’s rights. But when she told this, all of a sudden it made a lot of sense. As a non-Muslim and non-female (or male, for short), I will probably never understand all of the reasons why a woman would prefer to wear headscarf. Clearly my old assumptions about it were wrong, and I’m sure I still don’t understand what goes into the decision of whether to wear a headscarf, so it would be wrong of me to judge them.

On the other side of the spectrum from Turkey are countries like Afghanistan, where women are (unofficially) required to wear the burqa (see the slideshow above for an illustration), a type of hijab that covers the entire face and body. While this clearly oppresses women’s rights, I’m sure that even if Afghanistan imposed a ban against head coverings, some Afghan women would still prefer to wear the burqa. Because of this, I would argue that any type of law targeting headscarves creates a problem for individual rights and gender equality.

Female politicians wearing headscarves in the Turkish Parliament for the first time in many decades

Female politicians wearing headscarves in the Turkish Parliament for the first time in many decades

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (remember, last name: EHR-doh-wahn) repealed the law against women wearing headscarves in public offices just a few weeks ago. This infuriated some of the nation’s secularists, who feel that this is the next step in Erdoğan’s plot to undo make Turkey an Islamic state. But many Turks feel like this is a step toward improved gender equality, even if it the decision was inspired by Erdoğan’s Islamic leanings. News headlines did a nice job of illustrating different ways to interpret this event:

Turks applaud Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s easing of headscarf ban (Financial Times)

Turkey’s headscarf ban lifted in assault on the secular state (The Times)

The headscarf issue is no doubt a complicated one, especially for people like us who aren’t very accustomed to Islamic culture. However, I believe it’s also part of a more relatable issue of individual rights, freedom of religious expression, and gender equality. What do you think? What has your reaction been when you see women wearing different types hijab? Do you believe America is doing a good job of preserving individual rights?


The East, The West, Turkey, and the European Union

shamsara20130302081413327 It’s been a busy week, gang. I’ve been to several concerts, had a lot of tea, studied a good bit, learned a little Turkish, and had several bars of  pistachio-laden chocolate since we last talked. I hope your Fall is going well. The weather here is suspiciously mild; it’s been weeks since I’ve needed to wear any layers beyond my wool plaid shirt (which is good, since it’s like the only warm thing I brought). I recently found myself missing the Oregon fall/winter, but I concluded that it wasn’t for the weather itself, but because cold and wet means egg nog, whose Turkish counterpart sahlep – a thick, almost gummy drink made with hot milk, sugar, cinnamon, and orchid root – doesn’t quite fill the void. Oh well, Roma’daysan, Romalılar gibi davran (when in Rome…).

On last week’s comments

Thanks for all your comments on last week’s post! I’ve decided to respond to some of the recurring questions and remarks from the comments.

  • In the seventeen comments, there were fifteen instances of the word “bacon,” which I found quite charming. Allow me to shed some light on Turkey’s virtually non-existent bacon scene. The Koran features dietary laws which explicitly prohibit the consumption of pork. Practicing Muslims, then, do not eat pork, or other foods that are not considered halal (“lawful”),  similar to how practicing Jews refrain from eating food that is not kosher. Because Turkey’s government is secular, non-halal food is officially legal. However, since there is virtually no demand from the majority-Muslim population for pork, I have never seen it, though I have heard it can be purchased at certain boutique meat shops for a very high price. PS, I hope these references to meat aren’t bothering the vegetarians. Differences in cuisine constitute an important part of the intercultural experience, and since Turkey’s cuisine is largely meat-based, it would be unnatural to avoid the topic. And yes, they do eat turkey in Turkey. (PS Nice SPAM avatar, Anders).
  • PM Erdoğan has not practiced active discrimination against non-Muslim citizens.
  • Shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex is far from taboo; in fact, it’s perfectly normal in Turkey. However, many highly orthodox Muslims follow Mohammed’s commandment against touching members of the opposite sex (except for spouses and members of one’s immediate family). Boğaziçi University is quite liberal, secular, and Western, so the Turks I meet at school are rarely this conservative.
  • Nothing really changes during the ezan (call to prayer). People tend to pray at home, in mosques, or in a mescit, a room designed for prayer at a non-religious establishment like a gas station, airport, or restaurant. Additionally, the ezan isn’t an urgent demand for prayer, but a reminder that faithful Muslims should pray during that time of day.
  • Molly made a comment I would like to repost. Her question is rhetorical, and I wouldn’t attempt to answer it anyway, but it’s thought-provoking and a very worthwhile contribution to our discussion of religion in public life.

