Fiona’s Blog: Embracing My “Foreigner” Status in Turkey & Learning About Myself
You know that saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do?” Well I have a slightly different take: “When in Rome, try to do as the Romans do, but assume you’re not going to be able to, and just have a fun time being yourself.” Catchy, right?
I went to Turkey for two weeks this summer and, amidst the crowded giant market, throngs of Middle Eastern tourists, and daily calls to prayer, would like to think that I came to embrace my status as a “foreigner.”
What, you may be asking, am I talking about?
I’m talking about being in Turkey as an American, certainly, but I’m also talking about being in Turkey as someone with very blonde hair. I’m talking about being in Turkey as someone who is used to wearing shorts when it enters over 90 degree hellish heat, being in Turkey as a woman and a Westerner. I’m talking about being in Turkey as my many-sided, complex self (if I do say so myself), and being more aware than ever of the one-dimensional me I was projecting.
I’ve always been fascinated with the Middle East as a whole, but ever since I first read about the fall of the second capital of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and finally the extensive reign of the Ottoman Empire, I have been—to put it mildly—obsessed with seeing Istanbul for myself one day. You can imagine my excitement when I found out that the international debate tournament I had been planning on attending in July was being held in (drumroll please)…Istanbul!
It was better than Christmas morning in my house when that news came in—yes, I’m a history geek. Before my trip, I took Turkish, a class in Islam at a university near my house, and tried to immerse myself in the culture.
I’d always imagined my arrival something like this: I enter the city of Istanbul (maybe by camel) in a somewhat safari-like outfit, with a pad and pen tucked into my shirt pocket. I am greeted by Sufi priests and descendents of Ataturk, who promptly proceed to have an argument in front of me, clearly demonstrating Turkey’s longstanding conflict between the religious and the secular. Eventually, I am swept up in the arms of someone dressed like Aladdin and taken to the fort Mehmet the Conqueror first created during the Ottoman siege of Byzantium, where I am served tubs of hummus and endless kebabs.
Although my sweaty trek from the airport to where I was staying was not quite as glamorous, I can honestly say that all my cultural and historical cravings were satisfied in Istanbul this summer—from the Haghia Sofia, which I think I’ve been dreaming about since 6th grade, to the Buyuk Bazaar. Plus, the hummus was great.
Much of my wonderment and intrigue about the Islamic world has been centered around my own difficulty grappling with viewing certain actions the media broadcasts at us from that region as culturally relative, and therefore permissible or as downright strange, different, and wrong. Is veiling women inherently wrong, or just a part of the culture? What about stoning women to death for adultery? Female circumcision?
In the weeks before my trip, many of my thoughts turned to myself. As usual, I was over-thinking the situation. How would I be perceived in Turkey? Would I attempt to blend in? Would my standout appearance cause me trouble? Would I stand up for myself if catcalled? I heard everything from, “Oh, you’ll be fine, no one will notice you; it’s full of tourists,” to “I had regular marriage proposals everyday and men wouldn’t leave me alone, because I looked like a Western-European woman.”
I can understand both experiences, as both were true for me. As I’ve learned in my previous travels outside of the U.S., if you bring your own perceptions about gender roles, good and bad, to another country, you’re bound to be surprised. Sometimes, I was ignored, because there are many tourists. Most of the time, I was noticed and stared at. Sometimes, I was catcalled. Most of the time it was jovial and meant to be flattering.
In Istanbul, I came to accept my role as a foreigner, but also embrace the element of surprise I was able to create, having some knowledge of the language and the culture. I was a rare breed. When a man in the Buyuk Bazaar inquired if my “eyeballs are real,” I fielded the question like a pro. When haggling over a price, I was told by the seller, “I need money to live!” I replied, “Me too!” which left us both in fits of laughter. I was a surprise to them, but our differences made me feel at home. Being called “beautiful” as if it was my name took me off guard, but was not a battle worth fighting for—nor does it exist for most people in Turkey as a battle, at all.
I also learned to accept that as a foreigner I can both understand the problems of a different region in a unique way, and never understand them at all. I have fun being different, being cautious and respectful, learning lessons the hard way sometimes, and realizing that my many dimensions are recognized by different people at different times wherever I go. By the way, I don’t think I can wait to go back to Turkey!
Fiona Lowenstein is a high school senior, weekly guest blogger and Girls Leadership Institute alumna. Read more of her work here.