Things I Wish Americans Knew About the Middle East

Recently I went to a talk by an academic and journalist who specializes in Middle Eastern politics.  This journalist has spent the last decade living in the Middle East and as part of her research she interviews people from all over the spectrum in Middle Eastern politics– from activists involved in the Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood to jihadists.  Her talk, which really was more of a discussion that invited questions and input from the small audience, delved into a lot of various issues in the Middle East right now, and I left the talk thinking, “This is the kind of information I wish everyone in America knew.”

Some of the things she mentioned were things I already knew.  Some were things I had never heard of, or had heard of but didn’t understand on any sort of deep level.  Here is a brief list of things that I think would be surprising to most Americans– some of them are things that came up in the talk, and others are things I’ve only learned myself in the past few years and wanted to pass along.

Many of the jihadists and people recruited by ISIS aren’t “good” or overly observant Muslims.  A lot of the jidahists that have emerged in Europe, especially, are petty criminals or people who do things like drink, take drugs, or sleep around that are “haram” (forbidden) in Islam.  They tend to be more driven by a desire for violence and revenge, or a search to belong to/be accepted into a group, than religious piousness.

The #1 indicator of whether or not a young Muslim man would become radicalized is whether or not he grew up in a Francophone (French-speaking) country.  Researchers think this is because of the strict secularism laws that exist on those countries, including a ban on headscarves, that has made some Muslims feel oppressed.

Only 2 countries have enforced headscarves/covering laws (Saudi Arabia and Iran).  However, 15 Muslim countries have had or currently have laws *against* headscarves.  Turkey is one of those countries– women covering their heads was not allowed in schools, universities, or public service positions until 2013.

The boundaries drawn in the Middle East are completely arbitrary and relatively new.  They were made France and Britain after WWI, when the Ottoman Empire (which controlled much of the Middle East at the time) lost the war.  The random splitting up of territories didn’t take into account how the locals felt about it, and ended up in a lot of the in-fighting between different ethnic groups and sects that we see now.

“Muslim” and “Arab” are not synonymous.  If someone is an Arab, it means they’re from one of the countries on the Arabian peninsula or Northern Africa.  There are lots of Arabs who aren’t Muslim– there are plenty of religious minorities living in those countries, including Christians.  Alternatively, there are lots of Muslim countries, and lots of Muslims, that aren’t Arab.  Fun fact: Indonesia is home to the largest percentage of Muslims in the world.

… Related, not all Muslims speak Arabic.  Turks speak Turkish.  Iranians speak Farsi.  Afghanis speaks Pashto and Dari.  Pakistanis speak Urdu.  Bangladeshis speak Bengali.  … And so on.  Also, this is not a complete list by any means; all of these countries have other languages and dialects as well.  But they definitely do NOT all speak Arabic.

There are no camels or deserts in Turkey.  When people learn that I live in Turkey, a lot of them seem to picture some sort of vaguely Arabic landscape that looks like Morocco or Saudi Arabia.  Nope.  Turkey has lots of different climates due to all the mountains in the country, but a lot of the country is very green and humid and fertile, and there is not a single desert to be seen anywhere.  Also, we don’t do our weekly grocery shopping at the Grand Bazaar.

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It also snows in Turkey– this was the view out of my apartment window in Istanbul this past winter.

There has been a LOT of Western, especially American, meddling when it comes to Middle Eastern governments, leadership, and power struggles.  We had a hand in the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  We funded and armed the group that would become the Taliban (and are currently funding the weak Afghanistan government that is now fighting against the Taliban).  We are currently arming the Syrian rebels to fight against the Syrian government and the Kurds in Northern Iraq to fight against ISIS.  These are just a few brief examples, but basically the US has a long history of choosing a side that supports our own interests without really thinking of the long-term consequences or how it affects the people living in those countries.

There are different “levels” of devoutness for practicing (and non-practicing!) Muslims.  I don’t mean that there are set levels and they choose one, but Islam is the same as most any other religion, especially such a big one– some believers are very strict, some aren’t, and there’s everything in-between.  Some Muslim women dress modestly, some don’t; some Muslims don’t drink alcohol and some do; some fast during Ramadan and some don’t; some pray five times a day, and some don’t.  And there are also Muslims who consider that their cultural identity but who aren’t actively practicing.

