A Big Lonely City, Families And The Politics Of The Veil

Blossoms, SultanhametYesterday began with the promise of being a truly awful day. After breakfast I stopped by my favorite free wireless cafe, ordered some Turkish Tea and proceeded to check my email. A guilt inducing letter from home arrived, like an unwanted party guest. At first I was angry–a luxury I can scarcely afford–but then that sinking feeling set in. I chewed over the letter for a while, asked myself what it was that made me angry and if the sender might perhaps be right? Of course before the calm of understanding settled upon me I had already composed several angry, accusatory replies, only to delete them all. In the end I settled on simplicity itself: honesty, honesty about myself and others. I was kind, but blunt, blunt without a hint of reciprocating guilt. I stated my case and ended the letter with words of hope, that the tone of the correspondence might resume in a spirit of understanding and love.

I pushed thoughts of home, false obligations, old guilts and habits away and walked out. A dull graying followed me all day. The Bosporus shone but I did not see. The Uskumru sandwich was tasteless. The mosaic museum held no joy–although it was a sight to see. The streets were crowded, the crowds brushing and bumping past in pressing anonymity raised the loneliness in me like yeast. Even the cat outside the museum seemed uninterested. Eating my midday meal Vedat, Fuat and Isak all tried to get me out of my shell. But the Turkish jokes fell short of their mark and they soon stopped. Besides, men instinctively know when to leave another man to stew.

I ate my meal in silence, the Safronlu Tavuk dull but filling, uploaded the museum photos, put the laptop away, paid the bill and left. It was 6:00 in the evening. On my way up the old hill of Sultanhamet I noticed for the first time that day just how wild the light was, settling on people and buildings like an blanket of amber honey, pulling the color from houses, faces and even the gray minarets high above the Blue Mosque. The acute pink blossoms fronting the Hagia Sophia sung out in the early evening.

A small park sits between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. In it are a dozen rows of wooden benches, populated with Turkish men sipping tea, young lovers exchanging kisses, old couples holding hands and an endless streaming of tourists moving back and forth between the two glaring sovereigns on the hill. I picked a bench and sat down and forced myself to see the beauty thrown out before me. I must have stared at the Blue Mosque for fifteen minutes, then turned around to stare at the Hagia Sophia.

Three young Turkish women approached me, all three veiled. “Hello,” the tall brown-eyed one said. “We’re students working on a project, can we ask you a few questions?” Sometime between Fuat’s and sitting down in the park my mood had lifted and I said, “sure.”

Hatice was tall, big brown eyes full of life and questions, wearing a long manteau draped over her frame and tight floral print silk scarf covering her head. Fatma was slight with elegant fingers and a hint of the steppes galloping about her eyes. Mervé had Galatian dancing across her pale blue eyes, pale skin and wide round face. They spoke in fluent, if tentative English. Hatice, an economics major, did most of the talking while Fatima (engineering) and Marvé (architecture) spoke in staccato bursts of Turkish to each other to better understand the nuances of what I was saying.

They were boilerplate questions, but I was happy to answer them all, hungry now for human contact. I do so love Istanbul, and they were surprised to hear me say so. Some how the conversation, like all conversations, turned to politics and religion. We cut straight to the heart of things. I believe it was Hatice who asked me what I thought of the ‘veil.’

“It’s your choice,” I replied. “If you want to wear it, no problem. If you do not, no problem,” I said, repeating a line I’ve used from India to Oman.

“But sometimes I have trouble,” she said. Mervé agreed. “Sometimes, at university, I don’t wear it,” implying that people made fun of her, or troubled her in some unspoken, or untranslatable way. This aroused in me a strange strong anger. “But it is your choice, no?” I asked, a touch of vehemence in my voice.

“Yes, it is but . . . ” she said. And the ‘but’ lingered in the air like a foul, human smell.

I realized sitting there that it’s not the veil which arouses such strong feelings in me, it’s the compulsion behind it. I told all three of them, “you know, my mother was a feminist.” All six eyebrows arched upwards in unison at this modern heresy but I continued. “She taught me that men and women are equal. Different in some ways but equal. This is why I do not like governments like Iran and many people from Arabia. They force women into slavery,” I said. I wasn’t in the mood to mince words and continued. “Women in Saudi Arabia cannot work, they cannot drive a car, they cannot vote and they cannot leave the home without a husband or a brother. This is wrong,” I said.

They all nodded their heads in unison and I plowed on, warming to the subject, but trying not to hector them.

