Talking About Commitments To Work, World, & Myself

Excerpt of interview with Expat Harem editors and the women's website, "for women committed to their work, their world, their soul mate, their children, their friends, themselves." 1. Tales from the Expat Harem is a collection of essays by Western women living in Turkey. Where did you get the idea for this book?

Anastasia Ashman: Jennifer and I met at an American women's social group in Istanbul, formed a writing workshop with some of the other members and soon realized we were all writing about our Turkish experiences. We thought they might begin to piece together the puzzle that is Turkey, so we brainstormed an anthology proposal that would encapsulate our work. We imagined the Expat Harem concept as foreign women in Turkey constricted not by physical walls of the harem, but virtual walls. For instance, a lack of language skills, undeveloped understanding of the culture, the ethnocentricities we cling to. The Expat Harem is not a negative thing, necessarily. Most expats will identify with its survival technique. The title also positively reclaims the concept of the Eastern harem. It's been a victim of erroneous Western stereotypes about subjugated women, sex slaves, orgies. In fact, the harem is a place of female power, wisdom and solidarity. Like the imported brides of the Ottoman sultans, we consider our writers inextricably wedded to Turkish culture, embedded in it, though forever foreign. We put out the call for submissions - to groups of women, writers, travelers, expatriates, Turkey expats, and Turkophiles. We heard from more than 100 women in 14 countries who felt their lives have been changed by Turkey. They came pursuing studies or work, a belief, a love, an adventure: an archaeologist, a Christian missionary, a Peace Corps volunteer, a journalist. Thirty stories spanning the entire nation and the past 40 years share how they assimilated into friendship, neighborhood, and sometimes wifehood and motherhood, and reveal an affinity for Turkey and its people. Not everyone is Western. We have one Pakistani contributor, along with writers from Ireland, the UK, Australia, Holland, Guatemala, and the US.

3. In "Water Under the Bridge," Catherine Salter Bayar laments that although she knows that she, an independent American businesswoman married to a Turkish man and now living in Turkey, would have to adjust to small town life in Western Turkey, she "didn't realize that adjusting to life in a house of fifteen would be a one-way street." Do you think many of the foreign women who have made Turkey their home have found that their adjustments are one-way?

Anastasia: No, I don't think so. It's certainly not the case in my life and for most foreign women I know. If anything we're in a constant state of negotiating which way the street is going at any given time to accommodate both our instincts and those of the people around us! Also, keep in mind Catherine's in-laws are from a rural village in the far east of Turkey with a low level of formal education and that background factors in to their world view and their ability to be flexible to new ways of thinking and doing things. There is a huge spectrum of society in Turkey, all with their own quotients of modernity and comfort with Western traditions. My Turkish family is secular, modern to the point of being trendy, and highly Europeanized. Everyone's mileage varies.

6. In your essays, you discuss your parents' reactions to your decision to marry and live in Turkey. How would you describe their feelings and have they changed over the years?

Anastasia: My mother worried she wouldn't be able to wear pants in Turkey and my father was hung up on news reports about the black market in kidneys, and the reverence in which Turks hold the military. In liberal Berkeley these things seemed suspect. Coming to Istanbul and meeting my Turkish family they were shocked to find a sophisticated, world class city and modern people wearing whatever they wanted. There's a lot to absorb about this complex nation and I think my parents are now better attuned to the limited information circulating about Turkey than they were before. One story, one view does not cover it!

7. Anastasia, it seems as if you acclimated easily to Turkish traditions and customs, perhaps as a result of the fairy tale wedding to your Turkish husband. What is it that you most love about Turkey?

Anastasia: I wouldn't credit my acclimation to a fairy tale wedding! The fact it went so smoothly was an indication of the depth of cultural sensitivity I strove for and my ability to collaborate with my husband. I continue to draw on many hard-earned lessons from my five years as an expat in Southeast Asia in the 1990s, from basic expatriatism techniques to melding with a Eurasian (Turkish) family. However I don't mean to say it's not a fairytale, because it is.

I love Turkey's heavy history overlaid with vivacious new layers of lives and dreams. Modern-day Turkey has more than its share of fabulous places, people and events -- using its breathtaking Roman amphitheatres, Byzantine basilicas, Crusader castles, Ottoman fortresses for cultural activities like concerts, exhibits, festivals. There is no mistaking that this is an important place of power and energy and ideas, and has been for centuries. Istanbul's historical significance as the center of the ancient civilized world is never far from my consciousness and I find that inspiring.

8. How did you decide to make Turkey your home?

Anastasia: My husband and I were living in New York, in what became Ground Zero after September 11th. Transport, basic shopping, air quality, employment: they were all affected badly by the attacks, the dotcom bust and the bottom dropping out of the New York media market. Meanwhile he'd been running the tech side of his brother's Turkish company for years, and when the cellphone work ramped up we decided to give Istanbul a try. The mobile scene here was so much more advanced than in the USA., it gave him more cutting edge opportunity. He was born in Istanbul but moved to Belgium as a toddler when his father took a job at N.A.T.O., so it promised to be a similar adventure for each of us. With my portable writing career and a degree in archaeology it wasn't hard to say yes to a stint in ancient and fabulous Istanbul! We came with the intention to evaluate our options in two years and recommit or make a change. So far nowhere and nothing has been able to top our experience in terms of quality of life: Spacious apartment with an unobstructed view of the Bosphorus and the hills of Istinye which look like Switzerland, organic groceries delivered weekly from the farm to our door plus the secretly-stupendous Turkish cuisine, all kinds of family and community support, holidays on the Aegean and around Europe, a more leisurely pace of life. It's kind of hard to beat.

9. Many of the women in your anthology write about the way women are treated in Turkey - from the role of a daughter-in-law to the rules regarding dating. Do you think being a woman in Turkey is more difficult than being a man?

Anastasia: We might ask that same question about any country in the world. Turkish men have gender and cultural expectations placed on them as well - and expat men here certainly labor under their own set of macho constraints. Although we do enjoy some leeway for being foreign, Western women in a liminal East-West place like Turkey have special confusions - what becomes of our homegrown gender markers of a modern woman like sensible shoes and unadorned faces, doing our own home repairs, not being a docile servant girl? The biggest culture clash we face may be the definition of femininity and the levels of our particular embrace of those definitions. In general I find Turkey full of pro-woman surprises. For instance, the positive attitude about motherhood and breastfeeding here puts America to shame. Cabbie driving too fast? Tell him you're pregnant and presto, he's a model citizen of the road. Several of the country's biggest business titans are women - groomed and promoted by their dynastic families, while female executives abound and women make up the majority of university professors. Turkey's had a female head of state, and awarded women's suffrage fifteen years before France. Is being a woman in Turkey more difficult than being a man? Probably. How much more difficult will depend on your socio-economic background, your family makeup, and your educational opportunities.