“The question is, it it worse to (for example) have no headscarves allowed or to be forced to wear headscarves? Many countries have the second issue, which is related to a bunch of other problems. As you said, both can be oppressive. Different countries have different values and ideals for what the country should be like, and Turkey’s is very different from America’s, at least when we’re talking about “separation of church and state.”

Thinking about ‘East’ vs. ‘West’

Note: I make use of the adjective ‘objective’ in this post. In case you don’t know the word already (I didn’t at your age), here is the definition, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s a good word to know, as is its antonym, ‘subjective.’

objective: Of a person or his or her judgement: not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts; impartial, detached.

As you know, Turkey is a transcontinental country (and Istanbul is the world’s only naturally transcontinental city), so some of it is geographically Asian and some is geographically European. This fact has led to Turkey’s famous international reputation as both a literal and symbolic bridge between ‘East’ and ‘West.’ While this is an attractive way to think about a place as complex and beautiful as Turkey, it requires dividing the world into two opposite parts, which creates an artificial and unnecessary division between people and cultures.

View of Asian side of Istanbul (western edge of Asia Minor) on my walk to school

View of Asian side of Istanbul on my walk to school

The idea of cultures being ‘Eastern’ or ‘Western’  is difficult, perhaps impossible, to understand in an objective way. There are a few reasons for this. One important reason is that these terms were founded mostly by European and American scholars who, upon encountering foreign cultures, saw the other people as fundamentally different, so they created a vocabulary they could use for separating “us” from “them.” They usually chose pairs of opposites like “Eastern/Western,” “uncivilized/civilized,” “savage/sophisticated,” and “exotic/familiar” to describe differences between European/American cultures and poorly-understood foreign cultures.

By using this prejudiced (and subjective) language for comparison, they were able to argue that some cultures were superior to others, something that would eventually justify large-scale oppression and war against “Eastern” peoples. Another reason I disagree with arranging the world into East and West is simple: humans are too complex to fit into only two cultural categories. Cultures are the result of a lot of different factors, including contact with other cultures, which is a driving force behind the amazing variety of unique cultures in the world. Turkey, of course, is a lovely example of a country whose diverse history has resulted in cultures that defy stereotypes of East and West, yet this way of thinking about the world still has real consequences for modern Turkey.

Turkey and the European Union

Map of the European Union (out of date - Croatia was admitted earlier this year)

Map of the European Union (out of date – Croatia was admitted earlier this year)


PM Erdoğan at the doorstep of a reluctant European Union

One of these consequences concerns Turkey’s effort to be a part of the European Union. The EU is composed of many classically Western nations, especially France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The requirements for being a member of the EU are many. In order to be a part of the EU, a country must meet a set of criteria concerning things like democracy, trade agreements, and human rights. However, a country must also be considered “European,” which is partly an objective geographical requirement and partly a more subjective cultural one. As we know, the Turkish Republic has been working to become more Western than its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire. Atatürk’s own definition of Western values acted as the foundation for his reforms and efforts to create a new Turkish identity. Turkey applied to become a member of the EU in 2005, but their request has not been granted. Why? This is a question that plagues the Turkish government and most of the population, who wish to be a part of the union for many reasons, including, for example:

  • economic benefits from improved trade relationships with EU member nations
  • economic benefits from switching to the Euro currency
  • the ability to travel freely to any EU nation
  • the social status of being a member of the EU

There are many reasons Turkey has been denied EU membership. First of all, there is a great deal of subjectivity in the approval process. The EU website states, “Any country that satisfies the conditions for membership can apply,” but it’s complicated, because one of the requirements is, “having the consent of the EU institutions and EU member states.”

This means that if the 26 EU countries can’t agree on whether you can be part of the club, then you’re not eligible. This has been a major problem for Turkey because major EU members have opposed their joining, sometimes with very vague geographic reasons like “Turkey is not part of Europe” (Germany) or, “Turkey is in Asia Minor.” To me, these aren’t valid reasons, considering (a) part of Turkey is in Europe, and (b) geography isn’t mentioned in the EU membership criteria. I would argue that these geographical arguments actually represent different reasons countries wish exclude Turkey from the EU.