“But here, in Turkey you are free. If you want to wear the hejab you can. If you do not then you don’t. But it is your choice. A woman’s choice. If a woman doesn’t want a career that is fine with me. There is no more difficult job in the whole entire world,” I formed a globe by waving my arms in the air, “than being a housewife.”

They all nodded in agreement.

“A mother is the first to wake up in the morning, get children up for school, wakes up lazy husband,” I added for humor. They smiled. “Then she cooks breakfast and lunch for husband and children, sends the children out and the husband to work. Then she cleans all day, buys food, arranges the home and then cooks for the children and waits for the husband. Sometimes she must heal her children–so she’s a doctor to–and she has to watch over their emotions, guarding them from the dangers of the world, helping them through their troubles–so now she is psychologist too–and only then is she the last to sleep,” I said, exhausted at the thought of all that endurance and work. “But this life should not be forced on any person. If you want a career,” I looked at Fatma who was smiling at Hatice, “then you should make one. And if you choose to wear the veil, why, who am I to tell you how you should honor Allah?”

“I wish the other girls and boys at the university thought as you do,” said Fatma. I sighed in understanding. Life is not easy for late teenagers anywhere (two were 19 and the other was just 20), the late spring of youth when a young woman is only beginning to understand what she can do, who she can be and what worlds she can create.

“So, what will you do with your architecture degree,” I asked Mervé? “When I complete my diploma I will work for big company of course, but I would like to return to Afyon and own my own business.”

“And you Hatice,” I asked?

“I think I would like to work for a bank. And visit America, of course,” she said with a wide grin, her almond eyes shining in the early evening sunset.

And you, Fatma, daughter of the Prophet,” I asked.

“I’ll be an engineer, but I don’t yet know what I will do. I am still young,” blushing at the compliment. For a moment a I sensed a wildness in her, a contained energy willing itself out. This one, I thought, will be someone, someday.

I smiled a contented smile. Not because I changed their minds. Or that they might or might not agree with me. Only that I was alive in the moment, hopefully being as good as an ambassador for my people as I could possibly be. These are the moments I cherish most, I thought, especially when the problems of home flee my head like bats tearing out of a cave at dusk.

Modernity is here in Turkey but it’s a decidedly Turkish one. That is as it should be. I should hope Turkey remains a secular state. And I do think it will. And yet, I am aware that Turkey arises from a Muslim tradition. And that, too, is as it should be. Europe and America both aspire to the morality of their Christian roots, although both fall far short. So what is wrong with Turkey aspiring to the morality of Islam? The very foundations of the religion are outward manifestations of social justice, as even the most cursory glances at the life of the Prophet will reveal. The zakat is a tithe, for those who are less fortunate than you. Ramadan is a reminder, at its heart, that there are hungry and needy people in the world and it is good to be reminded of their pangs. And the Haj? What could be more right for any man or woman than to be a pilgrim in the physical, mobile sense, or an inward, spiritual one?

I certainly don’t have any illusions that life is easy for Turkish women. And I don’t have any illusions that there hasn’t been over-religious regression in the last few years amidst an astonishing amount of material progress. When I first visited Turkey a dollar bought about 5,000,000 lira and you could be sure to add a new zero every few months. The cars were old and beat up. The buildings charming in their dilapidated condition but there was nary a skyscraper reaching towards the heavens. And now? All that has changed. It’s cleaner, better organized and the outward signs of wealth are everywhere. If you think about it it’s not terribly different from the over-religious regression but (phantom) improvement in material wealth in America over the last two decades?

Besides, I was lonely yesterday. A powerful, heavy loneliness. And the hopeful smiles and warm conversation I had in the dueling shadows of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia renewed and reinvigorated me.

It may not be perfect. But it’s real.

3 Responses to “A Big Lonely City, Families And The Politics Of The Veil”

  1. Chronicles Of The Return » Blog Archive » AKP And Stealth Islamism In Turkey

    [...] I was there in 2001 or even 2003 seeing a woman in Istanbul with a veil was unlikely. Not any more, as this link makes clear. This link is also indicative of how hard it is to come to grips with the [...]

  2. Chronicles Of The Return » Blog Archive » Orientalism In High Heels

    [...] nature: we see what we want to see. Take me for example: when I first discussed hejab in Turkey with three girls who were wearing it, I saw what I wanted to see. Only later would I learn that it was much, much more complicated than [...]

  3. Orientalism In High Heels « The Agonist

    [...] nature: we see what we want to see. Take me for example: when I first discussed hejab in Turkey with three girls who were wearing it, I saw what I wanted to see. Only later would I learn that it was much, much more complicated than [...]

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