istanbulites

Although the main purpose of this blog is to talk about food and where to get it in İstanbul, I would still like to make a page chatting about my own take of what makes us tick as citizens, and by extension also as a nation. How I think we are, how we operate, and what our priorities might be. This is of course, a personal account and quite a few of my compatriots may not agree with how I see 'us' at all. Therefore to be taken with a grain of personalized salt, here we go:

As far as my observations go, for the most part people who live in Asia Minor are practical minded, no-nonsensical, and resourceful.

An interest for novelty, especially for novel technologies and appliances, as well as a perpetual wanderlust to new pastures are attributes which stand out. (As an example: Turkey has the 4th largest  Facebook usage figures in the world. With over 40 million accounts out of a population of 75 million, this means that every second Anatolian is in there merrily chatting away. And the 75 million population count obviously also includes babies and toddlers, of which there are plenty around in this place - so, go figure... ;-) See facebook stats page here >>>). And while the wanderlust can (and should) be explained as enforced migration from east to west largely due to poverty, I feel that there is something which goes deeper than that also: We simply like to move around, check out if there is anything better on offer elsewhere...

Kötü Kedi Şerafettin (Bad Cat Şerafettin) is a depraved, extremely foul mouthed, sexually charged, unspeakably cruel and yet hilariously funny character whose comic escapades have established him as one of the foremost local heroes, easily competing with soccer stars, politicians, TV personalities and rock glitterati.

What is also a very distinctive trait is a strong, and often also politically incorrect, cynical sense of humor. As well as a lot of banter in daily life, at home, in the office or in the market place, the tavern or the coffee house. In short, we really like to take the piss, and that at even the most inappropriate moments (such as state affairs etc, where prime ministers and such will routinely come out with price gems)...

Cynical humor and our historic rep for being fearsome warriors notwithstanding, I think that by and large my fellow citizens are kind people. If nothing else, the way in which our 'city animals' are taken care of communally should be proof to such kindness (more about that here >>>). And yet, we are also somewhat quick to anger and our anger can often be a scary spectacle to behold, but then again we tend to simmer down and forget our grievances even faster than we angered in the first place. And despite the fact that we live in one of the largest cities on the globe, with all of the stress levels which such a state brings with it, we somehow still manage to maintain a decent amount of joie de vivre.

And as for our very best attribute? For me, that would be our impatience for sanctimoniousness! Said cynical humor above will make very short shrift of that, as soon as even a whiff of it is in evidence... ;-)

Aesthetics
The overall obsession with novelty sees to it that we are not a terribly nostalgic nation. In fact, the ease with which we can let go of the past is something that makes us superficial, which I would say is one of the worst traits of our culture. From which it may follow that no one can accuse us of having a strongly rooted sense of aesthetics. Just a look at the front page of any Turkish daily newspaper will show you how devoid of an innate sense of design we are. (Which makes my own life pretty miserable, since I am actually a design instructor ;-). And not to even mention all of the architectural disasters which fill this "beautifully ugly" city. Why? Well if you are solely concerned with novelty you will forget about the likes of the great architect Sinan and his heritage in a nano-second, won't you?

Social Structure
This can actually be very quickly summed up by saying that there isn't one. Or rather that there isn't one which is based upon ancestry, lineage, old money and so forth but what we have instead is a dog-eat-dog system in which a thirst for power, ambition and ruthlessness rule the day - currently very much to the detriment of democracy, I should add. A look at the past figureheads of local politics and business should verify my claim:

From left to right: Turkey's grand old statesman of 50 years, Süleyman Demirel is affectionately known as "Çoban (shepherd) Sülü", since he actually made his living as the shepherd of his village near the small town of Isparta before he got a scholarship to attend a state school  (wikipedia entry here >>>). Turkey's visionary prime minister and president from the 1980's and early 1990's, Turgut Özal, was a Kurd who hailed from the eastern Anatolian town of Malatya where he was the son of a local bank clerk and a grade school teacher (wikipedia entry here >>>). Abdullah Gül, the past president, comes from the central Anatolian town of Kayseri and is the son of an aircraft mechanic (wikipedia entry here >>>). Tayyip Erdoğan, the current president is the son of migrants to Istanbul from the north eastern town Rize. He was born in the low income Istanbul neighborhood of Kasımpaşa and made his first mark as a player for his local soccer team before working his way up in politics (wikipedia entry here >>>).

The Anatolian Tigers (wikipedia entry here >>>) are a large group of middle to small scale industrialists whose base of operations resolutely remain in their own home towns all across Anatolia. And the current boom of the Turkish economy is attributed to their combined export capabilities in many areas but especially the food industry, electronic household appliances, textiles and automotive. 