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And before I end, one more thing to perhaps challenge the perceptions you have of Islam: the picture I used for the cover photo of this post was taken in Spain, at the Alhambra Palace in Granada.

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Going Home/What I Miss

I leave in a couple of days for a two-week trip to the US to see my family.  Two weeks seems like a lot of time but it always goes quickly, and it’s never enough time to see the people I want to see; nevertheless, I’m looking forward to it.

I’ve been living abroad for three years now and it’s funny, the things I end up missing.  It’s never the things that I thought I would miss.  (This isn’t including people, of course– I always knew I would miss my friends and family.)  I was pretty homesick my first year in Turkey but it got a lot better after some adjustment, although Christmases away are still pretty hard.  But the things I miss most are things that I barely even noticed while living in the US.

I miss peanut butter.

I miss being able to walk into any clothing or shoe store and finding my size.  (Turkish women are tiny!… They don’t even sell my shoe size here.  The woes of being an almost-5’9” American woman living in Istanbul.)

I miss being able to find lots of different cuisines at the grocery store.

I miss stores and cafes opening earlier in the morning.

I miss central A/C.

I miss closets!  Oh how I miss closets.  One wardrobe is not enough storage for two people living in an apartment, and I don’t even know how families with small kids manage.  Where do other people store their vacuum cleaners?  The fake Christmas tree between seasons?  (Okay, maybe not too many Turkish households have to worry about that one…)  The sports equipment?  The luggage?  I NEED CLOSETS IN MY LIFE, DAMMIT.

But the thing I miss most of all is…. driving to Target.

Let me explain.

When I was living in the US, I didn’t have any particular affinity for Target.  I liked Target a regular amount– I went there when I needed to, but I never went around talking enthusiastically about how much I loved it or how great it was.  It was just a store I went to sometimes.

But now, when I think about things I’m excited to do when I go home, one of the first things that pops into my mind is getting in the car, driving to Target, and walking around.

I think it’s less because Target is just that awesome, and more because it represents everything that I can’t do in Istanbul.  Istanbul is a city of about 15,000,000 people, which is actually probably a low estimate, so hopping in a car and doing *anything* becomes difficult.  Istanbul traffic is horrendous.  This sometimes makes running mundane errands difficult.  We try to do most of our errands in our neighborhood, where we can walk to the stores, but on the occasions when we need to go to a bigger store elsewhere in the city, we take a deep breath, gird our loins, and accept it’s probably going to be at least half a day of battling with traffic and crowds.  There’s nothing fun about it.

And Target has everything– one stop and you’re done.  Again, this is very different from Istanbul, where we end up going to multiple stores to find the things we need.

So the thought of getting in a car and driving on calm, mostly clear roads to Target and being able to get everything in one fell swoop sounds almost Utopic.

Of course, there are good things about living abroad that balance out the things I miss– I might miss Target, but not enough to move back for it.  And there are things that utterly confuse me about the US now when I visit.  (The serving sizes are huge! … Why is the smallest size of a milkshake 16 ounces?  You can’t even get a milkshake that big in Turkey!  And why oh why does someone need that many different options for toothpaste?)

Bags are (almost) packed, passport is in my purse… I’m ready to go.

 

 

 

 

Hidden Gem Istanbul: Süleymaniye Mosque

I have a love/hate relationship with Sultanahmet, otherwise known as the historic peninsula in Istanbul, where most of the oldest sites and tourist attractions are.  On one hand, it’s a beautiful and deeply historic neighborhood, and everywhere you turn there are buildings and monuments that are hundreds and thousands of years old.  It is where the Grand Bazaar, Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque are located.  It’s clean, well-kept, and beautifully  landscaped.  It is worth seeing at least once in your lifetime.

On the other hand, the areas around the ferry stations and Spice Bazaar are so crowded, both with tourists and sketchy people trying to scam the tourists, that walking through it all to get to the other sites is irritating at best and deeply unpleasant at worst.  The scammers don’t disappear in the other areas and you have to be careful of who you talk to, which gives it a seedier feeling than other parts of the city.  And the one time I went to Sultanahmet without my husband– I took my (female) cousins when they were visiting– men yelled after us and harassed us all day long, which was infuriating and embarrassing since I was trying to show my cousins how great Turkey can be. (Never judge a city or a culture based on the most touristy area; it seems to be where jerks tend to congregate.)

