Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the cockpit of a subway in the Marmaray Tunnel (Source:

Thanks to Caroline for asking about this topic.

Traveling between Istanbul’s European and Asian sides can be a real pain. More Istanbulites live on the Asian side, but the main commercial areas of the city are on the European side, which means a lot of people cross the Bosphorus Strait every day. However, there are only three bridges crossing the Bosphorus, which means they are clogged with bumper-to-bumper traffic most hours of the week. Because of this, many transcontinental commuters use ferries, but this is a relatively inefficient way of traveling.

To make things easier for Istanbul residents, PM Erdoğan began an ambitious project called the Marmaray Tüneli, a subway tunnel that would run under the Bosphorus and connect the two sides of the city by rail for the first time. The Marmaray Tüneli has been a long, difficult, and expensive task for the Turkish government, but Erdoğan has stressed the importance of its completion, emphasizing its symbolic value. He sees it as an especially valuable connection between the two continents, saying it will someday serve as a link between London and Beijing.

Erdoğan claims that his inspiration to build the tunnel came from Sultan Abdulcemid, who wished to build a tunnel underneath the Bosphorus 150 years ago, but couldn’t because technology was inadequate.

Erdoğan conducted the subway’s first test run on Republic Day, the day that Turkey celebrates its founding as a new, non-Ottoman nation. Because he presented the project as a way to fulfill the dream of an Ottoman Sultan, many Turks found saw the timing of this ceremony as a strong political statement.



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?


Photo of the Week: İSTİKLAL CADDESİ

İstiklal (Independence) Avenue


I know I mentioned İstiklal Avenue in a previous post, but I thought it deserved a second mention and a better photo.

İstiklal Caddesi is one of the most popular streets in Istanbul. It’s in the Beyoğlu neighborhood (several miles away from my house), connecting to Taksim Square at one end. For the most part, it’s a pedestrian-only street – the only vehicles traveling up and down İstiklal are the historic tramway (in the picture) and police or municipal service vehicles. It’s just under a mile long and serves as the center of a network of narrow, winding cobblestone streets full of businesses, historical sites, and apartments.

İstiklal is usually covered by extremely dense foot traffic from about 9am-2am. During the day, people visit its museums, art galleries, boutiques, sweet shops, clothing stores, international consulates, cafés, historical churches, mosques, movie theaters, and restaurants. By the late evening, many of the shops close down while the bars and nightclubs open.

The nightlife on İstiklal is characterized by excess and diversity. There are hundreds of bars and clubs on İstiklal, many of which feature live music of most styles imaginable until about 4 am. On any given night, a person would have no trouble finding electronic dance music, Turkish folk, Turkish oldies, Turkish rock, and heavy metal, to name a few. However, finding the ideal place to hang out can be challenging because many businesses lack signs and can only be accessed by entering an unmarked door and ascending several flights of spiral stairs. This is also part of İstiklal’s charm.

İstiklal avenue also features lots of beautiful architecture, mostly Ottoman, but international influences are evident in places like churches and its numerous international consulates (French, Russian, English, Greek, Dutch, and Swedish). Other “international influences” on İstiklal include branches of multinational companies like Starbucks, Burger King, KFC, and Levi’s.


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.


Republic Day Fireworks

As Xander has pointed out, the iPhone 4S is terrible at taking photographs of light sources, so this Photo of the week is not my own.

Tuesday was Cumhuriyet Bayramı, Turkey’s independence day. It marks the anniversary of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s declaration of the new Republic of Turkey in 1923.

Cumhuriyet Bayramı is an official national holiday, which means I didn’t have to go to school.  Knowing all of the colorful (and sometimes ironic) ways in which Americans express patriotism on the Fourth of July, I was curious to see how Turkey’s largest city celebrates this important occasion, so I spent the day meandering around the city.

My first stop was İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) near Taksim Square/Gezi Park. This is a pedestrian-only street that serves as the center of Istanbul’s shopping and nightlife. To my surprise, some of it was closed, barricaded by dozens of police officers at either end. They wore armor and carried shields, batons, and rifles (a common sight near Gezi Park). I grabbed a cup of tea near one of these assemblies and watched as waves of young protestors marched through, carrying Turkish flags and Atatürk portraits and shouting the mantra of this summer’s Gezi Park protests:

Her yer Taksim! Her yer direniş!
Everywhere is Taksim! Everywhere is resistance!

I didn’t witness any serious confrontations; the police sternly admonished protestors who were wandering into forbidden areas, but there was no use of weapons and no need for shields.

