What We Will and Won’t Miss About Ankara

In the city

I’m not the type to look for signs, but I don’t ignore them either. The recent coup attempt in Turkey may or may not have been a sign, but it certainly caught our attention. As a lone incident, it was an unfortunate shock, but as a climax following series of attacks and incidents in Istanbul and Ankara, it was our cue to exit stage right. Coming here was written for us without a doubt, but staying here doesn’t seem to be. In spite of the hiccups and challenges, our year in Turkey has been an enriching experience. We’ve befriended wonderful people, saw breathtaking vistas and experienced a refined culture of genuine hospitality. We are a bit disappointed about our early departure but definitely not sad. We’ve been traveling long enough to know that some souls never really part and reunions happen in the most unforeseen ways. As nomads, you never know where we’ll turn up or return to, so this is definitely not a goodbye but moreso a “see you later”. While prepping to depart, we’ve been reflecting on the sum total of our stay and came up with the following.

Coast

WHAT WE WILL MISS:

The people: Generally speaking, Turkish people have been refreshingly hospitable to us. Their interest and curiosity about us has always seemed sincere and polite. They are endearing to children, respectful to elders, and welcoming to strangers. Other than being incredible hosts, our Turkish friends have taken cleanliness to a whole other level. At times we felt like they caught crumbs and dust before they even touched the floor and maintained impeccable homes in spite of having young children. This standard might be unattainable for us but it was pretty impressive to witness.

The country: Turkey is a really beautiful country with a variety of landscapes and geographic features. Endless mountain ranges, dense green forests, and the brilliant blue of the Mediterranean Sea are all etched in our minds vividly. Sights of interest are abundant and have been well-maintained and accessible to us. Our only regret is that we didn’t have a chance to see more and that some very religiously significant regions are challenged by instability.

The food: Oh, the food. The simplicity of fresh herbs, cold-pressed olive oil, fresh lemon juice and salt have forever changed our approach to salads. Though we generally don’t love cold foods, we’ve become smitten with a genre of dishes that are slow cooked in olive oil and served cold. Eating seasonally has introduced us to new foods like fresh figs, quinces, celery root, and a variety of vegetables grown locally. Some of our favorite food finds here were black rice, pomegranate syrup, fresh dill, dried organic apricots, and leblebi (dry roasted chickpeas).

Aegean Food

The mosques: I’ve yet to see an unkempt mosque or a substandard women’s prayer hall in Ankara. From large congregational mosques to the tiny prayer rooms in shopping centers, I’ve consistently seen efforts to maintain the beauty, cleanliness, and awe that a place of worship merits.

The fashion: While I can’t describe a traditional, Turkish style of dress, the sisters here definitely have their own flavor and unique expression of modesty. A few years ago, I made a decision to no longer buy clothes that were not designed with my customer profile in mind. So, online shopping in Turkey has been a wonderland for me. I can easily find a wide variety of suitable clothing articles that are fashionable, modest, and affordable.

Domestic production: When shopping, I prefer to buy items from as close to my locality as possible. From toothpaste to clothing to sugar-free jams, I love the plentiful opportunities to support the local economy and region.

Village Pride: Almost everyone I’ve met in Ankara mentions a “back home” where grandparents live, where parents grew up, and where they visit elders for Eid holidays. Even in the supermarkets, there’s an emphasis on foods sourced from a köy, or village, and I’ve grown to equate them with traditional, homemade goodness.

Fethiye

WHAT WE WON’T MISS:

The politics: We’re totally over the politics, the tension, and the drama. It was frustrating at times to be misunderstood when our everyday choices about diet, faith practice, and dress were seen as political statements or stances. We are on the side of piety, integrity, and humanity, wherever it is represented.

Learning Turkish: Learning the language hasn’t been easy but was essential for our day-to-day survival in Ankara. Yes, there are many words from Arabic, even French and English, but Turkish grammar was burying us alive. We absolutely loved our Turkish teacher, but we’re glad to not go any deeper down that rabbit hole for now.