And, when we turn to look at the mega-big corporations of Turkey, the founders of these empires have their origins in very modest backgrounds, which all lie in the provinces as well:

From left to right: Vehbi Koç, the founder of Turkey's largest corporation Koç Holding was the son of a small time grocery shopkeeper from Ankara (wikipedia entry here >>>). Sakıp Sabancı was the son of Hacı Ömer Sabancı who started his career as a cotton picker in Adana, from where he developed a small cotton business which was initially conducted with a cart and horse (wikipedia entry here >>>). From these humble beginnings Hacı Ömer and his sons created Turkey's second largest corporation Sabancı Holding. Ayhan Şahenk's story is far less dramatic, however still no blue blood tale: The founder of Doğuş Holding, Şahenk came from the small central Anatolian town of Niğde, born to a provincial middle class family. 

The reason for such an egalitarian power structure to have come about may also lie in the fact that historically (unlike churches) mosques did not keep birth records and also that there was no systematized birth registry during most of the Ottoman reign. Which means that most Anatolians have no clear idea of who their ancestors are and thus there is no factual basis for lineage based snobbery in society. And also important is that the Ottoman Empire did not allow for an aristocracy. Thus, social standing has always been (and still is) up for grabs to anyone provided they know how to go about getting it. Which also means that power structures can and do change very rapidly, often even within the time-span of a single generation.

You can also read more about how this fluidity of power has transformed a very large district of Istanbul here >>>.

Life-style
I will dare to suggest that as a culture we are not overly given to philosophizing and metaphysical concerns, but instead tend to be focused on the material here and now. As a point in case, there is no thinning out in Istanbul's horror traffic during Friday noontime prayers. For a very good reason: Friday is accountant's day in Turkey and folk will be much too busy admiring (or lamenting) the states of their balance sheets to think of much beyond. Fridays are spent in banking, in billing and invoicing, in the collecting and cashing in of checks, and the paying back of due loans and debts - after all of which the day is finished off in a rakı meal during which you either moan upon your losses or brag about the splendid state of your affairs ;-).

In short, Asia Minor people (Turks, Kurds, Laz and Circassians alike) love to do business; to dream about it, to talk about it, to speculate about it, to toil for it, to figure out ingenious ways of getting things to move or to work faster and better.

And speaking of businesses, lunch time siesta hours are completely unheard of: Office work hours are from 9 to 5.30, with a 45 minute lunch break, which staff take in staggered time slots so that all businesses (including most banks) are open from 9 to 5.30, also during lunch time. Banks are closed over the entire weekend and pharmacies are closed on Sundays, outside of these all shops are open 7 days a week, from 9am to 7pm (and sometimes even later), and from 10am to 10pm in shopping malls. Restaurants and cafes close at midnight during the week and much later on weekends, taverns and bars will stay open until the last customer leaves (or is carried out... ;-). Which means that life around here is a 7/24 affair and you would be hard pushed to find major city centers such as Taksim and Beşiktaş emptied out at any point of the night, including the not so early morning hours.

The big national obsession is soccer (Istanbul herself has 3 huge stadiums, one for each of the big local teams, Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray and Beşiktaş - of which Fenerbahçe has 25 million followers nationwide!), and second to soccer comes politics.

With politics the nation is almost exactly equally divided between those rooting for the incumbent and those rooting for the factionalized opposition. I happen to (sort-of) belong to the former group: Despite some things (such as the impending internet package law or the raising of the drinking age to 24) which Tayyip has put into effect and which I am very critical of, I still have to acknowledge that what has happened under the Akparti administration, especially when it comes to the economy, is remarkable: A consistently high growth rate over a whole decade, and this while much of the rest of the globe has been struggling with an economic crisis...

Family values are strong. What is traditional is that young people will live with their parents until they get married; although nowadays more and more of them do leave the family home as soon as they can afford to do so. However breaking close ties with your family, not calling home, not visiting often is unheard of. Not taking care of elderly or sick or mentally unstable relatives are things which are anathema, which is the main reason that in a city as large as Istanbul you will hardly see any homeless people. And on the other end of the age spectrum, both parents are usually very kind, if somewhat over-indulgent with their young children. And, in the family the mother (or the mother-in-law) is the unequivocal boss!

