Recently I moved into a new flat in Germany, into an unfurnished room on the second floor of an old building overlooking the street below (and my neighbours who are on the receiving end of annoying window messages from their quirky new expat friend). It has since been my mission to furnish the aforementioned room for free, or for as little as possible. Right now, I sleep on an air mattress, I use upturned beer crates as chairs, and I am on the hunt for wooden pallets to construct furniture with, but with not so much success (people in Germany are just far too clean!). It’s coming together, but there’s still a long way to go. During my recent visit to Turkey, I couldn’t resist picking up a few new items such as a handwoven pillow and a small kilim rug to add a little colour to my very white room.
Here’s a photo of my rug. I love all the imperfections. I love how some of the stitches are miscounted. I love how some of the colours don’t match, and that they change halfway through a section. I love the frayed knots and the fact it feels like it’s a thousand years old already, even though it’s very young. I purchased it from a man I later found out was called Fikri in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but not before I had one of the most interesting conversations of my life.
The Grand Bazaar is filled with what feels like a lot of sleazy men who will do anything to cheat the tourists out of some money. They will come up to grab you by the arm and drag you into their little dark shops in an effort to try to sell you some of their mysterious produce. Fikri was not like this; he saw me pondering through some cushion covers, dancing to Fiva’s “Die Stadt Gehört Wieder Mir” in my headphones, and he gently approached me and asked me if I would like to hear about the stories behind the different stitching patterns. I’m a sucker for interesting facts and cultural information, so, naturally, I took him up on his offer and followed him into his humble little room bursting with rich, deep colours of every hue, every item dripping with character and iridescence.
He sat me down on a stack of carpets and asked me if I would like some tea. In Turkey, the world revolves around tea. If you meet with your friends in the morning, it’s over a cup of tea. If you need to have an important conversation it’s over a cup of tea. If you brew a pot of tea, all of the neighbourhood will be in your living room before the water has finished boiling. Tea is the excuse to get together, and it is used more than daily. Amazingly, the Turks drink even more tea than the Brits, albeit it at the cost of their fingerprints as they scold their hands these tiny little glasses. It is such an important part of their culture, that every time somebody offered, I felt rude refusing. Little did I know, that tea would turn into a second cup, and I wouldn’t leave that room for over an hour.
We started by looking at the pillows. He carefully described to me, in broken but excellent English, the origins of each piece, how it was woven, from what materials, and the patterns and techniques that came from every region of Turkey. I listened intently, trying to pick up as much information as possible, but forgetting so much as I was overloaded with new knowledge. I found a pillow case that I liked so much, that actually I’m sitting on it as I write this. It is constructed of six patches, all made from different techniques from different parts of the country sewn together. He sighed and exclaimed he wished that the people were brought together as simply as a pillow case. I also told him of my desire to buy a kilim rug, and we completed the same ritual, flicking through a plethora of different colours and patterns until it was settled. After this, we started talking about price, and he told me that as I was purchasing the items together that he was willing to barter. I got myself a good price, but not before that second cup of tea arrived.
“Business is done,” he said, “but will you sit here for a while and talk? I love speaking to people from all over the world.”
“Of course!” I said, sipping my tea and burning my fingers. Playing the guitar has always ruined my hands, but Turkish tea has completely destroyed them.
He smiled, drank from his cup and asked: “So were you scared of coming to Turkey?” – a question that has come up all too frequently in many forms in the last few weeks.
In light of the awful recent attacks in England and Kabul, I almost delayed this post, but part of the point is that it makes no difference.
My answer was “no” but I have felt the need to justify this a lot. When I was living in Gotha, I saw on the news (hoping that my German is not as terrible as I think it is) that apparently 87% of Germans thought that Turkey was an unsafe place to travel. This was followed by 82% who said they wouldn’t travel to Egypt, and amazingly 27% who said that France had too many problems. 87%! That is basically 9/10 people. While there is a lot of tension between the Germans and the Turks at the moment, I think this figure is a clever piece of media propaganda. If you conduct a survey to find out if dogs are more popular than cats in front of the dog food store, you will naturally end up finding out that dogs are more popular. If you conduct a survey on a specific targeted group of people, you will most likely end up with the result you are looking for. And we all know that there’s no news like bad news.