Still, I end up going to Sultanahmet about once a year because the sites are too amazing to stay away from for long, and this past weekend my husband and I took the ferry over.  We went to the Basilica Cistern, which is normally amazing but is currently undergoing a renovation that will last until 2019, so it didn’t quite have its full glory.  Still, the Medusa heads are always interesting to see.

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Fun fact: The Basilica Cistern dates back to the 6th century and was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian, but no one knows where the two Medusa heads came from or why one is upside down and one is on its side

Afterwards we wandered over to Hagia Sophia and took in the sights there, including petting the cat that lives in the 1,500 year old church-turned-mosque-turned museum.

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Hagia Sophia: No filter needed

And then we decided to check out one of the lesser-known mosques, Süleymaniye Cami (cami means mosque in Turkish), and it turned out to be the highlight of the day.

It’s easy to find Süleymaniye Mosque: you directly see if from the ferry area or the Galata Bridge, depending on how you go to Sultanahmet.  It sits on top of a hill overlooking the Golden Horn and cuts an impressive image even from far away.  I remember staring at it during my first trip to Istanbul in 2013 and thinking, “Huh, that looks important.”

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Picture of Süleymaniye Mosque taken from the Galata Bridge in 2013, on my first trip to Istanbul

And it is important.  It was built by the most famous architect of the Ottoman Empire, Mimar Sinan, in the 16th century, and it is the burial place of the Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (hence the name) and his equally-famous wife Sultan Hürrem.  (Their story has been made even more famous by the TV show Muhteşem Yuzyıl, or the Magnificent Century, which oddly enough is available on Netflix in America but not in Turkey.)  They each have their own buildings with their tombs inside.

Süleymaniye Mosque’s beauty starts before you even go inside the building.  Since it is on top of a hill, it offers an amazing view of Istanbul, including the Golden Horn, Galata Tower, Bosphorus, and the first bridge of the city that connects Europe to Asia.  It feels like you’re on top of the world.  And the grounds are meticulously kept, with lush green lawns and a beautiful cemetery.

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The cemetery spanned one side of the mosque and surrounded the enclosed tombs of the Sultan and his family

On the day that we were there, it was not crowded at all, and there were very few tourists.  There were a lot of Turkish families that were lounging on picnic blankets on the lawn, in the shade of the many trees, and their children were running around.  There were no scammers and the people working at the mosque were friendly and laid-back.  It had a completely different vibe than the tourist-inundated Blue Mosque, where workers have to be strict to control the throngs of people.

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The mosque courtyard
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Before going inside; I might have been living in Turkey for almost three years, but I’m not too proud to take a selfie while sightseeing

Inside, the mosque has been restored as recently as 2007, and it doesn’t look five hundred years old.  It has a red-orange carpet and the typical tiles and calligraphy of Ottoman-style mosques, but its main dome is interesting and sets it apart from others: it was destroyed by a fire in the 19th century and when it was rebuilt, they painted it in the Italian style that was popular at the time in Europe but is rarely seen in Turkey.  They also have young, very friendly, and English-speaking volunteers who are happy to answer any questions you have.

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A bit blurry, but you can see the painted dome ceiling done in 19th century Italian style, very different from most Ottoman mosques

(As a bit of an aside that might be helpful for people who are visiting Turkey for the first time, here are some tips for visiting mosques: women should cover heads and shoulders; short sleeves are okay; shorts and short skirts are not; some mosques will not let in anyone who has the bottom part of their legs exposed, including men in knee-length shorts, but it really differs from mosque to mosque with how strict they are with that.  You have to take off your shoes before going in and every mosque is VERY strict with this.  There will always be a place for you to leave your shoes close to the door; some mosques will let you carry them in as long as they are in a place bag, or if you are just carrying them in your hand, make sure the soles are pointing up.  If you are wearing shorts/a tank top/don’t have a scarf to cover your head, they will have clothes and scarves there that you can borrow–I have seen many men wearing borrowed skirts over their shorts in mosques–but I recommend just taking a more modest outfit with you to wear on the day(s) that you will be visiting those places, and sticking a scarf in your bag to throw over your head.  Also, there are usually separate entrances for people going into the mosque to pray and those who are just visiting, so follow the signs, which will most likely be in English.)

