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The Bridge of the World

Published on: November 6, 2011 Written By: Irena Akbar
Source: https://indianexpress.com/article/news-archive/web/the-bridge-of-the-world/

In turkey,the past is always in tune with the present. This was once the heart of the great Christian Byzantine Empire,and later,the great Muslim Ottoman Empire,where the East has met the West for over 8,000 years,not just geographically,but politically and culturally too.

Turkey,famously caught between East and West,is a country of immense patriotism and intriguing contrasts

In turkey,the past is always in tune with the present. This was once the heart of the great Christian Byzantine Empire,and later,the great Muslim Ottoman Empire,where the East has met the West for over 8,000 years — not just geographically,but politically and culturally too. The confluence continues today,as the country endeavors to join the European Union,and yet clings on to its Middle Eastern legacy in religion,arts,cuisine,and even politics,with Turkey encouraging democracy in Arab nations.

Indians can feel an instant connect with Turkey or “the bridge of the world”. The name of the Ankara airport,Ësenboga Havalimani,has a “hava” in it,as we do in our “havai” addas,Turkish cuisine has “kebabs” and “koftes”,and buildings have names like “Duniya Tijarat Markaz”. The Turks may be living on the cusp of West Asia and Europe,but they came from Central Asia,from where the Mughals came to India.

What stood out in the mountainous terrain of outer Ankara — filled only with a few bushes,and red-triangular-roofed houses— was the ubiquity of the Turkish flag. It was everywhere – at petrol stations,at motels,and as we ventured further into the city,on the balconies of houses,even stitched into the collar of the chef at our hotel. For someone belonging to a country where the flag is displayed so prolifically only during a cricket match or an Anna Hazare-led movement,the flag’s ubiquity was surprising.

The city itself looked uniform,with several apartment blocks,malls,department stores and wide boulevards. Ankara is a planned city,unlike Istanbul,which had been the capital of what is now Turkey for several centuries,and thus hosts many historical ruins. When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded Turkey in 1923,he made Ankara — in the middle of Anatolia — the capital,to safeguard it from attacks from its Western neighbours. Istanbul had a more precarious position as it is divided between Asia and Europe geographically.

The Turks are known for their patriotism,and love for Ataturk,who stopped Western powers from further dismembering the Ottoman Empire by leading the Turks on a three-year War of Independence,which led to the foundation of Turkey as a nation. At Ataturk’s memorial in Ankara,which has a huge courtyard and an elevated,Greek-style pillared white building,a family (an elderly couple and middle-aged parents) held their hands up in prayer for Ataturk,meaning “Father of the Nation”,and wiped tears off their faces. I have never seen such emotional outpouring for the Father of Our Nation.

Turkey has had a volatile relationship with Islam,the most contentious topic being that of the headscarf. When the conservative Justice and Development Party,voted to power thrice in a row,decided in 2008 to lift the ban on headscarves,people took to the streets in protest. And yet university students have often defied the headscarf ban. At the cafeteria of Mevlana University in Konya,a small,sleepy town,famous for the shrine of revered Sufi saint Jalaluddin Rumi (who lived most of his life and died there),students wear vibrant silk headscarves over long skirts or jeans,though on the streets of Istanbul or Ankara,most women go without the headscarf.

Konya is a reminder of Turkey’s changing relationship with religion. Ataturk had once outlawed Sufi lodges and rituals. The new state shunned any display of religiosity,including banning headscarves and the “fez” (the traditional cap worn by Turkish men,now sold as souvenirs) at public places,changing the script of the Turkish language from Persian to Roman,and converting the prayer call from Arabic to Turkish. But today,Konya uses Sufism to promote itself as a tourist attraction. The city is dotted with statues of the whirling Sufi dervish,sporting the fez,a white shirt and flowing white skirt everywhere,including outside petrol stations and industrial houses. A whirling dervish festival is held annually. Konya’s mayor gifted us a miniature whirling dervish,and Mathnavi,a tome penned by Rumi,fondly called “Mevlana”. Rumi’s shrine is the main attraction for tourists. There,his tomb,covered with velvet cloth inscribed with golden Arabic calligraphy,is topped by a large white turban,like the other smaller tombs in the mausoleum — making it different from other Islamic shrines.

Istanbul has the most pronounced Western-Eastern duality,with as many sidewalk cafes,cobbled pathways,and modern buildings as towering minarets,such as those of Blue Mosque and several others and Byzantine ruins,the most popular being Haghia Sophia. Even amidst such overwhelming history,the modern Turkish flag shows up — on poles,on balconies,everywhere.

I asked Ozlem Idilser,a belly dancer,whom I met on our cruise across the Bosphorus strait,what makes the Turks flaunt their patriotism. “We are going through an identity crisis. Are we European or Middle Eastern? Are we Islamic or secular? We don’t know yet. We are too complicated a people. We only know that we are Turkish,” she said. Was she Islamic or secular? “I am Christian,but I am Turkish first. Muslims,too,feel this way.” European or Middle Eastern? “I attended university in Sweden,and the students there looked down on me,as I am Turk,and didn’t consider me European. They also said I don’t look Middle Eastern. But I feel more Middle Eastern,” she said.

The passion of Turks for their nation can catch you unawares. At the majestic Grand Bazaar,the world’s largest covered market with over 4,000 shops,and possibly the oldest too— at 550 years,it is a living,thriving Ottoman remnant,with its high arches and shops selling everything,from Islamic art to olive oil soaps to handbags — I picked up a golden plate with “Allah” inscribed on it in Arabic calligraphy,along with the word written in English. I asked the shopkeeper if he had one with only the Arabic script,with no English words. He was stunned,and asked rather curtly,“Where is the English on this plate?” Pointing at the English word “Allah”,I said,“Here”. “This is not English! This is Turkish! I don’t like Arabic,and all my plates have the Turkish alphabet! I am Turkish,and Muslim,and proud!” he said and walked out in a huff. Turkish warmth,however,saved the occasion. His colleague apologised and gave me a box of bakhlava.


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