Life as an exchange student opens up doors to many curiousities. During my summer in Istanbul, Turkey on a full government scholarship for Turkish language study, I did a lot of thinking about the location of my new home.
Where is Turkey? When I Skyped or received emails from my friends, they ask me how the Middle East is. Yet today when I was at the Turkish equivalent of Costco, also known as “Metro”, displayed prominently was a map of Europe including Turkey. Every week I take the ferry from Asia to Europe. And as I wrote this blog, I wondered under what region to catalogue it — Africa & the Middle East, Europe, or Asia.
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So where the heck was I during my six-week exchange program? I’m someone who likes order in my life. I like to be able to confidently check boxes – grey areas always make things difficult. But Turkey is one big grey area.
I’ve heard Istanbul described as the most “Western” place in Asia and the most “Eastern” in Europe. This is an easy way out of a direct answer to the question posed in my title. From my frequent vantage point- the roof of my host family’s apartment, which is where I studied and read- I would gaze onto the red rooves of Istanbul’s residents, equipped with satellite dishes and looking charmingly like my fantasies of quaint Eastern Europe. But in my peripheral vision lay a beautiful mosque, minerats spiking the sky and reminding me of how hard it is to classify Istanbul.
By my second week there, I had neared the conclusion that Turkey was almost conclusively European, as it is being presented each year to the EU. It had started to all seem so simple and obvious in my desire to pinpoint my location. All signs pointed to Europe until I entered my first public restroom at the aforementioned Costco lookalike. I was content with my conclusions of Western life as I navigated this Walmart twin full of skimpy bathing suits and home appliances not unlike somewhere I would visit back home when I opened the stall door to find myself staring down into a hole in the ground. So startled, I let out a yelp of surprise. It’s not that I look down (no pun intended) on this Islamic mode of restroom design. In fact, it is a great thigh workout. But I had gotten so immersed in Istanbul’s mirror of Europe I had forgotten that sadly for my overactive, analytical brain, it can’t all be that easy. This reminder of Turkey’s conglomeration of faces brought me back to the wonderings that overtake me as I type this blog and the reality of Istanbul.
There are few remnants in Istanbul of what we in the USA equate with the “Middle East,” or in other words, Islam. I see dozens of fashionable women in hijab everywhere I look, and listen for the call to prayer I consider to be melodious. My nose can detect the smoky smell of hookah as I explore KadÄ±köy and traditional music played in the supermarkets is close to my favourite Arabic songs. Yet to be honest, most Turks I have met are extremely quick to distance themselves from associations with the Middle East, meaning the Arab world. I’ll leave it with saying I haven’t heard anything positive said about the ethnicity most Americans equate them with.
Obviously, Turkey was not what I expected from a place sometimes sold to foreigners as European, sometimes Muslim, sometimes Asian, and oftentimes Middle Eastern. Of course, Istanbul, a major world city in a strategic location, could be an anomaly. The villages in the East and North could present a more easily recognized image of the “Near East” but perhaps not. I won’t know until I return to Turkey in my future. However, as someone sick of the tourism slogan “A bridge between East and West” but unable to forge a simple solution, I challenge my fellow travelers to attempt to situate the city of Istanbul. It is harder than you’d think.
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