May 25, 2011

My trip into Turkey

Panorama view of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque from the rooftop terrace of Hotel Nomade

As I wrote the initial draft of this post, I was sitting on the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Nomade in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Turkey. How I got there is little short of amazing, considering that after two weeks the Hotel Nomade was the first hotel I paid for on the trip, and I had just eaten the first meal I've bought myself. I am now home and reflecting on the trip and its meaning for me.

In February, Megan asked if I wanted to go to Turkey. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a New Mexico state senator and a friend from our circles at the Newman Center Catholic community at UNM, was putting together a group of journalists to go to Turkey and learn more about the country and the activities of the Gülen movement. The Gülen Movement is an effort established by moderate Islamic religious leader and educator, Fethullah Gülen, to promote a moderate, Western-oriented Islam in Turkey, to increase understanding and dialogue between the West and Turkey, and to situate Turkey as the leading moderate Islamic country in the world. He emphasizes dialogue and education. The movement, depending on whom one speaks with, is respected and admired by many and has much political influence, though there are those that distrust its motives. The Turkish military is one institution that distrusts the movement, though I've read that the Turkish police are in favor of the movement. Like all governments, the Turkish government can lean one way or another in its regard of the Gülen movement depending on which way the political winds blow.

We met with Resul Aksoy three times over the next couple of months. He directs the activities of the Turquoise Council in Albuquerque and was to lead our trip. The council is in the process of establishing a Turkish-American community center in Albuquerque and is hoping that informative trips with politicians and journalists will help establish the center. Resul explained that the Turquoise Council, whose main office is in Houston, would pay all lodging and meals for the trip. I could tag along with Megan, as a representative of academia. We would pay for our plane flights. Megan was concerned about journalistic ethics and quid-pro-quo, but Resul insisted that nothing would be expected of her in terms of what she wrote. He laid out an ambitious itinerary, so Megan and I decided that we would tack on a few extra days in Istanbul to wind down and see things we missed. Our group coalesced and became the following: Donna Bruzzese, psychotherapist; Laura Bruzzese, clay artist; Arcie Chapa, filmmaker and host of the KUNM Call-in Show; Gwyneth Doland of KNME's New Mexico In Focus; Gene Grant of KNME's New Mexico In Focus; Sarah Gustavus, journalist with KUNM; Michael Hess, political scientist; Megan Kamerick, senior reporter with the New Mexico Business Weekly; and Jerry Ortiz y Pino, New Mexico state senator.

Hagia Sophia - cathedral and mosque

That was how, on May 12th, I ended up on a flight to Istanbul. Posts following this one will detail the particulars about the trip from my perspective. The remainder of this post will give you an idea of what I expected going to Turkey. The reality was definitely not something that I envisioned. I had a sense of the history of Turkey. For centuries, the land has served as the fertile field where home-grown kingdoms and empires, such as Troy, Lydia, the Hittite Kingdom and Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, have risen and fell. It has been a key in the rise of other empires, such as the Persian Empire and Alexander the Great's short-lived empire, which have coveted its land and territory and used them as stepping stones to greatness. It cradled both Western and Eastern civilization, and it served as a battleground between cultures as well as nurturing all of them. It served as a key component in the rise of both Christianity and Islam.

I also knew some of the recent history - in 1923 Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the Turkish Republic on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, and since then Turkey has militantly defended its position as a secular Muslim state oriented toward the West. Turkey now sits at the edge of Europe, considering itself a part of the European tradition but also treated as an outsider (albeit an important one) by the other European countries. It is a member of NATO, and is considered an OECD country.

I thought that Turkey would be like Mexico, another OECD state that has elements of both a developing country and a modernized one. I saw Turkey as a country most likely ruled by elites in wealthy cities masking incredible poverty at the margins. This may actually be the case - I did not get the opportunity to go to Eastern Turkey where I understand that development has not been as strong.

Modern socially-conservative fashion in Turkey

What I didn't expect was a vibrant, extremely forward-looking country with arguably the strongest economy in Europe and the third fastest growing economy in the world. I didn't expect Istanbul to be such a cosmopolitan, exciting and modern place, despite my knowledge of its history. I didn't expect to find such a warm and gracious people, given the United State's often troublesome relations with Muslim countries. I hate to admit it, but I retained a lot of stereotypes of Muslim countries even though I knew that Turkey was different than, say, Saudi Arabia. I had visited Bangladesh in 1998, and pictured a much more developed version of Bangladesh (which is also a secular Muslim country). In other words, I thought I'd find a somewhat culturally and religiously conservative place where I would need to watch what I said and did a little, kind of like how a social progressive who doesn't want to offend would avoid religious and political conversation in Texas. While there are elements of an Islamic social conservatism in Turkey, it coexists with its modern, vibrant culture. In other words, the fascinating thing about Turkey is that it embodies pretty much everything, old and new, and it is not uncommon to see women in headscarves and modest raincoats walking arm in arm with women with long free-flowing hair and blue jeans.

Most unexpectedly, I didn't expect to have feeling of "gee, I could see myself living here," with "here" especially meaning a place like Istanbul.

What I did expect was a deep and layered culture based on a rich history, and I got that and more. In the next few posts I'll give more examples in words and pictures. Please be aware that the opinions expressed here are my own and not those of my companions nor of any particular group. I will also provide links to other opinions and information throughout my posts on Turkey so that the reader can have access to alternative information.

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