There is also set of laws that any EU applicant nation must conform to before being considered. The laws range from human rights to media rights, trade policies, and international relations. Although Turkey has successfully conformed to many of these, there are a few thorny issues in the way, particularly regarding human and media rights.


On the human rights side, the EU wants Turkey to acknowledge what most Europeans and Americans refer to as The Armenian Genocide, but the tragic killing of roughly 1 million Armenians during the late Ottoman Empire. I may discuss this in an upcoming post. In short, the Turkish government acknowledges that these Armenians died, but they argue that it cannot be called a genocide based on how and why the Armenians died. This is an extremely sensitive subject in Turkey – and frankly something I don’t dare to bring up.


The EU also wants Turkey to abandon this law: “A person who publicly insults the Turkish nation, the State of the Republic of Turkey, or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, shall be punishable by imprisonment of between six months and two years.” This law completely disagrees with American and European understandings of freedom of expression.

Status of EU negotiations, March 2013

Status of EU negotiations, March 2013

Turkey’s relationship with the EU worsened after this summer’s Gezi Park protests because many European nations condemned Erdoğan’s aggressive response and use of police force.

But Turkey is still different from many EU nations in a geographical and demographic sense. Here are some ways that Turkey’s membership would change things in the EU:

  • It would be the only member country with the majority of its landmass in Asia.
  • It would be the second largest nation in the EU, after Germany, which means there would be a lot of Turkish representatives in the EU parliament.
  • It would be only member nation with a majority Muslim population. Currently, France has the highest percentage Muslim –  8-10% of its population. Remember Turkey’s population comprises about 97% Muslims.

Alright, I acknowledge that this has been a very long post, so thank you so much for bearing with me. These are important issues, though, both for the world and for us as individuals.


There has been a ton of information here, so please ask questions, and I’ll answer them in next week’s post. This week, I’d like you to think about notions of East and West. Do you feel like we can be objective when we divide the world this way? How might these notions affect Turkey’s relationship with the EU?



Religion in Turkey

I can’t believe we’ve already reached our sixth week of blogging! I’ve been learning so much from your thoughtful responses and questions. Again, I’m sorry I haven’t been able to respond to all of them, but you should know I have been anxiously anticipating reading them every week.

Leo and Caroline, excellent recordings! Your accents are really impressive for having little/no prior exposure to Turkish. Great work!

Yeni Cami (New Mosque), İstanbul

Yeni Cami (New Mosque), İstanbul

It’s hard to talk about architecture, cultural traditions, or history without discussing religion. In fact, I’ve brought up religion quite often in this blog, but I haven’t taken an opportunity to post about it in greater depth, so with this one, I’d like to offer some insight into religion in Turkey.

Religious Demographics

The overwhelming majority of the Turkish population is Muslim. Non-Turkish sources like the CIA Factbook claim that over 99% of the country is Muslim, whereas Turkish polls have that in 2007 roughly 97% of the Turks identified as Muslim, but to varying degrees of devoutness.

(Source: KONDA)

Self-definitions of religiousness in Islam among Turkish citizens (Source: KONDA, 2007)

A similar study in the U.S. found that roughly 76% of Americans identify as Christian, though there was no information as to their level of devoutness.

These studies tell us that the Turkish population is mostly Muslim to a greater extent than the American population is Christian. But as the chart above indicates, about 38% of the Turkish population do not fully adhere to Quranic rules (see this page for a simple overview of the 5 Pillars of Islam).

The non-believer category in the pie chart includes Turkey’s non-Muslim religious groups. Most non-Muslims in Turkey are Christians (mainly Armenian Orthodox with a very small number of Protestants and Catholics). There is also a Jewish population of about 20,000, and other religions are represented in very small numbers.

Christian monastery, Mardin

Assyrian Christian church, Mardin (Southeast Turkey)

Official status of religions in Turkey

Abdülcemid II, the last caliph of the Ottoman Empire. The caliph was regarded as the Empire's highest religious authority. The caliphate (tradition of caliphs) was abolished in 1924, shortly after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.

Abdülcemid II, the last caliph of the Ottoman Empire. The caliph was regarded as the Empire’s highest religious authority. The caliphate (tradition of caliphs) was abolished in 1924, shortly after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.

During the Ottoman Empire, Islam was the state’s official religion. This meant that Islam guided the legal system, and that non-Muslims had a different political status. It’s worth noting that the Ottomans were very tolerant of other religions, but they still required Jews and Christians to acknowledge that Muslims were superior and made them pay part of their earnings to Islam. Because the Ottoman Empire had conquered Christian-dominated areas like Greece and Armenia, the non-Muslim population was much greater than in the current Republic.