Women
Which brings me to women in society in general: (And this is where I will try to address, and hopefully try to set aside, a very popular myth regarding the status of women in what is after all a Muslim society). Around here for women to attain high up positions in the business and finance sectors is a completely normal occurrence, which no one will ever give a second thought to. The boards and upper echelons of almost all corporations and financial institutions will have women in them, and not as token presences either, but as decision makers who may have scores of men working under their jurisdiction.

And, here I even have a prime example which is associated with my very own university to give to you: Please, look no further than Sabancı Holding itself, the headquarters of which are where ISEA2011 will be held: The CEO of this mega-holding is a woman - Güler Sabancı. Not a token figurehead who squeezed herself into the boardroom because she was 'family' (in any case, plenty of male relatives around to make for a big family feud, if that had been the case to begin with), but a veteran corporate fighter who has earned her laurels with leadership and remarkable projects spanning 3 decades of endeavor.

Another thing worth mentioning here is the number of female engineers in Turkey which stood at almost three times to their colleagues in the USA in 2004 (see related study here >>>). In a similar field, any hospital that you go to will have as many female doctors as male ones, if not more so. And also the legal profession, which as far as I am aware is still mostly a male enclave in a lot of parts of the world. Here there have always been female Supreme Court Justices for as far back as I can remember. And closer to home, my own mother was a full professor of law at the University of Ankara, dating back to the 1960s. And no, she was not a token either. As far as I can remember she had over 10 female colleagues in a faculty of about 30. And when I look at my own workplace, comprising a good sized faculty of professors in arts, social sciences, engineering and business administration - well, I have never actually taken a headcount, but at a glance I would say that men and women are about equally represented. Which leaves one profession for which women in Turkey do not seem to have much of a taste for - politics. And this, to be honest, only shows to me some excellent judgement on behalf of the sisters... ;-)

Another thing which it may interest you to know (and which may explain a lot actually) is that the Turkish language is genderless. So, we could talk for hours about a third person and unless a name was mentioned no one would ever know if the person under discussion was a man or a woman!

I would be remiss if I were to say that the above described situation with regards to women applies to the whole of Turkey. Sadly, this is nowhere near the truth: As you go from west to east, the matriarchal culture (which makes a productive life for women in western Anatolia an understood thing) gives way to a predominantly patriarchal middle eastern culture which makes the lots of women far from perfect in eastern Anatolia. In fact, it would not be too far off to say that in Turkey two distinctly different cultures based upon geographic location exist side by side. The blend of the two which has brought forth such a beautiful melange in western cities like Istanbul and İzmir has come about largely through the fact that the eastern migrants have adopted much of the western Anatolian social norms, especially with regards to women and children, whilst yet retaining a lot of the valued aspects of their own sophisticated culture.

Punctuality
Moving on from women, I want to briefly talk about punctuality. Unlike a lot of other southern cultures, Turks are ultra punctual. Buses, planes and trains will leave on the minute, so you have to be sure to be there on time. Which in Istanbul means that you have to take the traffic into account and leave home much earlier. Similarly, being late for an appointment is seriously frowned upon, and you cannot show a traffic jam as an excuse. The assumption will be that you know all about the traffic situation and should have planned accordingly. And if someone invites you to their home, and if they say "come at 8", they actually mean "come at 8" - and not 8.30 or 9.00...

Street life
As the images on this blog will show you, in public spaces Istanbulites act exactly like folk all over the globe. I especially made a point of taking panorama shots so that I could show you as much of the street life as I could in one frame, and what you see in them is a fairly accurate depiction as to how things move around here. 

People will not really loiter, even when they are in party mode. Yes, they will stand in place and talk to one another when they are in entertainment areas, however until they get there they will usually walk purposefully - unless they are lovers taking a nice romantic stroll or something like that of course. 

Outside the historic peninsula, shop keepers will mostly leave you alone. Well, OK granted - maybe sometimes a döner kebap guy will sort of holler out into the street but very seldom will it be aimed directly at you. (Unfortunately in tourist areas a lamentable hawking culture seems to have found a foothold, which is actually quite alien behavior when set next to the overall street etiquette of the city. They seem to think that visitors expect the attention, as a survey revealed not so long ago. Personally I am profoundly embarrassed by it, and so is everyone else that I have ever talked to about this). Oh - and also, haggling is completely unheard of in normal areas where locals do their shopping. Things will be price tagged, and that is what you pay.

At entertainment venues people will mind their own business and not take an excessive interest in what is going on at the next table. As is the case in most cultures worldwide, here too staring at strangers is considered to be impolite. But yes, young people (of all ages) will give each other the eye, like everywhere else in the world.

