Istanbul, Two Worlds in One
Updated: Jul 23, 2018
As soon as one arrives in Istanbul, the influence of the Eastern and Western world are apparent. Whether it be exploring the mosques and markets in the old town full of women in hijabs or the modern neighborhoods with hipster bars, art studios and people wearing more revealing Western clothing, every corner you find something different. The city, which is populated by fifteen million people, is a non-stop hub of rich culture dominated by religion, markets, music and tradition.
A liberal Turkish family that consists of Zehra, her father Emre and step-mother Miray (whose names have been changed) had us over for dinner for a night full of delicious food and insight into some aspects of Istanbul culture and politics. Their apartment, which was in the modern Besiktas neighborhood, was scattered with instruments including the Baglama and the ney. The spread which was entirely vegetarian and gluten free, consisted of Karaniyarik (half an eggplant with mushroom inside), Yaprak Sarina (grape leaves filled with rice), and other traditional Turkish food. Our food was accompanied by raki, a strong alcoholic drink from this region made from grapes and served with a bit of water which creates a cloudy white color. Although the food was full of spice that sat in our mouths so perfectly that we couldn’t stop eating, our compliments with every new dish we tried were unnecessary. In Turkish culture, it is seen as fake to continue to compliment the chef, as if you need to reassure them on their skill. Throughout dinner, Emre burst into song, which was as beautiful as it was unexpected. Discussions throughout the night ranged from the shameful politics of our own countries to the clash of the East and West in Istanbul and the issue of individualism.
“At least the kingdoms are romantic, but here people blindly follow a dictator”, Emre says followed by a disapproving laugh. In a society ruled by a dictator, whatever he see as positive towards the country is what will be seen as the majority of the people’s opinions. Discussing globalization, Emre told us that 10 years ago 78% of the Turkish population wanted to be a part of the European Union, but after a change in power this shifted to the opposite opinion. Ideas that could start a fire for social change so quickly can be reduced to ashes with political changes. Zehra notes that the future of globalization in Turkey seems to be moving forward with consumption, but not liberation. To be openly opposed to this political force is an option that could land you in prison for life, taking away individual thought.
From the perspective of Zehra, an educated, well-travelled woman with liberal ideas, women as a whole are not free and lack the ability to chase their own dreams. In a city with both the stereotypical Eastern and Western woman, she does not have any friends that wear hijabs because she wouldn’t know what to talk to them about. The judgment between women who wear hijabs and those who do not is obvious and creates a divide between the two. Emre and Zehra discussed the hijab as” something no individual would question”. It is required of some Islamic women, which have no option but to follow these guidelines of dress, as they said. “You cannot leave the circle, just change your position”, Zehra comments on the social constraint of individuality . There are two sides to this issue; those who believe it is oppressive and those who see it as a respectful religious behavior. Having no third opinion makes it incredibly difficult to find a median and creates the constant conflict. Emre gave a great example of how two children from the East and the West growing up together in a neutral environment would become the same. All the separation and judgments are social constraints that we learn through education and society.
Istanbul, where East meets West, one would hope that there would be a creation of understanding, but instead there is more separation upon interaction. All these conversations should motivate us to create respectful spaces of mutual understanding, instead of falling into the grip of an oppressive world system that is nourished by our separation.