But as you know very well by now, one of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s main founding principles for the Republic of Turkey was one of secularism, so Islam ceased to be the official state religion shortly after 1923. This is when Atatürk instated the clothing reform that outlawed wearing religious attire in public, though this is no longer in effect. His goal was to reduce Islam’s presence in in public life as part of an effort to make the new Turkey distinct from the Ottoman Empire.

Atatürk was by no means anti-Muslim though; he still saw Islam as an important part of the Turkish identity, so he made sure that there was adequate funding available for maintaining Islamic traditions by creating a branch of the government for religious affairs. This branch, called the Diyanet, receives tax money and currently has a larger budget than most other divisions of the Turkish government. This means there is a closer relationship between church and state in Turkey than in the U.S., which does not have an official religious department. However, while the Turkish government distributes money to Islamic institutions, it does not employ Islamic law or give special status to Muslims over non-muslims.

It is easy to believe that the Diyanet is a huge branch of the Turkish government because there are so many active mosques all over the city of Istanbul, as well as everywhere else I’ve been so far. For example, as I’m writing this sitting in a neighborhood tea shop, I am within a half-mile radius of three mosques. Five times a day, I can hear the ezan (call to prayer) from each of these mosques. I was surprised to learn that the men performing the ezan are actually government employees.

Religion in Turkish culture

Something that immediately struck me as a difference between Turkish and American approaches to religion is how directly Turks speak about it. You’re probably aware of the time-honored American wisdom about not discussing religion or politics at the dinner table. I am too, but as a visitor in Turkey, I’ve had to forget about not talking about religion. When I applied for my residence permit, I had to fill a “religion” box. My Turkish friends have their religion listed on their IDs, and many people I’ve talked with here have asked me about my religion within minutes of meeting me. Learning to be comfortable in these conversations has been important for me to feel comfortable and function well in Turkish social situations. It’s also taught me a useful lesson about how taboos are different from culture to culture.

Some friends I made while biking up a very long and steep hill toward a Greek Monastery; Büyükada, Prince's Islands, İstanbul. They told me about their Muslim faith and asked me about religion before we had a chance to catch our breath. Religion seems to be a more public part of people's identities in Turkey, and people seem more comfortable discussing it.

Some friends I made while biking up a very long and steep hill toward a Greek Monastery; Büyükada, Prince’s Islands, İstanbul. They told me about their Muslim faith and asked me about religion before we had a chance to catch our breath. Religion seems to be a more public part of people’s identities in Turkey and people seem more comfortable discussing it.

There are lots of other ways in which Islam is visible in daily life here. Some are fairly simple; for instance, pork is forbidden in Islam, so it’s practically non-existent in Turkey, which means I’m probably not going to find bacon. I’ve also learned that many Muslim women do not shake hands with men (because Mohammed forbade touching members of the opposite sex unless they are your spouse or a member of your immediate family), so I’ve had to revise my habits of introduction.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Religion also lies at the heart of many political disagreements. Remember the Gezi Park protests? On the surface, the protests were against the demolition of the park, but they were also a reaction against the current government’s increasingly conservative Islamist policies. The current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has outlawed alcohol sales past 10 PM and has repealed some secularist reforms from the Atatürk era. Some citizens see these types of reforms as compromising the secular principles upon which Atatürk founded the republic. There is a tension now between the secularists (often referred to as Kemalists after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk) and supporters of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s party.

"Resign, Tayyip. -The Looters". PM Tayyip Erdoğan called the Gezi Park protestors "looters," a title the anti-government protestors adopted as their unofficial title. The protestors were fighting against the destruction of Gezi Park as well as Tayyip Erdoğan and his government's increasingly Islamist tendencies.

“Resign, Tayyip. -The Looters”. PM Tayyip Erdoğan called the Gezi Park protestors “looters,” a title the anti-government protestors adopted as their unofficial title. The protestors were fighting against the destruction of Gezi Park as well as R. Tayyip Erdoğan and his government’s increasingly Islamist tendencies.

Turkey is one of a small number of countries to have a primarily Muslim population, but a secular government. Many people I’ve spoken with here have voiced concern about the direction of their country, fearing that new policies from Erdoğan’s party (the AKP) might act as a slippery slope toward an Islamic Turkish government. However, Erdoğan was democratically elected and AKP supporters still form the majority here, so some suggest he represents the will of a new generation of Turks.

