No.2 June 2000

Otherness

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The original topic planned for this month’s column was Turkish music, but since Life has a way of intervening with such things the topic changed.  Instead, I’m going to write about the Other, a topic that’s relevant not only to us Strangers in a Strange Land, but also to the Turks themselves.

First, a few words about why the topic changed.  A whiile back, Istanbullshit received a letter saying we foreigners were all privliged (read: rich, secure, propertied, and eminently desirably passported), complaining individuals who should go back wherever it is we came from if we didn’t like it here in Turkey, en passant getting in a dig about how lucky we were because we could choose to get out.  Then, shortly after reading the letter, I crossed a street in Akatlar to stand in front of a line of parked cars and wait for a taxi to take my exhausted self home after work.  Suddenly,  one of the cars, a very expensive one, driven by an apparently very privliged Turkish individual, began backing up into me.  He stopped only when I yelled “Hey!.”  My cry seemed not at all unreasonable to me, but he stuck his fine Aryan-looking head out the window, his face utterly transfigured with loathing, and in a voice positively dripping with hate yelled back “What’s wrong?”  After that the two events came together in my mind and precipitated five or six days of thinking and brooding.  “Why,?” I kept asking myself, “Why does this happen?”  Then I remembered that in another life I had taught women’s studies classes in which the problem of the Other was a recurrent theme.  Both the letter and the incident with the driver were manifestations of the encounter with the Other. 

Here’s what I mean.  When each of us first came to Turkey we experienced the effects of that encounter as we grappled to find our way in a foreign place.  In my case, Turkey wasn’t my frst experience being abroad, but it was the first time I’d been in the Middle East, and I spent the first few months literally walking around in a kind of shock talking French to myself as a way of staying sane.  Everything was different:  language, speech intonations, gestures, sidewalks, markets, buildings, clothes, smells, food, music, even ways of walking.  Gradually I learned to function on a practical level and then was I able to begin the process of getting inside the culture.   All that was seven years ago and while I’ve “caught” a lot of the meaning in this culture, an infinite depth of meaning remains to be plumbed.  I’ve learned that there’s nuance here beyond anything we usually find in the West. 

One reason I think we foreigners have problems is that notwithstanding the founding of the Republic and all that went with it the framework here is still not based on binary classical logic, nor will it ever be.  One of the central axioms of binary logic is that there is no third term T that is A and not A at the same time.  (Don’t panic.  I never took a logic class and I flunked high school algebra.  If I can get this, so can you.)  Here’s the simple way to put it:  Binary logic tells us that something must be either one thing or another thing, not both.  A thing is either black or white, good or bad, French or American.  The name for that third term T is the “excluded middle.”  In the West we typically exclude the middle, but here in Turkey we have a culture where the middle is included.  That’s why  there are all the nuances that are so difficult to penetrate.  That’s why we call it Byzantine.  That’s why our encounter with Turks and Turks’ encounter with us is an encounter with the Other big time.   

What does the Other mean?  Well, start with the fact that it’s not me, but something else, and because it isn’t me I don’t know what it is.  The Other represents the unknown.  When I don’t know what something is I get confused;  sometimes worse than merely confused, sometimes I get frightened.  The Other represents the dark.  You know, when you first go into a dark place after you’ve been in the light you can’t see anything at all.  Once we’re aware of this, knowing what to do becomes a lot clearer. 

I think we’ve got to make a shift and remember that every encounter of a foreigner with a Turk and a Turk with a foreigner is an essentially human encounter.  We don’t have two Objects coming together, we have two Subjects coming together.  On account of the differences between us we tend to forget that.  (I’m referring to both sides here.)    Instead, what happens is that we label each other.  We don’t react to a person; instead, we react to a stereotype.  We don’t think “Oh, here’s a unique human being with a personal history in front of me.”  We think “Here’s a macho sexist pig,” or “Here’s a nice piece of ass,” or “Here’s a bloody American capitalist.”    Those stereotypes go hand in hand with our thinking in terms of a variety of “isms” -- imperialism, marxism, communism, fundamentalism, capitalsim, nationalism -- that virtually finish the possibility of producing anything like real human connections.  Now all of us tend to react according to stereotypes and think in terms of “isms” when we encounter the Other.  The ironic thing about it is that at the deepest level each one of us wants to feel as if we are at Home wherever we go; at the deepest level each human being wants to feel himself or herself a citizen of the World, rather than of just one country.  We’ve got to work at shedding those stereotypes and ‘isms’ the same way a snake sheds skin.  One important caveat here:  I am not for a moment saying that the same qualities of openness that characterize many successful encounters with the Other in North America should be retained here.  To do that would be tantamount to ignoring (and thereby dishonoring) the nuances that are present in this culture.   There are cleaning women who don’t “do windows,” right?  Well, this culture doesn’t “do openess.”  We need to drop a lot of the baggage we carried here with us.  It’s my view that we can learn a great deal at first just by watching what goes on and trying our best to understand it.  Of course in the best of all possible worlds, our Turkish friends will do the same thing, but it seems to me that since we’re the ones who came here the lion’s share of the responsibility for creating human relationships rests with us.  It seems that it’s more Our responsibility than Theirs simply because we did choose to come here after all.  I’m not suggesting that we have no right to be critical of what we see, but there’s a big difference between genuinely constructive criticism and flat-out bashing.         

It’s true that life in Istanbul can be a kind of crucible but at the same time it can also occasion moments characterized by what can only be described as insight into the nature of being.  As I wrote last month, in the final analysis, the choce is ours. 

 

No.1- April 2000 No.11 April 2001 No. 20 July 2002 No 29 April 2003
No.2 June 2000 No.12 May 2001 No. 22 September 2002 NO 30 MAY 2003
No.3 July/August 2000 No. 13 June 2001 No. 23   October 2002  NO 31 JUNE 2003
No.5 October 2000 No.14 July 2001 No 24 November 2002 NO 32 JULY 2003
No.7 December 2000 No.15 August 2001 No 25 DECEMBER  2002 NO 33 August 
No.8 January 2001
(No. 8 Ocak 2001 - Türkçe tercume
NO 16 September 2001 No 26 January 2003 No 34 September 
No.9 February 2001 No. 17 April 2002 No 27 February 2003 No 35 October 
No.10 March 2001 NO 19 JUNE 2002 No 28 March 2003 No 36 January 2004

No 37 February - March 2004 No 38 April 2004

 

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