Places of My Heart / Relationships / Turkey

Turkey: Coming home

– “On this sacred mountaintop looking out, here love endures and, like these intertwining smells embracing me of jasmine, sea, and olive trees, I breathe it in deeply.” –Signature_80

Sunset over Istanbul, Turkey Photo copyright: Helen Holter

Day is done. (Istanbul, Turkey)
Photo copyright: Helen Holter

Why Turkey?

(October 2011) – I’m not Turkish, I don’t speak Turkish (much), and I don’t have ties to anything Turkish in the U.S.A.  Yet when the plane touches down at Istanbul’s airport — my eighth trip so far — and I taxi into town, my heart still flutters as if it’s the first time: a 17-year-old high school exchange student who’d never been anywhere in her life, until Turkey.

Minarets and mosques swirl around that haunting call to prayer.  Hawkers pitch pipes, spices, tiles, and rugs.  Mustachioed men nod and headscarved moms smile as I pass them on the cobblestone streets toward my old haunts.  It’s good to be back.

I'm hanging out with the saints in Ephesus, Turkey

I’m hanging out with the saints in Ephesus, Turkey

I am a Montana-born, Lutheran-raised, Norwegian-blooded, 30-years-in-Seattle gal, and no foreign place feels more like home than Turkey.  This crossroads nation resonates with clashing, compelling debate:  Is Turkey East?  West?  Neither?  Should it embrace Islamic fundamentalism or hold fast to its secular foundation?  Does European Union admission even matter, anymore?

A Country is My Teacher

Against this lively backdrop, I keep returning to Turkey because it’s a serious workout for the body and brain — challenging, yet exhilarating.  But more than an exercise, Turkey is my teacher.  Here is where I first learned of hope, and of heartbreak.  In the 38 years since I was a wide-eyed teenager living in a backwater Muslim town, Turkish friends and strangers keep setting higher standards for my heart and home; to be more generous; and to more willingly consider— accept — cultural and religious differences when I might choose otherwise.

This is my parallel country, my parallel sense of place:  For this I love Turkey.  This is why I’ve come home.

***

Keeping company with 15 million Istanbulus – and counting (Istanbul, Turkey)

Keeping company with 15 million Istanbulus – and counting (Istanbul, Turkey)

Hoş geldiniz, Helen!”  A trim, dark-haired, 30-something manager stands at his computer, welcoming me in this simple Ottoman-style hotel in Istanbul’s Old Town.  I know him well. 

“Hoş bulduk, Ahmet! ” I reply – “I’m glad to be here!’

A Country is My Solace

And it’s so true: I had recently returned to Seattle after several years of isolated Montana country life with my increasingly distant husband – a once-stable CFO easy-going guy I met in church.  In a very short time, his behavior became stranger and stranger, then one day he suddenly and unexpectedly declared divorce and disappeared to Canada, with his whereabouts unknown to anyone.  Everyone who knew him in Seattle – including the pastor who married us – said all signs pointed to mental illness.  My heart was broken, and my life as well.  After months and months of trying to sort out the puzzle pieces to the man I married, I was exhausted, my spirit crushed. I needed rest.  My homesick heart needed to reconnect with places and people I loved: not only in Seattle, but in Turkey as well.  Flying to my favorite city, Istanbul, I knew 15 million people would keep me company.

The Spice of Life

That’s why I start at the ancient, sprawling Grand Bazaar, its 4,000-plus shops filled with touts and tempting souvenirs.

– “Let me help you spend your money!”  – “Lady, buy my carpets!” – “Please, come to drink tea!”

Nodding in acknowledgement to the assertive touts, I don’t bite.  No time to dicker over deals, just yet. Spicy smells — cinnamon, cumin, garlic — permeate these crushing crowds with their jabbering languages:  Yes, I just want to swim in people, more in one day than in all my time in Montana.

Rare spices permeate the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey

Rare spices permeate the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey

I pause at Eğin Textil, a 150-year-old Grand Bazaar shop selling its famous peştemals, traditional body wraps used in Turkish baths.  Many of the costumes in the brawny movie, “Troy” – starring actor Brad Pitt – came from this shop.  But it’s not peştemals I’m after, today.  It’s the shop’s fragrant olive soaps, deeply inhaling jasmine, lemon verbena, rose.

“You like?” the bearded shopkeeper, Süleyman Ertas, asks.  I know him.  These smells are so exotic, so un-American, like Irish Spring or Dial.

“Yes, Süleyman, I like.”  I finger a bar of plain green olive soap, the kind I’d scrubbed with when I lived in Turkey so long ago.  “I’ll take this one.”