The topic of religion and state is a complicated one. As Americans, I think we find it easy to advocate complete separation of the two, but it is important to remember that an actively secularist government can be just as oppressive as a religious one. If there is a governmental solution for free and peaceful coexistence among religious majorities, minorities, and non-adherents, it is not a simple one.


The Turkish Language

Warning sign about falling rocks, Hasankeyf

Warning sign about falling rocks, Hasankeyf. Audio of me reading the sign.

You may recall from my first post that my primary goal for traveling to Turkey was to learn the Turkish language. At PSU, I was able to study Turkish for two years before moving here, so I had a basic knowledge of the language when I arrived. Being here has reminded me that there’s a huge difference between studying a language’s words and grammar and being able to use it “on the street,” but that both are necessary to achieve fluency. Applying my book knowledge of Turkish to daily situations like haggling for a pair of boots or trying to find a concert venue has required lots of creativity and willingness to look like a goofy foreigner.

However, this task has been at least as rewarding as it has been demanding. Istanbul hosts more tourists than most cities in the world, and only a tiny fraction of them know any Turkish. Because of this, when they see an obvious foreigner like me with intermediate Turkish abilities, they almost always react with exuberance. Knowing some Turkish has granted me access to a slightly different status than the average tourist, which, believe me, has saved me lots of money in addition to making my daily interactions more complex and meaningful.

In this post, I want to share a little bit about the Turkish language, as well as some bigger linguistic ideas that will give you an idea of what’s going on with the world’s languages.

Some important differences between English and Turkish

Studying Turkish as opposed to, say, Spanish, has a unique set of challenges for English speakers. For example, both Spanish and English have a ton of words that came from Latin, so if I don’t know how to say “allegation,” I know there’s a good chance I can pronounce the same word with Spanish phonetics – alegación – and it will work. On the other hand, Turkish is entirely unrelated to English, so I have to learn almost every word by memorization. There’s no way to guess that the same word translates in to Turkish as iddia – you just have to know.

Another big difference between Turkish and English is the order of words within sentences, known in linguistics as syntax.

Syntactically, English sentences use the order subject-verb-object (SVO):

The cat ate the food.
(S)          (V)         (O)

In Turkish, the order is subject-object-verb (SOV):

Kedi yemek yedi.
The cat food ate
(S)           (O)    (V)

This is simple enough in preschool-style sentences about our pets enjoying a nondescript meal, but unfortunately, life is more complicated than that, and word order can get challenging. Take the sign in the picture above, for instance.

Its most literal translation to English would be:

Attention! Above-from rock pieces-of fall-can and large rock masses-of move-can. Please rock bottom-of-to approach-don’t

It’s not so bad though! Learning a language takes a lot of work, but the process is so intellectually and socially rewarding that you hardly notice.

Turkish, Kurdish, and English: How are they related?

After my post about southeast Turkey, many of you asked if Kurdish and Turkish were similar at all. The short answer is no. But there’s a long answer, and it requires explaining the concept of language families:

All of the world’s languages came from one common language, which we know very little about. When groups of people moved to different parts of the world and became separated from one another, their languages developed in unique ways. The process repeated itself and more languages were created as people moved and created new communities.

Indo-European language family tree (source: Kurdish (omitted) is part of the Iranian subfamily.

Indo-European language family tree (source: Kurdish (omitted) is part of the Iranian subfamily.

Linguists represent this process by making family trees of languages. As you can see on the image on the right, English comes from a Germanic language, which comes from an ancestral language called Indo-European, which came from the world’s first language. The Indo-European family also includes Czech, Spanish, Russian, Persian (Farsi), and Hindi, to name a few.

Kurdish, perhaps surprisingly, also belongs to the Indo-European family. It is a close relative of Persian.

Turkish has a much different bloodline. It comes from an ancestral language called Turkic, which came from a language called Uralic, which came from the world’s first language. This is to say that Turkish and English, as well as Turkish and Kurdish, do not have a common ancestor except for the world’s first language.

Turkish and Kurdish, then, are just as unrelated as Turkish and English. In southeast Turkey, I found that I couldn’t converse with young children because they spoke Kurdish as their native language. Eventually, they will  become bilingual when they learn Turkish in school.

The Turkish alphabet

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk introducing the new Turkish alphabet, 1928.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk introducing the new Turkish alphabet, 1928.

