An everyday story of Turkish folk

Turkish flag painted on the side of a building.
Turkish flag painted on the side of a building.

The Republic of Turkey has only existed since 1923, and rapidly transformed itself under Kemal Atatürk from a failing Ottoman Empire with a glorious past, into a modern nation, looking towards Europe as it pushed through a programme of reforms. Then and now predominantly Muslim, it became an uncompromisingly secular state, in which religious symbols in schools and public buildings were forbidden, and women achieved universal suffrage by 1934.  These days, you’ll see fewer veiled Turkish women than in the average British city centre.

Look below the surface, however, and Turkish life is centred round the extended family, as it has been for centuries.

When they’re 19, Turkish young men go off to do their National Service for two years.  Those from the west serve in the east of the country, and those in the east go west.  What they’re hoping for is a nice post as a jandarm (army police) in a quiet country town, though they’ll lie through their teeth and tell anyone who asks that they were posted to the borders with Syria, Iran or Iraq.  No internet, no mobile phones, no wild social life: it’s not fun, and they count the days till their discharge, aged 22.

Back home, mother has no time to indulge in ’empty nest syndrome’.  She has her son’s marriage to arrange.  She trawls through likely candidates, looking for a young woman from the same caste, of good family, aged about 17 – 19.  She’ll check out whether the girl can make a decent Turkish coffee and a good pilau rice, and even get the chance to appraise her naked body when they go to the Turkish baths together.  Her son will almost certainly fall in with her choice, and the girl’s family too usually agrees.

Father’s role in all this is to foot the bill for the wedding, which is cripplingly expensive, so he’ll have been saving all his married life.  Average wages in Turkey are low, and after regular bills have been met, don’t allow much slack for buying or building a home complete with fixtures, fittings and furniture, much less a new car.  This is where the wedding comes in.

Wedding gold. (altinka.net)
Wedding gold. (altinka.net)

The guest list for the ceremony will include about 2000 of the couple’s closest friends, of whom about 1,500 will actually come on the day.  And they will bring gold, which they’ll pin to the couple’s clothes.  Nobody will dare to offer a smaller amount than the person in front: social death.    This gold will be transformed into a new home, a car and all the other things the young couple might need.  Now their modest income will be enough for day-to-day life.

After the marriage, the young woman leaves her family behind.  Her new life is with the extended family of her husband.  They will all live together.  We saw whole blocks of flats, maybe 4 storeys high, which our guide assured us were likely to belong to a single family.  People buy from developers or build for themselves: renting is almost unknown.  As are planning regulations.  You can build what you like, where you like, on land that you already own or have acquired.  Surveys of the land are unnecessary, so in this earthquake prone land, many buildings are destroyed by ‘quakes or landslip, or subsidence.

Earning a living is paramount for the men. While communities will be proud of those who make it into the professions, there’s no shame in, for instance, washing cars at a petrol station: it may in fact be more lucrative than say, teaching.  Many families find ways to earn their living together, by running a shop or garage, or by working the land together.  Almost every block of flats in Turkey has shops on the ground floor.  You can be sure the business is being run by the family who lives above.

Traditional Turkish tea house: men only. (Reuters/Umit Bektas)
Traditional Turkish tea house: men only. (Reuters/Umit Bektas)

When not actually working, men retire for the day to a tea shop.  The woman’s domain is the home, all day, and woe betide the man who reports home sick at 2.00 in the afternoon.  The average family has about 5 children, and life expectancy is 61 for men, 67 for women.  This is because health services are rudimentary and expensive.  Most families are dependent on traditional remedies, or failing that, the pharmacy.  A stay in hospital is an unthinkable expense for much of the population.

The family groupings apply to to the very many nomad familiies who still exist in Turkey.  Some families are still entirely nomadic, whilst others have a nomad existence in summer, and return to a more low-lying village in the colder months.  Most rear stock, especially sheep and goats.

A nomad tends his flock outside Bergama.
A nomad tends his flock outside Bergama.

I’m sure Turkish life is changing.  We certainly saw many Turkish women working outside the home.  But walking about the streets in the evening, it was clear that home and family is still central to everyday life here.

6 thoughts on “An everyday story of Turkish folk”

  1. When my mother was at school around the early 1920s – a quaker boarding school – she met a Turkish woman, famous as a champion of woman’s education. I cannot remember the exact name but it was something like Hallida Hanoun. I’ve searched Google for this and failed so I’ve obviously got it wrong! When we had Beyza, a Turkish year student living with us, she knew exactly who this would be and talked to my mum, then 98, about her. There is a huge body of well educated Turkish women, but I suspect they are to be found in the big cities. For teachers and other professionals, religious dress was forbidden – so no hijab – until recently with the advent of the Islamist leaning Erdogan.

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    1. That’s interesting. Our guide told us that religious dress was still forbidden in anything connected with the State, but he doesn’t move in those kind of circles himself, so may not be ‘au courant’. But fundamentalism is creeping in – a bit – even in Turkey.

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