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Shoes off in mosques, always, without exceptions

I’m really glad that we decided to branch out a bit and visit someplace new.  I definitely recommend going to the better-known Blue Mosque because it’s absolutely stunning and worth seeing, but the Süleymaniye Mosque is worth a visit too, and is especially great if you’ve grown tired of the crazy atmosphere and crowds at the tourist sites.  This was also a really good reminder that even though I’ve been living in Istanbul for almost three years now, there are still so many places here I haven’t seen.  Sometimes it’s fun to go sightseeing in your own city.

And overall, the thing that struck me most about the Süleymaniye Mosque was just how quiet and calm it was, up on the hill all by itself.  In a city of 15+ million people, that is worth its weight in gold and jewels; even a sultan could tell you that.

How To Eat Like A Turk

I was cooking dinner tonight and as I got a lemon and a container of yogurt out of the fridge, it occurred to me that I use both of those things almost every day now– a habit that I only picked up after moving to Istanbul.  It got me thinking and I thought it would be fun to write up a post about some of the awesome food culture in Turkey.  Enjoy!

1) Put Lemon On Everything

Cut open a lemon and give it a squeeze over whatever you’re eating.  Seriously, it works with almost anything, and really brightens up flavors.

2) Put Yogurt On Everything, Too

One of the best things I’ve learned from living in Turkey is that yogurt is super versatile, not just for a sweet snack with tons of added sugar.  Turks use regular plain yogurt (sour-tasting) and süzme yogurt (strained yogurt, similar in texture to Greek yogurt) as a regular part of meals– both by itself, with spices (I love putting a bit of garlic powder and mint in plain süzme yogurt and eating it as a snack or a side), dolloped on meat, lentils, into soups…. it’s everywhere in the cuisine here, and it’s delicious.

3) Accept That Your Fish Stares Back At You

Fish in Turkey are almost always served whole, with head and scales and tail, and you de-bone it yourself and pick out the meat.  It’s also common to get little fried anchovies called hamsi and eat them whole, even the bones.  The first time or two it’s weird, but then you get used to it (mostly because it tastes so good).

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4) Realize That Small Dishes Are Amazing

Meyhane is a type of restaurant where you get a bunch of mezes (small dishes similar to Spanish tapas) for the table to share, along with a bottle or two of raki (anise-flavored liquor similar to Greek ouzo) and each person typically gets their own fish course.  However, I love mezes so much that my husband and I often skip the fish course and just have a long dinner of nothing but side dishes, and enjoy the heck out of it.  This is my favorite kind of Turkish dining.

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And sometimes, a kitten wanders over to help you eat your mezes

5) Carve Time Out Of Your Weekend For A Long, Glorious Breakfast

Turkish breakfasts are my other favorite kind of dining here.  Like in meyhanes, proper Turkish breakfasts are long and made up of many different small dishes.  Of course most Turks don’t eat like that every day (and who has time for that before going to work?), but oh man, Turkish breakfast is like brunch on steroids.

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6) Cut Down On Sugar

There isn’t much added sugar in Turkish foods, not even really in their baked goods.  Most of their cookies and cakes are way less sweet than their American counterparts.  There are exceptions to this, of course– like birthday cakes with lots of frosting, and tres leches cake has become very popular here– but generally cakes don’t have frosting at all.  When desserts are super sweet, it’s usually because it’s been soaked in syrup.

7) Drink Tea, Not Coffee

Turkish coffee is a cultural institution and great (albeit very, very strong– imagine a shot of espresso with the grounds still in it), but it’s usually only drunk after meals to help with digestion.  Instead, Turks typically drink black tea in the mornings and throughout the day.  The tea is strong too, brewed for 15-20 minutes in a double boiler until a concentrate is made and then mixed with warm water according to taste, and is drunk in little tulip-shaped glasses.

