NO 31 MAY 2003
The Journey of Being Human

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ISTANBUL? YES, ISTANBUL

Karen-Claire Voss No. 30 May 2003  

At long last, that feeling of the possible is in the air.  Yup!  In spite of everything, including a war, horrible economic fallout, and a horribly cold, rainy winter, that feeling is around again and you can't ignore it.  It is enough to penetrate even the worst depression, at least a little bit, and I should know, since I've been suffering from this and that for a while now.  Spring has finally, definitively come 

.I mentioned last month that I had gotten caught up in a flurry of domestic things and this continues, as does my writing.  But the topic I would like to raise this month will be introduced in the form of a question.  Why is it that many Turkish people I run into don't know about their own traditions?  A good example happened just the other day during a private English lesson I was giving to two very well educated women.  It turns out that until they read a small article in the English language pull out section of this month's Time Out magazine they hadn't know what the Hýdýrellez festival was.  The article (on p. 16 of the May issue, if you are interested) is short but quite informative.  It explains how on May 5 it is believed that the ground is warm enough to sit on and so people traditionally celebrate with picnics.  More interesting (at least to me) is the fact that this festival has pre-Islamic roots and is connected with the meeting of Hýzýr, "the protector of the land," and Ýlyas, the protector "of water and the animals."  This is the time of year when it is believed that evil spirits (read:  bad energy) can be driven out and it is also considered a propitious time to write out one’s wishes on scraps of paper and tie them to the branches of trees.  People traditionally wear white and eat white food on this day and in the evening light huge bonfires and leap over them.  As is my wont, I dug a bit further and discovered that in one version of the myth Hýdýr and Ýlyas were two brothers who drank of the waters of immortality and subsequently promised to meet each other on this night every year in order to enable the rebirth of nature.  A version that comes through the Islamic tradition states that they were brothers who once displeased Allah who separated them as a punishiment.  One of them was made the Lord of the Earth and the other the Lord of the Seas, and they were only permitted to meet on this one day each year. 

In any case, I cannot count the times I’ve talked with Turkish people about some tradition and discovered that they hadn’t known about it or knew about it and had decided (a decision based on what, pray tell?  Some misunderstanding of the concepts of “modernism” and “rationality” perhaps?) to abandon it.  One good example is the custom or throwing water behind a vehicle or person setting out on a journey and saying "Ýyi yolculuklar." (1)  The idea behind it is to wish for you to travel as smoothly as water flows.  There's certainly rich meaning there.   Another example is the meaning of ‘Þerefe.’  Long, long ago, when you raised your glass at table and said ‘Þerefe’ you were drinking to the honor of the table and everybody knew that.  Today, it is a rare person who knows this.  Moreover, the very idea of drinking to the honor of the table itself is so fraught with the Turkish equivalent of chivalry that when I hear people saying that ‘Þerefe’ is basically the same as the English ‘Cheers’ it makes me crazy.

Now this brings us to another, closely related topic.  You know that every country in the world today is faced with having to cope with the effects of the much-vaunted phenomenon called ‘globalization.’  Thus far it has had disastrous effects, and personally, I have some deep philosophical problems with the concept, but the column is not the place to go into them.  What I can say, though, is that the establishment of widespread intercultural communications has the potential to be an enabling phenomenon.  It needn’t be destructive, however; unfortunately, everywhere I look I see that the effects of globalization have been destructive.  The reason is that people seem to have a tendency to throw out the “baby with the bath water’” as it were.  When it comes to adopting modern technologies or assimilating new ways of doing things they embrace them but at the same time, they abandon things in their own culture that are meaningful and valuable.  It is as if all sense of balance becomes lost.  Personally, I very much favor the idea of transculture. (2) Basically, transculture is something—actually, it is less a thing than an attitude—that allows one to keep the richness and meanings in one’s own culture while simultaneously reaching out to another culture, assimilating the richness and meanings in that culture and finally, moving beyond identifying exclusively with either one’s original culture or the new cultural influence to another “space,” a space that Basarab Nicolescu has called ‘transculture.’

