an excerpt from my humorous travel
Bright Sun, Strong Tea. (The
previous episode was Some
People Never Learn.)
The entire world has changed substantially
since that champagne-soaked
Pan Am 707 filled with eager young
PCVs flew eastward from New York to Ankara after
the Summer of Love,
but the change in Turkey has been nothing
short of astounding.
Significantly, in 1990 the entire
country waited with bated breath to
see if the generals would need to
take over again. They didn't.
The fact that nothing happened gave
a significant psychological boost
to Turkish citizens, who saw it as
a sign that their democracy was maturing.
Despite the ceaseless sturm und
drang of Turkish politics, some
government programs seem to have
had an effect after all:
— Our students at Izmir Koleji actually
learned English and moved on
to useful careers, some of them becoming
quite prominent in the burgeoning
tourism industry where knowledge
of English is essential.
— The Ministry of Tourism's programs
did (and still do) promote Turkish
tourism effectively, and have made
tourism one of Turkey's top revenue-producing
— Much of Side was
preserved from development
—Istanbul's Bosphorus bridge,
so hated by the radical students of
the 1970s as a symbol of American imperialism
(even though America had little to
do with it), paid for itself in record
time, and now no one can imagine the
city without it. A second bridge, the
Fatih (Conqueror's) Bridge, was built
farther up the Bosphorus, and a third
bridge is planned.
The sleepy "underdeveloped" country
I landed in has become the economic
powerhouse of the eastern Mediterranean and
a stronger, more important Western
ally than ever.
Political crises are still common,
but political violence is not. University
students study hard rather than march
in the streets.
Although the socialist ideal of common
effort for the common good is still
respected, free enterprise has been
eagerly embraced by the very generation
which so loudly denounced it a few
decades ago. The same thing happened
in the USA and in many other countries
that lived through the Big Boom summer
Among the most surprising changes
in Turkey is the resurgence of Islam.
It's not surprising that people should
turn to religion as a spiritual anchor
when radical change sweeps through
Consider this: when I first arrived
in Turkey it was against the law (though
rarely enforced) for a man and woman,
even husband and wife, to hold hands
in public. Now many Turkish girls wear
skimpy bikinis, and there are even
Or consider that the residents of Çamuslu
Köyü, out near the
Iranian border, had never seen a
foreigner, an American, or a non-Muslim
before I wandered in, but now they
can press a button on a remote control
and see "Baywatch" and "The West
Wing," not to mention "reality TV," (which
must strike a Turkish villager as
In 1995, by a mere 21% of the vote,
an Islamist party was elected
to lead the country because the centrist political
parties, each of which had received
about 20% of the vote, were incapable
of forming an effective coalition government.
Apparently many people voted for the
Islamists because they were sick of
the traditional parties' corruption
and incompetence. It was the Islamists'
big chance, but the right wing
of the party blew it by saying and doing things
guaranteed to upset the military establishment.
Accused of unconstitutionally bringing
religion into politics, the Islamist
party was toppled by the military and
an uneasy civilian coalition government
was cobbled together.
Despite the noisy Islamist segment
on the right end of Turkey's political
spectrumnot all that different
from the religious right in Americamost
Turks don't want an Islamist government.
They want nothing more of religion
than to bring its solace and wisdom
into their private lives. The last
thing most Turks want is a return to
Sharia, Islamic religious law.
Just as they reject religious extremism,
Turks accept religious moderation.
In 2002 a reformed Justice and Development
Party with Islamist roots but a moderate
political program won a majority in
I can't help contrasting my first
low-key Ramazan in
Bornova (1967) with a recent one. I
was in Istanbul in December, 2001,
near the end of the holy month. Only
a few days of fasting remained. I visited
the office of my friend Ersan Atsür
who runs a travel company called Orion-Tour.
About half of his staffyoung,
well educated, modern and mostly femalewere keeping
the fast, a far greater percentage
than I had observed at Izmir Koleji.
These "modern Muslims" wore
standard European office garb, without
Islamic head coverings, and worked
normally in the office all day. When
the customary urge came for a glass
of tea or a snack or a cigarette, they
thought twice, resisted, and turned
their thoughts instead to the deeper
meaning of life, to the care of their
"Am I being a good person?" they
asked themselves. "Am I helping to
fulfill God's plan for humankind? Am
I being a good Muslim? Do I care for
other people, give alms, deal honestly
One day I arrived at Ersan Bey's office
around sundown, the time of iftar, the
breaking of the fast. If Westerners
hear anything about Ramazan it's about
the fasting, but that's only half the
story and I was about to see the other
A staffer cleared Ersan Bey's big
desk, spread a tablecloth and laid
out the simple "break-fast" meal of
soup, flat pide bread, olives
and vegetables. Everyone, whether fasting
or not, whether Muslim or not, was
invited to share in the celebration.
It was a time of warmth, friendship
and heartfelt thanks for the goodness
In the evening during Ramazan the
Istanbul city government sponsored
special concerts, amusements and shows.
All the mosques were floodlit and packed
with worshippers and sightseers in
a holiday mood. The ancient Hippodrome was engulfed in a carnival atmosphere
with strings of colored lights and
little booths selling snacks, crafts,
religious books, trinkets, and souvenirs.
There were smiles everywhere.
Imagine a month in which denial of
small pleasures during daylight helps
you to consider life's big, important
questions. It's no wonder Muslims
look upon Ramazan as a blessing:
it helps them to prioritize, to discover
what's important and what isn't, to
figure out what we're all doing herein
short, to ponder the meaning of life.
At the end of my stay I went to Atatürk
Airport's new international terminal
to catch my flight home. Above the
passport control booths was a line
of big sparkly red letters spelling
out WE WISH YOU A MERRY CHRISTMAS & HAPPY
NEW YEAR in English and also BAYRAMINIZ
KUTLU OLSUN (Happy Ramazan
That pretty much says it all.
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from Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong
Tea copyright © 2004 by
Tom Brosnahan. All rights reserved.
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