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8) Be Open To Weird Flavor/Texture Combinations

There are some Turkish dishes that most Americans would never imagine working.  Some of them I love, like künefe, a dessert that has melty cheese surrounded by shredded wheat, submerged in syrup, and topped with kaymak (a kind of sweet, creamy butter) and sometimes pistachios.  If it sounds heavy, it is; don’t expect to be able to move afterwards.  But it’s delicious!  Others, like ayran, a frothy yogurt drink with salt, have been more of an acquired taste.  Regardless, there are a lot of flavor combinations that seemed weird when I moved here that now seem totally normal and appealing.

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Yogurt and salt– what’s not to love?

9) Put Egg On Your Pizza

Or pide, to be more specific.  Pide is the Turkish version of pizza, and it’s the same kind of idea– there’s dough, and you put stuff on top of the dough, and you bake it.  Simple.  There are some differences, though, like the fact that pide doesn’t have tomato sauce.  Another (amazing) difference is that you can get an egg on your pide.  Either scrambled or just kind of cracked on top.  Such a great idea, I don’t know why more cultures haven’t picked this up.

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10) Speaking Of Eggs… Cook Them With Peppers And Tomatoes

I’ll be honest, even after two and a half years here, I don’t know how to cook many Turkish dishes– a lot of them require lots of hands-on work and long cooking times, and, well, I’m more about the quick dinners after work.  But one thing that is super easy to make and super delicious is menemen, where eggs are scrambled with chopped peppers, tomatoes, and olive oil (or butter).  My husband used to make an improvised version of this using salsa when we lived in the US, but real Turkish menemen is heavier on the green peppers.  You can also add different cheeses and meats to it if you want, or you can eat it plain.  Here is an English-language version of the recipe from Ozlem’s Turkish Table.

11) Roll Your Bagels In Sesame Seeds

Turkish simit are like thin, crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside bagels that have been covered in sesame seeds.  We used to find frozen ones in a Turkish store in North Carolina and they are worth the trek if you have an international foods store in your area.  Or you can try to make them at home, if you’re feeling ambitious.

12) Eat Raw Meat

Okay, not really… but there is a dish called çığ köfte, which literally translates into “raw meatball,” and did indeed used to be made out of raw red meat.  Now, though, there’s a wonderful vegetarian version made out of bulgar mixed with bread crumbs, tomato paste, walnuts, and spices.  Typically it’s eaten wrapped in a lettuce leaf and squeezed with lemon.  It’s a great light lunch or dinner.  My back-up life plan is to move to the US and market çığ köfte to hipsters as exotic health food (vegan! served with lemon and lettuce! made with exotic oriental spices) and charge them a lot of money for it without mentioning that it’s one of the cheapest foods you can get in Turkey.

13) Load Up On Lots Of Fresh Fruits And Vegetables

Unlike in the United States, fresh produce is one of the cheapest foods you can buy in Turkey, and there are vegetable and fruit stands literally on almost every corner of Istanbul, so it’s easy to grab anything you need on the way home.

There are so many more things I could talk about, but these are the things that immediately came to mind.  Hopefully it inspires some people to either book a trip to Istanbul or maybe just find a Turkish restaurant in their area.

Stranger in a Strange Land: When Being an Outsider Makes You an Insider

During lunch today with a coworker, our conversation turned to the different places that we’ve lived.  I’m American, and have lived up multiple places on the East Coast– from small rural towns to big cities– and have been living in Istanbul since 2014.  My coworker is Australian but lived in London for six years before moving to Istanbul in 2016.  The conversation turned to how difficult it can be to move someplace new as an adult, specifically how difficult it can be to make friends.  One thing we agreed on: making friends in Istanbul has been far easier than any other place we’ve lived, in large part because there is a thriving expat community here and everyone is looking for friends.

I went to university about an hour outside of Washington DC and then moved to Boston after graduation with two of my college roommates.  Making friends in high school and college is easy because you spend all day with hundreds of people your age, and you’re bound to like at least a couple of them.  There are also school-organized social events specifically created to let you meet and bond with people.  It’s a whole different ballgame as an adult without that scaffolding– it’s up to you, and you alone.  I loved living in Boston and did make some casual acquaintances through writing groups, but since I was living with my two best friends, I never bothered getting that close to anyone else; I was already having all of my social and emotional needs met.