So maybe that figure is a little too high, but even so, the true figure, while unknown, is very high here. It’s easy to understand why as well. There is so much focus in the news about terrorist attacks in Europe and Western Asia, and in the last few years, Turkey has been absolutely devastated by a few incidents. Turkey is also a Muslim country, and with people like Trump showing daily on our news feeds as he tries to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the US, there is a lot of subconscious belief that they are dangerous people. While my father was exploring the Turkish Islands last year, there was a car bomb in Ankara. While my friend was sat on an aeroplane waiting to take off from Istanbul Airport, another bomb shocked the whole world. The media has so many opportunities to slander a whole country, and they will never focus on what it is really like to be there. And yes, while Turkey is having problems in some parts, other parts are perfectly fine.
It’s also easy to see the effect of this. Semra told me that the number of Erasmus students in Ankara has dropped from around 150 to about 15 as a result of the car bomb attack. People are scared and trying to find somebody, or some nation, or some religion to blame. Fikri also explained his concerns about the drop in tourism in Turkey. Although Istanbul usually holds around 5 million tourists at any moment, apparently there has been a noticeable slump as people opt for what they consider safer options. His business is struggling, and as we parted ways he gave me his business card and told me I must visit him if I return, expressing the hope that he would still be in business, his voice spilling doubt and uncertainty. The sad part of this, is that it is largely down to some misleading information on religion.
So here are my thoughts. We are at risk every moment of every day, and even if we hide in our bedrooms and wrap ourselves in protective packaging, there is nothing to say that the house won’t burn down. While we are always at risk of being hit by a car or a tree branch falling on our heads, we instead choose to focus on terrorism to be scared of, when in reality, it is much more likely that we will have a heart attack. And isn’t it better to take the risk and to live a more wholesome life? If I were to die, I would at least be able to say I have lived a bloody good life.
I can’t deny that Turkey is having some extreme problems socially and politically and it will continue to do so. There is a huge difference between men and women, and this inequality is justified by religion and so politics will never interfere with the unfairness of it all. It’s sad, but their religion is sewn into the seams of their culture, and I don’t think that women will be able to walk everywhere in Turkey in shorts anytime soon. But, as long as you respect the rules and culture and keep your wits about you, it is no less safe to explore than London, which has endured two recent attacks but I doubt will see a slump in tourism as a result. The two main touristic areas, Istanbul and Kapadokya, are well patrolled by security, and at no point did I feel unsafe, although socially this creates some problems as the Turkish government do everything possible to direct tourists to only these two regions, which creates an unfair spread of profit from tourism across the whole country. I would just recommend that if you intend to use the public bus systems that you learn a little Turkish as nobody will speak any English, although my German got me quite far.
Here’s the clincher though, before this post gets too long. I’ve spoken to indigenous doctors who live in the middle of the Amazon Basin. I’ve spoken to Pacific Islanders who have never left their tiny spot of paradise. I have spoken to very religious Muslims who live in Turkey. I am a New Zealander who was raised in a very Westernised culture. We may all seem like polar opposites, but there is almost nothing that separates us. We all need food, we all need water, we all need social interaction, we all need medicine, we all need to sleep, we all need to have fun, we all need to poo, and we all need a purpose. We create so many problems by trying to defend borders of land which is not really ours, and we all want to feel special and different and right, unfortunately at the cost of everybody else’s ideals. We are all humans of Planet Earth. We can’t let the media define these borders even more. We can’t let politics tell us where we can and can’t go. We can’t define an entire country on a couple of bad incidents. We can’t define an entire country based on a stereotype. We have to stop and think before we settle our minds on an idea which is potentially false or exaggerated. Is Turkey dangerous to travel in? Yes, but so is England, and Germany and even New Zealand has its problems, and those recent Manchester and London attacks just prove that it doesn’t matter where you are, or what religion dominates the country. We’re all in this together.
Unfortunately, there are places I won’t travel for now. I want to go to Venezuela, but it will have to wait. The situation there is truly heartbreaking, but I just don’t understand this idea that Turkey is a devastated war zone where white tourists get kidnapped off the street.
I love this world. I love all of the imperfections. I love how some of our colours don’t match, and that sometimes those colours aren’t clear at all. I love the frayed knots, and I love that it feels a thousand years old already, even though it’s very young. I am not a Kiwi, and I am not a Brit, I am a human from Planet Earth just like everybody else, and just like you. I will die with a smile on my face, be that in fifty years or tomorrow, quietly in my bed or at the hands of a violent extremist. I will risk my life every day in exchange for experience, rather than risk wasting my life for a few more years of security.
– Tom @ indieroad