Cité-seeing in Edirne

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.

In 2011 the Idle Ethnographer wrote about MilanEdirne 2012 (photos: Idle Ethnographer) IMG_9576 IMG_9591 IMG_9604 IMG_9610 IMG_9612 IMG_9613 IMG_9614 IMG_9623 IMG_9629 IMG_9631 IMG_9633 IMG_9639 IMG_9641 IMG_9642 IMG_9647 IMG_9662 IMG_9669 IMG_9679 IMG_9680 IMG_9699 IMG_9712 IMG_9720 IMG_9767 IMG_9768 IMG_9770 IMG_9771 IMG_9772 IMG_9774 IMG_9783 IMG_9788 IMG_9791 IMG_9821 IMG_9832

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3 replies »

  1. I really didn’t get the point of that essay… Whilst you say Bulgaria and Turkey were administered under the same country almost a century ago, you are so shocked to see there are many similarities? Plus, are you generally holding a ‘fear’ towards foreign countries or is it special to Muslim ones?

    and ‘people here are nice’, can’t believe that sentence, seriously… in which parts of the world you think people are not nice? and in what way are you surprised that you had thought Edirne locals wouldn’t have been nice. Geez!

  2. Hi gunes,

    Thank you for reading. I’m grateful for your comment because it voices important problems, not just with the essay, but with the effects of history education on Bulgarian national identity. I was very uncomfortable writing and posting it, that’s why it waited in my folders for a whole year. It is very uncomfortable to admit that you were raised and educated so very “blind”, racist, intolerant and irrational – but unfortunately this is exactly how it is and I’m trying to come to terms with it. To answer your questions:
    -yes, I, and many people I know, hold a general fear against one particular foreign and muslim country, i.e. Turkey. By extension, other muslim countries as well. I’m really not making this up, and I’m really not proud of it, either.
    -the “people are nice” phrase was deliberately simple and sarcastic, it was actually a quote from what someone from my family said during that trip. Listen to the unsaid stuff in that sentence: yes, it’s hard to believe people in country X are just like you, if you’ve rarely had any contact with them, if you’ve spent (like my parents) all your life being immersed in tacit or open anti-X sentiments, everywhere you go, everything you read, anyone you speak to.

    When I went to school, in the 1980s and 1990s, we were taught about the “500 years of Turkish Yoke”. My head is filled with dates, events, and names belonging to a national liberation narrative. It was terribly, terribly biased. At some point the textbooks were rewritten to say “Ottoman presence” and then “Ottoman Rule” which is a more balanced term. The thing is, it’s not even just the fault of history classes: the whole national culture is built around the notion that the Liberation (1879) was the just culmination of a 5-century-long black and white struggle between an oppressed Bulgarian “people” and a horrible empire. (do you sense the bitter irony in what i’m saying?)
    The main dichotomy which is so present it’s invisible is “us” versus “them”: the nice and oppressed “us” are Bulgarian, Christian and the scary “they” are Turkish, Muslim.

    I don’t know what nationality you are – but you clearly aren’t Bulgarian. You saw and voiced tacit problems, taken for granted and very difficult to even see by me or other Bulgarians. You said “administered in the same country” – this is a good way of putting it – but you’d get into a row with many otherwise smart and/or educated people, in many places in my country, if you said this aloud in a conversation. This brief note (I hesitate to call it an essay) is a very tentative attempt to at least notice and admit these things, to myself. As a sociologist who does not directly deal with issues of “race”, ethnicity and nationalism, I know too little about these topics both theoretically, and in my own life. I decided to post this unedited in the end, hoping to get some reactions, because I had written it honestly – even though I do agree that it is very unsociological. If anything, it is autoethnographic. It is far more toned down than the stuff I’ve heard in interviews and the stuff I hear every day when I talk to friends and relatives “back home” in Bulgaria. This is how we are – most of us, in general. The reason why nationalism and neonazism are taking root in Eastern Europe, and in Bulgaria in particular, is that sentiments like the ones I wrote in the essay lay unreflected.

  3. Hi Milena,
    I’m a Brazilian student living here in İstanbul- Turkey and ı’m currently studying sociology at the University of İstanbul. I enjoyed reading your essay. I really understand a lot of that you have said in your replay to Gunes. I’ve been learning Ottoman history and as a result ı know a lot about the happenings of the Liberation in Bulgaria. I’ve been to Edirne many times as ı have close turkish friends that live there, also two years ago ı have been to Burgas in Bulgaria. I could, such as you, see many similarities between Bulgaria and Turkey. First of all ı could grasp the geographical similarities and as a second and closer grasp, ı could see the similarities between the culture. I had made some Bulgarian friends over there and we talked quite a lot about Bulgaria and Turkey and just as you say while speaking ı could grasp their ” ghost fear”. I also agree with you that this fear is probably the result of the politics that were applied after the Liberation times until today’s time. My Bulgarian friends were reallly surprised when ı was telling them about the similarities of the food culture of Turkey and Bulgaria. I though was surprised to them not knowing this before. I know the two countries are different in many ways but they share a long-history together and ı believe that it creates bonds that a short-period of time can’t erase. I hope that one day Turkey and Bulgaria come to understand their cultural bonds and learn to understand their history in a more brotherly way. I still new to sociological thinking and also ı still learning about Turkey’s history and also the history of the countries around. I don’t have the background yet to do strong statments about these countries, but ı hope that with my simple english and my newly knowledge ı could state my thoughts clearly to you. I really enjoyed to read something about our old Edirne : ) Thank you!

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