That changed completely when I moved to North Carolina for graduate school.  I moved by myself and lived by myself– my first time living without roommates.  I was lonely and had a really hard time making friends.  My grad program was small, almost everyone was older than me, everyone was married or in a serious relationship, and many of them had kids.  I was a very single 24-year-old who didn’t have much extra time for socializing, given my coursework.  I lived in North Carolina for five years and did end up making absolutely wonderful, close friends there, both in grad school and then later at my job, but it took awhile and I felt very isolated for a long time before finally finding a social group.

Then I moved to Istanbul, and making friends here has been so easy.  I was looking online for a local writers group to join, and in the process I stumbled upon a women-only expat group.  I joined the group, went to one of their social get-togethers a week or so later, and BOOM, met my first batch of friends– out of that first group of maybe ten or twelve women, a couple become close friends and I kept in touch/socially hung out with a few others.  Later, I went to other social gatherings put together by the expat group and continued meeting people.  I wasn’t working my first year here because it took nine months to get a work visa, so I had plenty of time to socialize and ended up meeting dozens of women whom I could call friends.

If you randomly throw fifty women into a room, it doesn’t mean that they will all get along, or have anything in common.  However, it’s different when you’re an expat.  There is something– a few somethings, really– about being a stranger in a strange land that brings people together.  Everyone is in the same boat and is building their social network from scratch and looking for friends.  We automatically have at least one thing in common: we are the kind of people who are willing to move to a new country.  Being so far from your support network means that people are often almost desperate to connect to and talk to people who might understand them.  And just the mere fact that you’re both outsiders creates a weird sort of bond; we are yabanci, the Turkish word for foreigners, and that alone makes us identify with one another.

Rather than having difficulty making friends, the problem I’ve run into here is that people come and go quickly.  I have made incredible friends here, and watched most of them leave one by one for various reasons– usually for a job in another country.  The expat community is transient and friendships often feel like a long goodbye, when it’s known that someone doesn’t have plans to stay.

I’ve become less social these days.  I work long hours as a high school teacher and, quite frankly, when I’m not at work wrangling teenagers, I prefer to spend time at home or sightseeing with my husband rather than going to big meet-ups.  I also am incredibly lucky to have wonderful coworkers who have become friends, which has at least partially filled the gap of friends who have left.  I’m pretty happy with my muted social schedule.

Still, it’s nice to know that in this city 6,000 miles from home, new friendships are waiting in Istanbul’s crowded, hectic streets if I decide to seek them.  It’s counter-intuitive, to think that going so far from your own culture would make it easier to make friends, but somehow that’s exactly what happened.

Your Language App is Lying to You

Lately a targeted ad has been showing up a lot in my Facebook newsfeed: it shows a picture of a smiling woman above the headline “Three weeks to learn a language?”  It’s from Babbel, a language learning app.

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Screenshot from my phone: LIES, ALL LIES

Every time I see it, I end up either wanting to laugh or throw my laptop out the window, because that claim is 100% bullshit.  Learning a new language in three weeks is impossible.  I know that.  You know that.  Babbel knows it, too.  Why they claim it’s possible, I don’t know.

Don’t get me wrong– language apps and programs like Babbel and Duolingo can definitely serve a purpose.  If someone is going on a short-term trip abroad and just needs to know the basics, like how to politely greet someone and ask for prices and directions, they can be immensely helpful.  Or, if someone is a beginning or intermediate language learner who is taking a class and just wants a way to learn/practice vocabulary, they’re good for that too.  But anyone who has put the time in to actually learn, really learn, a new language knows that’s more than just memorizing some words and phrases.

Here’s the truth: I’ve been living in Istanbul for two and a half years and my Turkish is still really rough.  I can bumble my way through most interactions by now, and I can understand or at the very least get the gist of most of what is being said, but I still make a ton of mistakes and I am a far cry away from being fluent.  (I read once that it typically takes 3-5 years of immersion to become conversationally fluent in a new language.  I’m apparently on the 5-year track.)  (And, according to the same article, it takes 7 years of immersion to become academically fluent in a new language, in case you were wondering.)

