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East-West Identity in Turkey


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Our Istanbul salon, held on the rooftop of the Four Seasons Sultanahmet last week, was a rousing success—and I’m not just saying that because I’m part of the JANERA.com team. The building itself and the setting alone—betwixt the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, overlooking the oldest quarter of Istanbul on one side and the Sea of Marmara on the other—was enough to make for a memorable evening. The luxury hotel’s previous incarnation was the Ottoman prison where “Midnight Express” took place (and the retelling of that story by ex-prisoner Billy Hayes and filmmaker Oliver Stone colored the modern perception of Turkey ever since). Sandwiched between two historic edifices, the latter of which has been a church for a thousand years, a mosque for five hundred, and for the past 50 years a secular museum, also provided a provocative backdrop for the subject at hand: East-West identity. Despite trying to meet European Union standards on everything from plastics to human trafficking policies, Turkey is also ruled by a conservative prime minister who wants to relax a secular ban on women wearing headscarves in universities. (Currently the country’s democratic constitution forbids this.) Roger Cohen aptly summarized the country’s contradictions in a recent New York Times Op-Ed: “a nation of nuances, Muslim but not Islamist, religious in culture but secular in construct, of the Occident and the Orient, bordering the West’s cradle in Greece and its crucible in Iraq.”

As guests streamed in during the cocktail hour, I introduced myself to Ferhan Alesi, a beautiful Turkish woman—and one of the evening’s experts—whose job as an “intercultural trainer” sounds like it’s both fun and fulfilling. Alesi, who has lived in eight countries over the past 16 years, trains expats in Turkey how to adapt to the local culture. (Hint: use body language, as the Turks do.)

Alesi also advises Turkish CEOs, when they are relocated for business, on how to master the nuances of their new culture. She earned a degree in Intercultural Communications—a growing field—at Pacific University in Portland, Oregon before moving back to Istanbul in 2003 with her Sicilian financier husband. She was the first (and so far only) Turkish citizen to serve on the board of the European chapter of the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research (SIETAR)—a professional network for people working in the field of intercultural relations.

I wandered over to my boyfriend, Michael, who was engrossed in a conversation with Ersin Pamuksüzer, the founder of LifeCo—the Canyon Ranch of Turkey. As I sipped my white Doluca wine, Pamuksüzer told me about LifeCo’s several detox spa centers, including one in Bodrum and one in Istanbul where guests eat raw food, do juice fasts, sweat out toxins in hamams, practice yoga, and even undergo colonic hydrotherapy.

Soon, I was talking to Timur Altop, a 35-year-old media consultant who also has one foot in each culture, American and Turkish. Born and raised in America to Turkish parents, Altop moved to Istanbul recently and founded a publishing consultancy firm, Maya Media. He has launched Turkish versions of U.S. magazines such as Men’s Health and Women’s Health (to launch this fall) and helped adapt Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” for Turkish T.V.

At 8 p.m.Janera Soerel instructed the 25 guests to gather around the long, gorgeously laid table, introducing herself and the concept of these dinner salons before introducing local co-host, Anastasia Ashman. (Ashman, co-editor of the best-seller “Tales from the Expat Harem,” also wrote this story for issue #2 of JANERA.com)“Turkey is asking itself some of the world’s most difficult questions these days,” said Ashman, comparing the nation’s quest with her own identity issues as a global nomad and the questions central to her work. “We chose tonight’s topic because it is relevant to Global Nomads who are concerned with the concepts of personal identity, community and belonging, and the balance of cultural influences that can sometimes be at odds.”

As black-suited waiters served the first course—a warm goat cheese şakşuka (like a quiche without crust)—we went around the table, briefly introducing ourselves until Jennifer Coolidge, an Oxford-educated oil and gas consultant whose specialty is Turkmenistan, rose. Suddenly, with the muezzin from the Blue Mosque (as well as other mosques in the area) belting out the call to prayer from the minarets, it was clear that we’d have to take a brief moment of silence. (Strangely, there was also what sounded like a recorded prayer coming from the Hagia Sophia—something that surprised many of the Turks at the table.)

To my right sat Robin Sparks, a journalist who has lived all over the world—in Buenos Aires, Kathmandu, and Paris, to name a few. But out of all these regal cities, she prefers Istanbul because of its location between West and East. “I love watching where it’s going,” said Sparks, with a twinkle in her eye.