Allow me to give a personal example.  I was born an American citizen, but I have always tended to look at the world using what my partner calls “big eyes.”  In other words, while I was fascinated with many aspects of my own culture and delved deeply into things like the lore of the songs sung by the people who lived in the Appalachian Mountains, and when I was a child in New Jersey, the old legends beloved of the Dutch and German peoples who first settled there, at the same time I was attracted by what lay beyond my own culture.  While still very young, I had an opportunity to go and live in Australia for five years and I jumped at the chance.  I will never forget the first time I listened to the world news on an Australian television channel.  I became conscious of how the news was being told from an entirely different perspective than the one I was used to and it dawned on me then—for the very first time—that the United States was not the center of the world.  Not.  I continued to develop and years later I lived in France for a couple of years and now I’ve been here in Turkey for ten years.  As of this writing I have spent a total of seventeen years of my adult life living outside my native country.  One result of this is that I can no longer exclusively identify myself—more precisely, feel myself—as American.  Since I have been here in Turkey so long, and have absorbed so much of this culture, I feel at least half Turk.  My spoken Turkish is still comically awful—deplorable, actually—but it’s clear that I’ve really “caught” the sound of it, the nuances of it, so much so that now, sometimes, when I think of moving back to the U.S. and no longer being able to hear it, or speak it, or to listen to this music that I love so much (3), or smell the rich odors wafting on the breeze, or watch the sea, or listen to the gulls, or soak up all the exuberant abundance of one of the street markets, I find that I literally cannot imagine being able to live without being in proximity to these things.  My head, as I am fond of saying to my friends, is permanently altered.  More than that, though—I have the sense that most of my daily lived experience happens in that space that is beyond culture—the space of transculture—which I referred to earlier.  I now tend mostly to think of myself as a human being inhabiting the planet Earth rather than as an America, or as an American who has been assimilated into Turkish culture.  This experience of being human is THE universal.  We all have hopes, beliefs, feelings, sorrows, and joys.  We all of us bear children and love them.  We all of us set goals for ourselves and strive to reach them.  And each and every one of us has looked up at the stars in the night sky and wondered about our own place in the mysterious infinity of the universe.  This experience has nothing to do with such small things as economics or politics.  It is this that goes beyond all of our languages and cultures and it is this experience that can form the basis for genuine dialogue and sharing. 

 

If the sublime experience of simply being human, of being a finite being inhabiting infinitude forms the basis for communication rather than merely shared economic or other interests the result will be that separate cultures can open up to the world and allow themselves to be enriched by what is on offer (and here I am thinking especially about technological advances) but will not make the mistake of abandoning the “old ways” that are meaningful and valuable.  Then, the process of globalization will be transformed.   It will become a process that has depth and meaning and the loss of age-old cultural values and traditions will no longer take place.  When a culture embarks on this form of globalization they will be embarking on a journey of discovery through the “Valley of Astonishment,” (4) a wondrous journey of discovery in which they will celebrate rather than denigrate their own culture because their encounter with the Other—that is, with whatever new technology or idea they are encountering—will function to reveal hitherto unsuspected facets of themselves.  And as cultures set out on this journey we can say Ýyi yolculuklar” (4) and truly mean it. 

Notes:

1.  Farewell, or Have a good trip.  Literally, "good roads." l 

2. See the chapter entitled “The Transcultural and the Mirror of the Other” in Basarab Nicolescu, Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity, translated by Karen-Claire Voss (New York:  State University Press, 2002)

3.  See Column No. 3 (July/August 2001) where I wrote at length about my experience of Turkish music.

 4.   In The Conference of the Birds, the 12th century Persian Sufi poet, Farid ud-Din Attar,  describes  the journey of a  group of birds in search of the Simorg.  They pass through the "Valley of Astonishment" and experience many   wonders.  Attar is also the author of The Book of the Divine, The Book of Affliction, andThe Book of Secrets.
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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