You may remember from before that Turkish used to be written using the Arabic script, but it now uses letters from the Latin alphabet like English, with a couple modifications. Thankfully, this fairly new way of writing is highly phonetic, which means each letter only makes one sound.

This is what the alphabet looks like,

Aa Bb Cc Çç Dd Ee Ff Gg Ğğ Hh Iı İi Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Öö Oo Pp Rr Ss Şş Tt Uu Üü Vv Yy Zz

And this is what the alphabet sounds like.

Here’s a recording of me introducing myself. This is the text:

Merhaba. Benim adım Seth. İstanbul’da oturuyorum. En sevdiğim renk yeşil.

Hello. My name is Seth. I live in Istanbul. My favorite color is green.

My experience learning a foreign language

There’s an unfortunate stereotype that Americans are monolingual English speakers with little interest in other languages. While this isn’t true (it’s a stereotype after all), it also makes sense since in America, English is very isolated compared to Europe, where large language communities are densely concentrated next to each other. This means Americans are less often faced with other languages, so maybe we perceive less of a need to learn them. Of course, there is the exception of Spanish, whose speakers constitute a giant minority population in the US, but English-speaking Americans still lag far behind Europe in terms of bilingualism.

When people learn foreign languages, they reduce the distance between them and other cultures, allowing for greater understanding and tolerance, and who doesn’t want that? There are so many other reasons, too, like the fact that studying foreign languages is great intellectual exercise, or that being bilingual makes it easier to get jobs, or that people will give you discounts on Turkish delight because you speak some Turkish. The list goes on.

Metin and Uğur, confectioners, Istanbul.

Metin, Uğur, and their lokum (Turkish delight), Istanbul.

In the comments, feel free to ask questions and talk about your experience with foreign languages. Have you studied any? Did you grow up speaking a language other than English? What languages would you like to learn?

Bonus: If you make a recording of you introducing yourself in Turkish (like the one I made), it would make my week. Plus, I’ll bring you extra lokum in when I see you!

Türkiye’dekİ Kürtler

The Kurdish People of Turkey

Merhaba arkadaşlarım! 

(Hello friends!)

First off, please forgive me for not responding to your recent comments. I was without a computer for most of last week. My priority now is to keep up on the posts, so I’ll begin by doing that. You should know that I love your comments; your your impressive insight, humor, and criticism really enriches this blogging experience. Thanks!


My trip: İstanbul>Diyarbakır>Urfa>Batman/Hasankeyf>Mardin> Diyarbakır>İstanbul

Late last night, I returned from an incredible trip to Southeast Turkey. My roommate Ruşen was invited to play some concerts in the region and he invited me to tag along. It was a 2.5-hour plane ride from Istanbul to Diyarbakır. Traveling with Ruşen and me was an ethnomusicologist from Harvard, doing field research on Kurdish music.

When I arrived in Diyarbakır, my first impression was, “I’m definitely not in Istanbul anymore.” Duh, but the difference between the two places was immediately apparent. The weather was warmer and more arid. The people dressed differently. Many people spoke a different language. Much of the city was surrounded by a wide fortress wall made of black basalt. The architecture was older and the buildings were weathered.

Although I was still officially in Turkey, I had landed in a place most of the locals call Kurdistan. The majority of people in Diyarbakır, and indeed in much of southeast Turkey, are members of a distinct ethnic, cultural, and linguistic group known as Kurds. The Kurds had a tense relationship with the Ottoman Empire, but things really got difficult after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Republic of Turkey in 1923. As you may recall, one of the main goals of the new Republic was to establish a new sense of Turkishness, hence all of the reforms. By establishing and administering this national spirit, the Turkish government hoped to foster a more unified and socially homogeneous population.

But since most Kurds never identified as Ottomans or Turks in the first place, they resisted this process of Turkification. Aware of this fact, the government

Hasan Paşa Kervansarayı (caravan fortress), Diyarbakır

Hasan Paşa Kervansarayı (caravan fortress), Diyarbakır

passed a series of oppressive laws that prohibited the Kurdish language, changed the names of their cities, and even attempted to evacuate a Kurdish town. When the residents rebelled against the evacuation, the government engaged in a violent attack against the residents, killing thousands. Events like these eventually led to the founding of the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, which is actually an army. The PKK’s goal is to achieve a greater degree of independence, most radically in the form of a separate nation called Kurdistan, which would occupy parts of present-day Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Their methods have resulted in the deaths of numerous soldiers and civilians, leading many countries and organizations (including the U.S., Turkey, and the E.U.) to regard them as a terrorist group. Like most conflicts of this type, neither side is a pure protagonist or antagonist.

