Places of My Heart / Relationships / Turkey

Turkey: Coming home (2 of 3)

Helen at home in Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey (1973)

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

 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?

‘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.”

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

Teen time: I’m at home, our white-washed home, in Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey.

 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.

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, in front of our house. (Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey)

Nezhdet, at home. (Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey)

 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.

“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…

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.

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.

 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.


Today: Main street in Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey, brimming with cars, cell phones, solar panels and satellite dishes. (2010)

Today: Main street in Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey, brimming with cars, cell phones, solar panels and satellite dishes. (2010)

 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. 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…

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.)

Today: I've returned to where our white-washed house once stood, now a 5-story condo. (Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey, 2010)

Today: I’ve returned to where our white-washed house once stood, now a five-story condo. (Mustafakemalpasa, Turkey, 2010)

 AND WHAT OF NEZHDET?  My Nezhdet 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?



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.

[Next: Part 3]  

[Part 1]  [Part 2]   [Part 3]

{All photos © Helen Holter}

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