When I first moved to Turkey, I arrogantly thought that I wouldn’t have much trouble picking up the language.  After all, I was a foreign language major in college (Italian) and am typically pretty good with words, plus I would be immersed in it– how hard could it actually be?

Really freaking hard, it turns out.  Turkish is nothing like the other languages I’ve studied.  I took Spanish and Latin in middle and high school, which helped with learning Italian in college, but Turkish is so completely and totally different that, looking back, it’s hilarious that I thought I would be able to teach it to myself.  I got a couple of grammar books and I bought the Mango Languages computer program for Turkish, and for a few weeks, I really did sit down and work on the Mango program each day.

Then I stopped, because I was learning nothing from it.

For starters, it mostly taught tourist Turkish; secondly, it didn’t explain grammar at all.  It was literally just memorizing a bunch of phrases.  And when you’re living in a country, knowing how to ask “How much do the evil eye beads cost?” or “Can you show me where Hagia Sofia is on the map?” (and even that is an incredibly difficult sentence in Turkish that beginners could never hope to actually say) only gets you so far.  What I needed to learn was how to build sentences and how to adapt what I was saying/understanding depending on context and how people were responding to me.  I needed to know those things even at the very beginning, when I was just starting out.

And that is exactly what you can’t get from those programs and apps.

Instead I signed up for an intensive language course which met for three hours a day, four days a week, for six weeks.  Taking an actual course, with an actual teacher, taught me the grammar basics that I so desperately needed in order to put sentences together.  Like Finnish and Japanese, Turkish is a languages of suffixes, where you pile suffix after suffix onto the end of a word rather than splitting ideas into separate words.

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Like this.

I absolutely needed someone to guide me through all of it, step by step, and yes, it involved a textbook and a lot of grammar exercises and repetition.  Even learning the basics wasn’t easy.  But it gave me the foundation I needed to absorb, learn, and adapt as I continued to be immersed in the language by living here.

Even with the language course, the first year or so of really trying to use Turkish on a daily basis was a challenge.  There were so many times when my language skills weren’t enough and I wasn’t able to do the things I needed to (like deal with the administrative staff at my former job, who spoke little to no English), or where I ended up feeling stupid and embarrassed.  It still happens sometimes– I ran into my neighbor in the hallway the other day and we exchanged pleasantries, then she asked me a question.  I understood that she was asking a question, and I understood the kind of question, but I didn’t know the main word she was using.  It was one I had never heard before.  So I couldn’t do anything but smile and say, “Anlamiyorum,” which means, “I don’t understand.”  And she smiled back and nodded and said, “Anlamiyorsun” (“You don’t understand”) and said goodbye and went into her apartment.  She was perfectly nice about it, but I wanted to shout after her, “I swear I do know some Turkish!  I promise I’m trying!”  (It turns out she was asking if we had bugs in our apartment.  I didn’t know the word for bug, since it’s not something that had ever come up class or at work or in a social situation.  Something tells me the Babbel app probably wouldn’t teach that one, either.)

Yet, even with all the frustrations and feelings of inadequacy, I know I’m getting better.  At some point along the way, I was able to start joking around with my husband in Turkish (or, as he calls it, being sassy in two languages).  There was the thrilling moment when I watched a 10-minute environmental PSA video in Turkish and was able to easily follow along.  In fall of 2015, I went to the bank to open an direct deposit account for my job and had to speak all in Turkish, and it was an unmitigated disaster; the banker and I couldn’t communicate sufficiently, she kept yelling if there was anyone who could help translate which led to about thirty people standing around and watching as I blushed deeper and deeper red and as she got more and more frustrated.  It took forever and did indeed end up requiring a translator.

However, this past fall, I went to a different bank for the same reason (direct deposit accounts are required for each job in Turkey) and was able to figure it out.  I knew I was making grammar mistakes as I was speaking, but the banker was able to understand everything I was saying, including when I explained the US tax system to her.  To me, it was a huge victory, in large part because I remembered vividly how humiliating the previous bank experience had been.  It’s times like those, when I have a measuring stick of sorts to see how far I’ve come, that make me want to continue rather than throwing in the towel.