I sink into the cleansing pool of memories…

***

1973 Life in My Turkish Family

Minor cultural achievement: I can balance a water jug! At home in Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey in 1973

Minor cultural achievement: I can balance a water jug! At home in Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey in 1973

A Good Turkish Girl

1973. My first airplane ride, ever, landed me as a high school exchange student to Mustafakemalpaşa, a small rural town in western Turkey, into a Muslim family headed by a doctor and midwife, two brothers, two sisters. Tradition ruled.

Although 1970s forward-thinking and a bit impudent, I was still a bit shy around guys.  In Turkey I was expected to defer to men:  walk behind them, cease talking when a man entered a room, and lower my eyes in the initial presence of an unknown man.  As a girl I was also expected to help with homemaking, starting with time-consuming Turkish cuisine.  Lamb-stuffed eggplant, anyone?

I'm at home – our white-washed home – in Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey in 1973

I’m at home – our white-washed home – in Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey in 1973

My Turkish exchange sisters taught me to competently cook Turkish; thoroughly clean our house and prized rugs; and flawlessly wash clothes in a cauldron of boiling water over a wood fire in our front yard. I wanted to be the perfect Turkish exchange daughter. Even the neighbors said I was.

“Çok nefis!’ – “Delicious!” they’d say, boosting my culinary confidence beyond peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.  Once, however, when visiting friends I had to confess:  “I cannot eat this eyeball soup.”

A Different World…

As a medical family, my Turkish exchange family was on a higher social-economic level than my own family in the States. Yet at that time in Turkey such status didn’t necessarily equate with having possessions to flaunt or display as a reflection of wealth.  Like most Turks in 1973, we had no phone, no car, no TV, and no flush toilet.  At night I heated a bucket of water on the portable stove, washing myself with a bar of green olive soap.  I loved to breathe in that unfamiliar smell, perhaps unconsciously scrubbing away my simple American life and coating myself in a more complex Turkish identity. Then again, perhaps it was just dirt.

Sadly, my host mother became seriously ill, a mental illness gone bad – very bad – just days before my arrival in Turkey. Hers was a complete mental breakdown, and I saw first-hand how Turks treated such stigmatized sickness.  The entire family pitched in to help, so I did, too.  In this close-knit setting my one host brother, Nezhdet, and I became quietly taken with one another. (I later learned that Baba, my Turkish exchange father, noticed and found ways to pair us together.)

Nezhdet

Nezhdet was handsome:  tall, dark hair, pale skin, hazel eyes, smart — advanced in university. He didn’t see me as an exchange sister at all, but rather a girlfriend or potential wife.  Such things do happen in exchange programs – including mine, including Turkey.  A common age to marry in my town was just 18.

Nezhdet in front of our house in Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey in 1973

Nezhdet in front of our house in Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey in 1973

“You’re a host brother,” I told Nezhdet, repeatedly.  “You can’t look at me any other way except as an exchange sister,” I insisted.

“No, no, Helen. I have sisters.  Marry me,” Nezhdet replied. “Please. I love you.”

Admittedly, this was flattering but also very Turkish.  In 1973 in my little town, boys courted girls with lingering eyes, passionate words, lightly clasped hands and little more.  A single kiss meant a promise of marriage.  Against this cultural canvas, at night Nezhdet and I would go running together in the sunflower and tobacco fields across from our house:  darkness our blanket, low-hanging moon and summer stars our lamp, lighting our feet along rutted irrigation rows.

Words, and wordlessness…

***

Nezhdet was spirited and kind, even shielding wobbly old women from the paths of donkey carts.  He could have been a Turkish Boy Scout.

“Why are you so nice? Is it a Turkish thing?” I once asked Nezhdet.

1973: Main street in my town, Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey, brimming with donkeys, carts, and wayward sheep.

1973: Main street in my town, Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey, brimming with donkeys, carts, and wayward sheep.

We were at cultural odds:  In my American granddaughter-of-cowboys upbringing, to be strong and survive you can’t depend too much on others and — as cruel as it seems — you must allow others to struggle on their own so they’ll grow stronger, too.  It’s the way of Nature, the way of the West.

“We’re humans, Helen. We just need to be kind and help each another,” Nezhdet answered, words I found decades later written into my private diary.  “It’s not just about being Turkish, or being Muslim. We’re humans.”