I have looked at quite a number of tourist sites while I was preparing this blog and it seems that a lot of female visitors complain about undue male attention when in Turkey. As a local woman, whose coloring and demeanor make her origins immediately obvious, I do not encounter it at all myself. And not only nowadays, when I may already be old enough to be past all the attention, but not in younger days either. If anything, men around here are almost tiresomely courteous and respectful. A woman is usually addressed as either "kardeş" (little sister), "abla" (older sister - which these days is me - ouch!), or "yenge" (aunty) during day-to-day encounters, or as "hanımefendi" (lady) on more formal occasions. Yet, it may well be the case that visiting women do get special treatment. If so, I would advise them to just not to react and in all likelihood Don Juan will lose interest soon enough...


There will always be cats and dogs wherever you go in Istanbul. Nothing to feel bad about, they are very well taken care of communally by neighborhoods, as their general state of health and their well fed friendliness will tell you straight away. The dogs are vaccinated against rabies by the municipality of Istanbul, and have little ear tags to keep tabs on the booster shot due date. All of the dogs (and quite a few of the cats) are spayed, so you will rarely see puppies, only the fat old dogs waddling around. In fact, you can see and read more about our wonderful city cats and dogs on a special blog which I co-author with Hungarian photographer Istvan Tóth, who is an Istanbul resident also: http://istanbulcatz.blogspot.com/

Safety
Especially given its size, Istanbul is a remarkably safe city. Or at least that is what my experience of it is: I go anywhere (even down the most insalubrious looking, darkest alleys), at any time of day or night, as also do my much younger students; and none of us ever seems to come to any harm.

However, to see if Istanbul is as safe for her visitors as it is for us locals, I went online to see what international opinion on the matter is. Seems that the main things to watch out for are pickpockets and con artists - the latter operating particularly in the historic peninsula, and the former both over there as well as around Taksim. Here are the links from where I got my info, as well as the overall good news that Istanbul is indeed a safe place to be, provided you exercise the sort of care and common sense that you would show in any large city:
http://www.tripadvisor.com/
http://www.turkeytravelplanner.com/details/Safety/
http://www.fodors.com/world/europe/turkey/istanbul/feature_30009.html

Attire and religion
Again, the images on this blog should show you that most of us dress in the prevalent international style. But yes, you will see women with headscarves too. In terms of the locations on this blog, far less frequently in places like Taksim, Beşiktaş and Kadiköy and more frequently in places like Üsküdar and Ortaköy.

A religious local woman will wear a brightly colored scarf, which she ties tightly around her neck in such a way that the full contours of her head are shown. And then underneath she will either wear regular clothes which look just like mine, (including jeans even, in which case she will cover her bottom with a full mini skirt); or more commonly she will wear a loose fitting, usually light colored calf length coat. Added should also be that you are extremely unlikely to see any local woman wearing a full chadour. The ladies which you will see in the full dark regalia are visitors just like yourself, who are here from other Muslim countries. And yes, there are a lot of them around, also at rather unexpected places like Taksim. 

The two places where you will see the biggest concentration of devout Muslims are the airport and the historic peninsula: People who wish to go to the Hadj (or its off-season 'lite' version which is called 'Umre'), flock from all over the country to the big international airports to fly to Mecca, and Istanbul airports are of course amongst these. And so, no matter what the season may be, there will always be groups dressed in a special unisex (usually beige) travel outfit provided by Tursab, the national Hadj travel agency. And then of course their well wishers (which is usually the whole extended family and close neighbors) will be there to see them off, making quite a merry crowd, since going to Hadj or Umre is deemed to be a very happy occasion in a devout Muslim's life. 

And as for the historic peninsula: Fairly self-evident, given the number and the beauty of the mosques found there. If you were a Muslim believer, wouldn't you wish to pray in them? And then, also to go and see the holy relics in the palace afterwards? So, in short, the historic peninsula is a pilgrimage destination, and not only for devout Muslims from Istanbul, but from all over Turkey and well beyond as well.

And probably completely needless to even say is that there is absolutely no reason to feel estranged or unsettled by the presence of religious Istanbulites wherever you may encounter them: They are a pleasant, well mannered, well informed segment of society, who are tolerant of the doings around them and have no wish whatsoever to impose their beliefs upon anyone else. I am not even remotely religious myself, and yet in my interactions with devout locals I find more common ground that ties us together than stuff that separates us, and we usually end up having the greatest conversations in which they are as humorous and tolerant of my (heathen) foibles as I would ever wish anyone to be.

And you can read a bit more about local religious practices on the post on Üsküdar, where I also have an image of a Tesettür (Islamic female attire) shop here >>>.

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