The social culture: Being a fairly liberal capital, smoking and drinking are quite common in Ankara. We especially hated seeing people smoke so liberally around children or drunk in public. Similarly, the very secularized expression of Islam that we regularly encountered here lacked the soul of the faith that captured our hearts over a decade ago. The religious community here seemingly functions here as a minority, though being in a Muslim-majority country. Again, Twilight Zone experiences were common for us.

Time to go

Reflecting on Our First Ramadan in Ankara

Made at our pre-Ramadan party with friends.

This Ramadan has been challenging and it has nothing to do with hunger, thirst, or heat. There is something intangible missing—namely that collective common spirit that I’m accustomed to feeling in either the wider consciousness of a Muslim country or the intentional consciousness of a dedicated minority. Still trying to figure out how to comprehend life in secular Muslim Turkey, being here feels like its own dimension. I see signs of Ramadan—donation requests, iftar buffets, Ramazan pide breads for sale—but I can’t feel it. Seemingly more the exception than the default, fasting feels like a secret only shared with an unknown few. Obviously, fasting is a very personal act of devotion that need not be publicized, but when you’re invited for lunch or offered food and drink in the middle of the day, it starts to feel a bit like the Twilight Zone.

A first attempt and a new addition to our Ramadan home decorations.

Lil’ Z is taking gymnastics lessons at a great academy that happens to be housed in a large shopping mall. If she wasn’t enjoying and progressing well in the class, I would find a way out of frequenting my least favorite destination four times a week. I thought the usual shopping mall annoyances might be turned down a notch for Ramadan, but it was business as usual. Diners, coffee drinkers, and smokers were doing what they always do, but one particular young lady really made me pause. While waiting at a bus stop, she came supported by two young women at her side. Because she put no weight on her bent legs, I immediately thought she sprained her ankle or was injured. But when her friends attempted to sit her up, I realized that she was passing in and out of consciousness. Her head dropped and eyes rolled back. Drool ran from her lips quicker than her friends could open their moist towelette packets to clean it. Though her entourage seemed calm and collected, I had to intervene, fearful that her condition was worse than they perceived. I thought that perhaps her blood sugar was low from fasting or she was severely dehydrated but, to my shock, one of the young men told me in unmistakable English, “She is drunk.” Having lived in a college town for eight years, I’ve seen drunk before—loud drunk, belligerent drunk, staggering drunk. But on the verge of black out drunk in daylight–I’ve never seen. Again my mind goes back to Ramadan.

Ramadan Calendar 2016

Many of the irreligious Turkish friends I’ve met here have made reference to a grandparent who prays. I can understand that a person may consciously reject a choice for themselves, but there seems to be this total unawareness and disconnect from the lives their forefathers lived only two generations prior. Yes, there are many religious Turks as well, but I’m disappointed by how seemingly clueless young people are about Islam. Almost as if a cloud of amnesia descended a few decades ago that reduced Islam to not eating pork and calling God “Allah”, which I hear often. “Ma sha’ Allah” when seeing a cute child, “in sha’ Allah” when speaking of future happenings, or, my favorite, “Allah Allah” for any reason ranging from a spill to a near car accident. I see beautiful mosques all over the city, amazing modest clothing lines, prayer beads for sale in the streets, but I can’t seem to access what Islam means here in Turkey, or at least in Ankara. It’s a discussion I’d like to have, but being religious seems to be tied with supporting a particular political party, so those conversations are muted for fear that an innocent inquiry will turn into a partisan debate.

Mama makes a Ramadan sign too!

As with any reality in the outer world, I’m forced to look inward. Whether fasting as one in a small crowd or one in a million, I need to peer through the fog of my confusion to see the lesson awaiting me, the Teacher beckoning me, and the service demanding me. Ramadan is not something happening to me but rather within me. For more than a decade, even with its challenges, Ramadan is the internal housecleaning that I look forward to every year. Both in and outside of Ramadan, fasting heightens my awareness of God, refines my inner vision, and tempers my connection to the temporal world. As with Islam in general, it’s such a treasure that I hate to see people forfeit or belittle. Our little family is doing what we can to keep our own Ramadan fire aflame because I can’t rely on others here to fan it. With about half of the month left, I have to seek out some virtual love to pull through this month of mercy, so I can end with the cleansing and spiritual recommitment that I always find awaiting me in its last days.