Learning a language is a slow crawl, an uphill climb, a journey rather than a destination, a vast and ever-changing ocean that overwhelms as often as it delights (more often, usually).  And if all you need is to learn how to ask for directions to the Eiffel Tower or how to tell a waiter you want chicken for dinner, then by all means, download a language learning app.  But if you’re in it for a the long haul, gird your loins and prepare for a lot of setbacks.  It doesn’t come easy.

A Taste of Home, Displaced

Last Saturday I went to see Dalia Mortada, a Syrian-American journalist, talk about the work she’s been doing with Syrian refugees over the last couple of years.  Mortada came to Turkey in 2011 with plans to move to her family’s native Damascus and was thrown off course when the civil war started; she’s been in Istanbul ever since.  In her words, Mortada is unable to write about the war in Syria itself, so instead she has focused on telling the stories of the people displaced by the war through the lens of food.  Her project Savoring Syria was born, and she has traveled to several different countries to spend time with refugees, share meals together, and keep traditional Syrian recipes alive.

It was a great talk, with a great discussion afterward.  There are anywhere from 500,000-1.5 million Syrian refugees living just in Istanbul, but integration hasn’t been a priority and the refugee community mostly exists separate from the rest of us who live here.  It’s an odd feeling to be in the midst of a humanitarian crisis and yet still know so little about it on a personal level.

While I was listening to Mortada speak, two things really stuck out to me.  The first was when she talked about how the Syrian refugees living in camps in countries like Turkey and Greece not only missed the ability to cook, but had difficulty adjusting to not having the foods and ingredients they’re used to even when they can cook.  How the vegetables and spices are different, how they don’t have access to the things they usually use when cooking.  Even Mortada mentioned that she mourned the fact that she couldn’t find good pita bread in Istanbul, something that was a mainstay in her Syrian-American home growing up.

Anyone who hasn’t lived outside of their own culture cannot understand just how true this is.  When I moved to Turkey, re-learning how to cook was the biggest challenge I faced– not culture shock, not the language barrier, not the social interactions.  Just feeding myself.  I was a vegetarian for years before coming to Turkey and everything I was used to eating– portabello mushrooms, spaghetti squash, tofu, black beans, seitan– wasn’t available here.  There were no Mexican or Thai or Indian spices, no crock pots or microwaves.  I literally could not cook anything that I really knew how to cook, and even navigating the grocery store was an immense challenge until I understood the language better.

It’s something that seems so small, but in reality is a huge part of daily life– we feed ourselves three times a day, after all–and having to completely change how we do it is daunting and frustrating.  On top of that, we inevitably miss the things we can’t have.  I miss chunky peanut butter every single day, and real Mexican food.  When I go to the US to visit family, I spend as much time planning what I’m going to eat while I’m there as I do planning which friends I will see.  Don’t get me wrong, Turkey has great food, and most of the time I’m happy to eat it.  It’s just not home, not the things I grew up eating and taught myself how to cook.

And if I feel this way– the initial deep frustration at not having access to “my” food, the deep longing for tastes and textures I love– when I freely chose to move halfway across the world, what must people who have been displaced by war, who had no choice in leaving, feel?

The other thing that stuck with me was when Mortada described how the refugees she’s been in contact with are opening up restaurants all over the world– in Germany, in the United States, in Canada.  And I thought to myself, Yes, this is how it goes.  One of the things I absolutely love most about the US is the immense diversity of food available, and most of that is thanks to the large number of immigrants.  In a mid-sized American city, you can easily go out for Vietnamese, Greek, Ethiopian, and Cuban food in one weekend and think nothing of it.

People seem to forget that virtually every big wave of immigrants or refugees has been feared and discriminated against at first.  America is such a melting pot and now there are so many nationalities that we inherently consider “American-American,” like Germans or Irish or Italians, that each faced their own difficulties when the communities first came here.  But eventually, it becomes normal and everything blends together, and no one even notices it anymore.

With the tragedy of the current humanitarian crisis, I’d like to have hope that one day, it will normalize and blend together; the cornerstones are being laid now as Syrians fan out into the world and take their food and their culture with them; one day, hopefully not too long from now, maybe we will all say, “Oh, let’s go to that Syrian place downtown” the same way we do with Italian or Mexican.  History repeats itself, for better or for worse, but sharing food culture is one of the “for betters.”