3 August 2012: The Idle Ethnographer goes to Turkey
One Friday morning, on 3 August 2012, the Idle Ethnographer was piled into her parents’ car, still asleep, and driven to Turkey. It must be mentioned , to avoid confusion, that my home town is only 100 miles away from the Northern Turkish border. It must also be mentioned that this post uncomfortably discusses national identity without being sufficiently reflexive or politically correct about it. It is merely a transcript of my travel scribbled on bits of paper in the car that day.
On the Bulgarian border, there are no notices in Turkish. On the Turkish border, there are no notices in Bulgarian or English. There is no visible toilet in the large concrete hall of the customs but there is a mosque room. Only one window serves car passengers and coach groups. We end up at the wrong window (the only one with a European sign) and by the time the officer says “Elena? Pasaport? Pecat giris? Polis pecat?”, a coachload of Russian tourists are already queuing in front of the passport control. I notice at least 10 visible portraits of Ataturk and one metal facemask. I don’t know whether that is mandatory, or whether it shows genuine respect to this controversial historical figure. Or maybe defiance. I realise I know far, far too little about Turkish history, politics and culture. It somehow feels that I – and all my compatriots – ought to know more and fear less.
While waiting in the long queue, I get impatient and post a suggestion into the dusty suggestions and comments box: make two separate windows for coaches and cars, write signs in Bulgarian, English, French. Dad sniggers at my sudden civic participation spree and says that during the Liberation (end of 19th Century) Bulgarin chieftains (“voevodes”) wrote letters in blood, and 50 years later Bulgarian attorneys already wrote in shit. I merely write in sweat. 9 am is already too hot. The new road into Turkey – to which we finally manage to get after 1h of waiting – is imposing in the perfection of its alphalt and its complete emptiness. Taking about Turkey is a good example of the impossibility of objective opinion. Being from BG, even after spending 6 years in the UK, I can’t testify about the exoticity of Turkey. Knowing that Europeans find turkey exotic no longer shocks me – but I can’t understand that sentiment. All my eyes tell me when I’m in Turkey are direct, irresistible comparisons to BG. I’m not the only one of my family who feels that. My father voices our inescapably nationalised point of view: “these fields used to be Bulgarian a hundred years ago. The sound of lunchtime prayer is disturbing. The ubiquity of white crescents on red flags feels unnerving”. Soon after that trip, I read an article in which a Bulgarian journalist said she always had an uncontrollable ghost of fear when she heard moslem prayer or saw a mosque. I wish I didn’t know what she meant.
The rest of this small family trip was spent avoiding the the 40’C heat and sauntering around the streets of Edirne (which in Bulgarian we call Odrin, thought we speak Russian in our family and we should, really, call it “Edirne” because that’s the name in Russian and contemporary Turkish), watching beautiful old mosques and parks, buying cheap shoes and souveniers in a cool closed bazaar, drinking delicious spring water, beer in the slightly less scorching shadows of parks, and eating huge peaches, beef tomatoes and cold watermelon. The fear I described in the previous paragraph is a strange sensation. It is there, and I wish it weren’t, but it is, even though all the people we meet or see are friendly and unthreatening. Yes, Turkish men stare at you (woman) a bit more than Bulgarian and much more than men in the UK do – yet their gazes are less intrusive than those of men in Tunis, about which my mother and I reminisce as we sit in the shade. In 1998 we visited the port of Sfax, Tunis and made the mistake of wearing white bermuda shorts while strolling around the local market with father and my then very young sister. My mother and I (then 17 years old) both got tomatoes thrown at us and our two pairs of white shorts had to be bleached to regain their white colour. The next days we both wore long summer skirts which attracted just as many gazes, but no more tomatoes. This visit to neighbouring Turkey was different, and yet it brought back the memory.
What is different for me: after spending 6 years in the UK, to my eye this north-western European Turkish city and my home Bulgaria seem much more alike than different. The differences between everyday practices, urban spaces, gestures, behaviours in the two countries are obvious, but seem slight and intricate. My family didn’t agree. People here are nice. My family did agree.
We end up talking in sign language with a few Bulgarian and Turkish words thrown in with a very friendly guy near the station. Later we will post him his portrait.
Categories: The Idle Ethnographer