Afterward, I took a ferry to the Asian side of the Bosphorus, where I met some French friends who told me about some communist protests occurring there. While I missed the march itself, I saw communist and socialist banners, and lots of policemen.

The most common political expression, however, was simply one of Turkish patriotism. I must have seen two hundred Bayrakçı (flag sellers) and I wouldn’t dare estimate the number of Turkish flags I saw printed on t-shirts, hanging from windows, covering skyscrapers, and being worn as capes.

My friends and I caught the next ferry back to Europe, picked up some tea and a small box of Istanbul’s best baklava and went to a waterfront park to watch the fireworks. Our view was roughly the same as the one in the picture. The fireworks began on the Bosphorus bridge (left of the frame above) and continued on the Asian side. Most of the fireworks were red and white. Near the end of the show, they even managed to create stars, crescents, and the work TÜRKİYE out of fireworks.

Accented by the reflection on the Bosphorus and the energy of the locals around us, this was undoubtedly the most elaborate and beautiful fireworks show I’ve ever seen.

Cumhuriyet Bayramı was a peaceful day full of different expressions of what it means to be Turkish. Members of almost every political sect waved the same flag, but they each interpreted its meaning in different ways. Watching the fireworks, I thought about how communists, Gezi Park protestors, Islamists, and secularists were probably enjoying the same fireworks show. For me, it was an occasion to reflect on the meaning of national identity and the use of national symbols. It challenged my narrow view of a flag as a static icon that represents a fixed set of values that only belong to some of a nation’s citizens.



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!


Turkish/Kurdish Breakfast, Tea


Breakfast in the Hasanpaşa Kervansaray (General Hasan Caravan Fortress), Diyarbakır

Sorry about the quality of this photo of the week. I took it while very hungry and anxiously anticipating eating the pictured meal.

The Turkish word for breakfast is kahvaltı, which literally means “before coffee.” Despite this, I rarely see Turks drinking coffee after breakfast. This may come as a surprise considering the famousness of “Turkish coffee” in the Western world. While Turks do indeed drink Turkish coffee on occasion, they much prefer çay (tea – pronounced the same as “chai”), which they drink during all waking hours. One day during my trip to Turkish Kurdistan, I decided to count how many cups of tea I drank. The number was 12, and I had turned down no fewer than four.

Çay, unless otherwise specified, is a strong black tea that comes from the Black Sea region of Turkey. It’s served strong with a couple of sugar cubes on the side – sweeten to taste, but don’t even think about adding milk. The typical vessel for çay is a small, tulip-shaped glass with a saucer.

Fun fact: Per capita, Turks drink more tea than people in China, England, India, or Japan.

Breakfast is a huge deal in both Turkish and Kurdish cultures. There’s no arguing that it’s the most important meal of the day here. It’s also a trademark of Turkish and Kurdish hospitality; hosts always serve breakfast to overnight guests. (I was even served koç yumurtası last week, without warning. Feel free to look it up.) At home, breakfast is served on the floor atop a special “breakfast rug.”

The general theme of breakfast is very similar all across Turkey, but some ingredients – mostly fruits and vegetables – vary depending on the season and location.  A standard Turkish breakfast consists of:

  • bread
  • jam (flavors like rose, sour cherry, and apricot are popular)
  • a hard-boiled egg
  • green olives
  • fresh vegetables: tomatoes and cucumbers, maybe spinach
  • beyaz peynir (“white cheese,” similar to feta, but softer and less sharp)
  • çay

Lyla and the class vegetarians – afiyet olsun (bon appétit)!

Our Kurdish breakfast at the Kervansaray was essentially a Turkish breakfast of monstrous size and quantity. I contained the following (from left to right, as if you were reading a book):


Soft eggplant sauce, crushed hot red peppers with oil, potatoes, seasoned fried eggs with beef, beyaz peynir with thyme, börek (a Turkish pastry with a beyaz peynir filling), cooked eggplant, tahini with honey, crumbly and sharp beyaz peynir, baked bell pepper sauce, sautéd  bell pepper, super salty Diyarbakır-style beyaz peynir, fresh spinach with lemon, local-style black olives, fresh and peeled tomatoes, fresh cucumber, beyaz peynir #4, beyaz peynir #5 (strikingly reminiscent of string cheese, but less labor-intensive), local-style green olives, yogurt with pomegranate preserves and seeds, çay, banana with oranges and oats, honey and kaymak (sweet, buttery Turkish cream), fresh bread

I’m a tad embarrassed to admit that my two companions and I nearly finished this breakfast.

How do these breakfasts sound to you? Do you normally eat breakfast? I certainly hope so. Any favorite Portland brunch spots or dishes?