During the next course— a spinach and cheese-filled lasagna called börek —I got to know an American woman who is a DEA agent at the American Consulate in Istanbul. She and four other U.S. agents work in conjunction with the Istanbul police to intercept the heroin trade from Afghanistan. She and Alesi told me that they feel Istanbul is much more progressive than the rest of the country when it comes to religion, allowing all faiths to practice freely and openly. Later, other guests said that may be true, and Istanbul certainly has a long history of offering religious refuge—to Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th century, for instance—yet the Muslim sects of Sufis and Alevis are not allowed to worship openly.

We played musical chairs and I found myself next to Susan McMurrain Erturan, who owns Mozaik, a design company that imports Knoll and other furniture to several showrooms in the city. She, Tara Hopkins (a professor at Sabancı University whose focus is civil society) and I talked about Turkish literature. Having just read Orhan Pamuk’s riveting melancholy novel “Snow,” I was curious to know how the Nobel Prize winner is received by Turkish intellectuals. (The book is loosely about the clash between radical Islam and Western ideals.) Hopkins said the general feeling is that his writing is too heavy and difficult but that her work has taken her to the town of Kars (where “Snow” is set) and the town really is as depressing as he depicts it in his novel.

Finally, after the main course of sage chicken rolled in the Beyti style, it was time for the experts to sum up their conversations. Expert Şerif Kaynar (country managing director of executive recruiting firm Korn/Ferry), who also owns a stylish Mediterranean culture bookstore in the trendy neighborhood of Cihangir, said his part of the table had focused on the cultural differences in the workplace—how eastern-tinged Turkish family-like bonds at work, while creating a feeling of stability and encouraging loyalty among coworkers, are not necessarily positive elements for ambitious professionals who want to climb the corporate ladder.

Hopkins said her part of the table played with the concept of identity, and the fact that Turkey may be suffering an inferiority complex. (Which poses its own challenges—of not being self-confident and always wanting to be different.) Though the country may be democratic in name, Hopkins thinks it has a long way to go. To illustrate this, she mentioned a sign that’s hanging along Cirağan Caddesi that says “We love our country, we love democracy!” “Would you need to have a sign proclaiming this if it were true?” Hopkins posed.

Neşe Gündoğan, secretary general of the National Turkish Olympic Committee and a former Turkish running champion, spoke about the subject that was on everybody’s mind: sports (the Turkey/Germany Euro 2008 soccer match had been the night before). Gündoğan noted that she’s seen a lot of prejudice towards “developing countries” such as Turkey from European sporting bodies.

As dessert arrived—spice bazaar ice cream and a carmelized milk pudding called kazandibi—Michael pointed out that human beings have a tendency to conform and to innovate. The consensus at his end of the table was that the prevailing cultural identity in Istanbul is toward conforming through product branding, a Western phenomenon. This has a stultifying effect on innovation—be it Eastern or Western.

To the entire table Janera posed the question, “Is there really an identity crisis?” In her opinion, after the many conversations she’d had throughout the night, the differences in the city—East and West—were largely socio-economic. The poorer neighborhoods of Istanbul tend to be “Eastern” while the wealthier areas of Nişantaşı, Beyoğlu, and Cihangir, tend to be more “Western.” Hopkins seemed to agree, reminding us all of the larger picture. The poverty rate in Turkey is at 28%—the highest it’s ever been. Guests began to throw out similar dichotomies in business and education. For instance, in Turkey, American businessmen receive training on how to work with women executives (since there are more in Turkey than in the United States), yet high-placed businesswomen are only seen in the top 500 companies. Also, despite the fact that the majority of the nation’s university professors are women, the education of Turkish women remains an issue, especially in the East of the country.

Guest Kristen Stevens, a native Atlantan who is now a journalist at the Turkish Daily News (Istanbul’s oldest English language daily), covered the event. (Her story was published a few days later.) A television crew from Turkish national TV news channel Haber Turk taped the proceedings and interviewed guests, while a documentary film crew from VTR headed by veteran director Enis Riza captured the salon for a film to be released in 2010 for Istanbul’s European Culture Capital celebration. +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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