Indeed.  In fact, Nezhdet and a stranger once rescued me, unconscious, from a fire.  Later —although I was a certified lifeguard — it was Nezhdet who saved me when I was injured swimming in the dangerous Dardanelle Straits near Canakkale. (These are stories for another time…) But, it could never work out — the two of us — could it?  I was 17, American, Christian, first world.  Nezhdet was 19, Turkish, Muslim, third world.  Barely giving it a chance and soon breaking his heart, I edited out any future for us.  I could not embrace him in my prejudiced heart …

Such was 1973 life in my little Turkish town, Mustafakemalpaşa.

***

Returning…

It’s different, now. Turkey is hipper, richer — a dynamo.  In cities like Istanbul, wealth and prosperity are staggering: skyscraper skylines, 30-40 million-dollar homes, ultra-modern museums, world-class hotels, fight-to-get-in fusion restaurants.

Demonstrators peacefully – but noisily – gather at Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey

Demonstrators peacefully – but noisily – gather at Taksim Square in Istanbul, Turkey

Politically and economically strategic, secular Turkey is courted by Islamic fundamentalists and pro-Western democrats vying for its allegiance, even as Turkey internally wrestles with its long-standing Kurdish conflict.

Sometimes I miss those dramatic cultural contrasts of my simpler exchange-student days; it all seems so internationally homogeneous today…

Main street in Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey in 2010, brimming with cars, cell phones, solar panels and satellite dishes

Main street in Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey in 2010, brimming with cars, cell phones, solar panels and satellite dishes

Even rural Mustafakemalpaşa has satellite dishes, cell phones, and high-speed internet.  Our little white-washed house is now a five-story condo.  My exchange family changed, too, even as we kept losing touch and reconnecting.  My Turkish exchange mother died at age 54, her mind still troubled until death brought her final peace.  My younger exchange sister studied at one of the world’s best nursing schools – Florence Nightengale in Istanbul – married an American, had a son, and moved to Pennsylvania, where she works as a nurse.  (She’s now divorced.)

In 2010 I returned returned to where our 1973 white-washed house once stood, now a five-story condo. (Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey)

In 2010 I returned returned to where our 1973 white-washed house once stood, now a five-story condo. (Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey)

And what of Nezhdet?  He became famous, a political leader during Turkey’s turbulent times in the mid- to late 1970s.  He never married. Unknown to me and just hours before my own wedding, at age 25 in those long-ago violent Turkish political uprisings Nezhdet was killed – shot in the heart, breaking my heart with regret.

Why didn’t I take a chance on him?

Why?

***

Eventually, almost everyone I knew moved away from little Mustafakemalpaşa.  From my patient Turkish family I learned – over years of letters, emails, and visits – that national borders, cultural boundaries, and religious differences mean so little in greater matters of love, loss, and relationships – all that I experienced in my Turkish family.

Turkish Reflections, and Regrets

Ubiquitous blue Turkish tiles in Turkish baths, this one in Istanbul

Ubiquitous blue Turkish tiles in Turkish baths, this one in Istanbul

I breathe in olive-soap-laced steam, as generations of women have breathed in before me in this historic turquoise-tiled neighborhood Turkish bath, the Üsküdar Çinili Hamam. I t’s out-of-the-way in an Istanbul neighborhood, but it’s mine.

With my green bar of olive soap, a traditional washing attendant scrubs my dirty arms, scraping off dark rolls of dead skin with an abrasive kese mitt.  I wish I could scrub away my heart’s pain just as easily.  She rinses my soap-bubbled body, pouring copper bowls of warm water over my head, dripping down. Baptism.

– “Tamam?” – OK? she asks.

“Evet, tamam.”– Yes, OK.

I drop onto the hot marble slab, my aches and heartaches melting into this heated stone.   Suddenly, Turkish women around me spontaneously sing a mysterious melody echoing from the alcoves and domes of this hamam:  It is ancient, healing.  I am washed clean.

***

Baptized into Turkey

Freshly scrubbed, I’m newborn into my Turkish world, with three rituals to initiate myself back into this sacred sense of place, Turkey.

Once the world's largest church, Hagia Sophia was a mosque and now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey

Once the world’s largest church, Hagia Sophia was a mosque and now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey

First: Hagia Sophia, once the world’s largest church, where my small soul senses timelessness in an early morning prayer alone surrounded by gravity-defying domes, Byzantine mosaics, and divine light. I pray for grace in our imperfect lives: in me, in my Turkish and American families.