Although the Kurds are still experiencing oppression, the Turkish-Kurdish problem has slowly improved in the past few years and the PKK has agreed to a ceasefire. There is hope!

Kurdish Dengbêj singer, Diyarbakır

Much of what I learned about Kurdish culture was through the various musicians we met. After arriving in Diyarbakır, we visited the Kurdish cultural center where we met an elderly Kurdish man. He spoke Turkish with us for a few minutes before spontaneously performing dengbêj, a traditional Kurdish musical form wherein an unaccompanied singer tells a story through an improvised melody. Though I didn’t understand what he was singing, I could his song was full of joy and melancholy. I wondered how he practiced dengbêj in his younger years when Kurdish music was illegal. He clearly didn’t learn the art recently.

The amphitheater during sound check, near Urfa

The amphitheater during sound check, near Urfa. These children’s extended stares told me that the town didn’t see many blond-haired visitors.

After our afternoon in Diyarbakır, we went to a town near Urfa where Ruşen was to play bağlama  in a Kurdish music festival. The concert hosted a shocking percentage of this small town’s population. It was a spectacle of Kurdish pride, complete with Kurdistan flags, PKK banners, and traditional Kurdish clothes. Droves of Turkish police flanked the amphitheater; ambulances served as quiet warnings against upsetting them.



Our next stop was Batman, which turned out to be less superheroic and more of an an oil drilling town with a lot of cement buildings. We ate some kebap and headed for the nearby village of Hasankeyf, situated on the Tigris river.  This was a breathtaking ancient village that has been under the control of seven different empires. In a distant but unknown time, people lived in caves, thousands of which decorate the city’s cliffs.


Hasankeyf. Rumor has it, the prospective dam would raise the water level so high that the only thing you could see in the old city is the stork’s nest on top of the minaret (right).

Peaceful protestors in Hasankeyf

Kurdish protestors in Hasankeyf

We stuck around all afternoon and watched a small group of local Kurds march through the city. As it turns out, they were protesting a dam project downstream on the Tigris. If the government completes it, the water level in Hasankeyf will rise to cover nearly everything in the picture above. Turkey stands to make a lot of money from the dam, but it will destroy this stupendous piece of history, not to mention displace thousands of people, mainly Kurds, from their homes. As consolation, the government has already constructed apartment complexes uphill from the current village. We attended a discussion about the dam and a dengbêj performance that evening. During the concert, we drank tea and visited with a young Kurdish boy who said he would figure out how to live underwater so he could stay in Hasankeyf. There is still a chance that the dam project will be cancelled and the Hasankeyf residents won’t need to leave or grow gills.

İnşallah (God-willing), as they say.

Mardin. I stayed in one of those! (not my photo)

Mardin. I stayed in one of those! (not my photo)

The last part of our trip consisted of two nights in Mardin, a town near the Syrian border. Despite its proximity to a war zone, Mardin was safe, comfortable, and stunning. We spent our time wandering around the area visiting everything from silver shops to Assyrian monasteries and oasis-like outposts full of fig and pomegranate trees. On our last night, we went to a second-story bar in the old city. There, we found a handful of older Kurdish men drinking rakı (a Turkish black liquorice-esque spirit)  and eating meze (pita and plates of food intended for sharing). Ruşen and our host brought along their instruments and everyone sang Kurdish folk music Mardin. I stayed in one of those! (Source: Wikipedia) the kitchen ran out of provisions. I couldn’t sing along, but I was content to quietly soak up the ambience of age-old architecture and tradition. It was a peaceful occasion.

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The independent Kurdish sense of identity is still alive and well in southeast Turkey. I learned quickly to avoid referring to people and places as Turkish. I also learned some basic Kurdish phrases. These small gestures served as powerful tokens of friendship. In turn, the Kurds I encountered along the way were legendarily hospitable. They chauffeured us around, bought us meals, opened their homes to us, served us opulent breakfasts, and never let us go an hour without having a cup of tea.

Approaching foreign cultures with deference, humility, and curiosity seems to be an effective recipe for a valuable international experience. It’s a shame that pride and intolerance can so easily blind us to the beauty of cultural diversity.