12th-century "Judgment Day" deesis in Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey) (Istanbul, Turkey)

12th-century “Judgment Day” deesis in Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey) (Istanbul, Turkey)

I pray for this beloved country and my own; for hope and generous understanding of our Muslim and Christian faiths. And, in the words of Apostle Paul who once roamed this land, I pray for peace that passes all understanding…

Great costume but – uh-oh - it's circumcision day! Aboard Istanbul ferry to Büyükada, Turkey

Great costume but – uh-oh – it’s circumcision day! Aboard Istanbul ferry to Büyükada, Turkey

Renewed, I ride a public ferry towards the Black Sea along the Bosphorus Strait, a 20-mile-long liquid finger separating Europe from Asia, East from West, old from new.  It’s all here, condensed: mosques, palaces, fortresses, tankers, fishing boats, yalıs – pricey, seaside wooden Ottoman mansions.

Finally, with my last ritual I head to Istiklal Caddesi, the mile-long pedestrian shopping street that’s always hopping. It’s my prime people-watching place while overdosing on sweet baklava and even sweeter Turkish coffee. Walking back to my hotel, crossing the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn, I pause midspan to catch evening sunlight shimmering off a landscape of mosques and minarets…

Reconnecting…

My Turkish exchange family is scattered around the country, like my own American family.

Hoş geldiniz, Helen!” – “Welcome!” echoes across Turkey.

My host sister, Aynur, now a retired schoolteacher, meets me first in Istanbul and years later in her new home in Bursa. Her two boys are now grown and she is divorced – a growing trend in Turkey.  Most of my extended family now lives in and around Bursa, that ancient Ottoman capital, offering to extend their deep roots to me, if I choose to move to Turkey one day.  Other Turkish friends suggest an arranged marriage.

Gathering of my exchange family on the Sea of Marmara near Bursa, Turkey in 2010

Gathering of my exchange family on the Sea of Marmara near Bursa, Turkey in 2010

“A Turkish Muslim husband would treat you so much better than your American men,” they assure me.  I don’t say no.

“How can a husband of faith,” one asks, “– a Christian – treat you so badly?  How could anyone do this to you, Helen?”

I don’t know. I have so few answers to anything, anymore.

In the Mediterranean seaside town of Fethiye, my host brother, Ilhan, greets me in the hotel he manages, a quieter change from his journalism career. Along with thousands, Ilhan was jailed for five years as a political prisoner during Turkey’s more turbulent times. Beyond this hard life, Ilhan’s aged dramatically since the tragic death of his wife, killed instantly with her brother in a nighttime car crash.

My Turkish father?  He died recently – pancreatic cancer – yet I remember our last time together so well.  Back in my little town, Mustafakemalpasa, Baba —”Father”— then in his 80s, greeted me more warmly than my own. Baba spoke no English save one phrase memorized from the radio decades ago.

“Helen! Helen! My heart ticky-tocks for you!”  Baba cried out joyfully, cradling my head against his warm chest. Just as he did years ago in his doctoring days, Baba smelled of clean olive soap.  In respect, as a Turkish tradition I kissed his healing hand and pressed it against my forehead.

I am beloved.

***

On This Sacred Mountaintop, Looking Out…

My journey in Turkey ends with one last, lasting tradition. A local ferry carries me to Büyükada, the largest of the Princes’ Islands near Istanbul.  A waffle cone filled with dondurma — goat milk ice cream — forces me to linger in this horse-and-buggy village.

Where it all began, my life – Sea of Marmara in Istanbul, Turkey <br>Photo copyright: Helen Holter</br>

Where it all began, my life – Sea of Marmara in Istanbul, Turkey
Photo copyright: Helen Holter

Primed, I hike across the island and up a challengingly steep cobblestone path, often lined with sad white prayer rags for women who ache to have children, like me.  At the top is St. George, a 6th-century monastery.  Here I stand on the worn rocks and look past the islands, beyond Istanbul, out to the Sea of Marmara, in this place I once stood 38 years ago as a wide-eyed high-school exchange student, wondering what life ahead would hold for me…

In my heart, perhaps in everyone’s heart, there is a place, Istanbul.

There is a place, Turkey.

It is a place — even in middle age — that still breathes the expansive dreams and desires of my youth, the hard lessons of faith, love, and life.  Hard lessons that faith of a Muslim boy and a Christian girl needn’t necessarily divide young hearts.  That kindness and hospitality do not require perfection, even as my Turkish family opened their flawed lives and simple home to me, their naive American exchange student, so many years ago. And in all these actions, in 38 years, Turks beyond counting offer me faith, heart, and hope.

… On this sacred mountaintop looking out, here love endures and, like these intertwining smells embracing me of jasmine, sea, and olive trees, I breathe it in deeply …

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{All photos © Helen Holter}