crosscultural education

Presented In Istanbul: Tiptoeing Through The Taboos

I was going to marry a Turk. But first I would face a cultural gauntlet meeting his family in Istanbul. My fiancé Burç stressed gaining approval from his influential mother Ayten, a pretty woman in her late 50s. She would be tricky to charm since Ayten treasured the central position she commanded in the lives of her unmarried sons, and spoke little English.

“She won’t be able to follow your accent,” briefed Burç. Yet he insisted the language barrier wouldn't impede my proper acquaintance with his polished and instinctual mother.

“It’s not what you say, anyway. It’s how you behave.” Way to freak me out.

 

HIS MOTHER'S CHARACTER WAS COMPLEX. A modern European sophisticate, she possessed vintage morals, frozen in nineteen-sixties Istanbul when the family relocated to Belgium for two decades.

Over the Atlantic heading to Turkey, Burç lightened the mood, regaling me with festive stories of Turkish dinner parties and moonlit boat trips on the Bosphorus. All were punctuated with belly dancing by paid entertainers and guests alike, men shaking it, women clapping.

"Whenever the generals came over for dinner they'd end up belly dancing," Burç recounted, digging deeper into his memories to the days when his father Süleyman worked for N.A.T.O.’s military command.

Resettling in Istanbul, the dignified septuagenarian was famous for unrestrained shimmying after polishing off a few glasses of anise-flavored rakı, the national liqueur.

This I had to see.

The plane set down on the outskirts of the sprawling, hilly city of Istanbul and we made our way across the Bosphorus Strait to Anadolu, the Asian side of town. Family introductions went smoothly in the leafy neighborhood of Şaşkınbakkal.

Süleyman supplied me lounging slippers, subtle acceptance.

When my father-in-law to-be donned the collared Banana Republic sweater I brought even though it was too small, his wife Ayten scoffed he was showing off his physique.

Ayten was  a tougher sell. She put away the Chanel bath products I gave her with a small nod of thanks.

 

SHE DOTED ON MY FIANCE, her hand on his shoulder as she set plates in front of him. I detected the shrewd instinct he had described. If she didn’t focus on me my importance would be minimized. We commenced with tea and meat pastry borek, in her mushroom-colored dining room dotted with crystal figurines and Lladro porcelains. Süleyman drew on his pipe while Ayten gossiped about the neighbors.

I sat looking pleasant. No hint of belly dancing on the horizon.

Two nights later we helped celebrate a local Turk’s 45th birthday party in the remains of a sixth century Byzantine cistern. Candles illuminated the rough-hewn bricks of the subterranean disco. An air of boredom permeated the affluent crowd in trendy sequined tops and business suits as they grazed from huge platters of nuts, cheese and grapes.

“After cake, we have belly dancers,” the pixie hostess revealed.

“Perfect for my husband,” she bopped to the music, glancing at her spouse who hadn’t moved a muscle all evening. Then with a shriek she ran to greet new arrivals.

A THRILL SHOT THROUGH ME, SECRET WISH GRANTED: to witness authentic belly dancing on the soil from which it sprang. Having a simmering fascination with the art since I was a young Californian peeking through the window of a Middle Eastern dance studio next to my Judo dojo, the mincing and shaking of the harem dance could be the ultimate seduction, something to learn. I had made it to the source, and belly dance’s dormant role in my life was about to change.

The DJ switched to a percussive track by Tarkan, a local pop star influenced by traditional music. Two scrawny, tanned Eastern European girls moved through the crowd, venally eyeing the men who would slip them tips.

There was nothing sensual about these performers, padded silver bra tops creating a semblance of cleavage on birdy chests, transparent pantaloons slung low on adolescent hips. Limber, their moves were more acrobatic than dancerly.

I’d seen better technique on a beach in Oregon, when my crafty cousin demonstrated her years of study, ample belly undulating like a stormy sea.

Good sports, the Turks clapped like robots.

“Excuse me, I will be sick,” announced one slender dark-haired guest as she pushed past.

“Kicked out of the gymnastics program in Belarus,” Burç whispered in my ear, our attention drifting. We leaned in for a kiss when a dancer whipped us with her blonde hair. Making clear it was no accident, she pivoted twice more at close range. We stopped kissing.

 

“THAT'S A NATAŞA FOR YOU,” Burç said, using the blanket term Turks have given female emigrants spilling into the country since the collapse of the U.S.S.R. They often fill jobs natives reject -- for instance, “No decent Turkish woman would put on a costume and dance,” Burç explained, sounding like the son of a decorous mother.

Point taken. Being 'Natasha' in Turkey was synonymous with foreign prostitute and possibly much, much worse -- trafficked woman. Major unfortunate. Mixed up with the mob.

The next night we were invited to dinner at a family's traditional wooden mansion overlooking the Bosphorus. Toward the end of a civilized evening, the jovial host, who I had met several times in New York, tried to draw me into a dance.

Süleyman did a few turns and retired to smoke his pipe. No other takers.

I stood there, the same extroverted woman the host had enjoyed in the States now watching him twitch his right hip, arms raised shoulder height, fingers snapping. It wasn’t much of a belly dancing move, easy to master. If I did it, my host would be delighted.

Yet, if behavior spoke more than words, appearing eager to belly dance might be deadly for a prospective foreign daughter-in-law with a Russian-sounding name.

 

I HAD ONE OPTION, PURE THEATRE. So I shook my head, bashful and refusing to imitate my host’s moves. A smiling Ayten patted the spot next to her on the sofa, where I joined her in respectable solidarity.

“Crazy, that one,” she said to me, shaking her coiffed head.

I’d have other chances to dance, ones that would cost me less.

 

Back in New York, the trip was judged a success. Everyone had found me presentable, including the primly modern Ayten.

She'd covered a lot of territory to reach a positive conclusion about me, I found out. Burç admitted when she first heard of me months before, Ayten thought my name was Natasha.

[This essay first appeared in Cornucopia magazine, 3/03]

Read what happens next, when we get married in a glitzy Istanbul ceremony.

+++++ What high-stakes cultural gauntlet have you faced and how did you maneuver your way through it?

The Accidental Anthologist: Creating A Literary Harem

All the editions of Expat Harem bookTurkey often makes the news for suppressing its authors. Ironically, as an American expatriate in Istanbul I found my voice -- by creating a literary harem of my expat peers. My third month in Istanbul I found my way to an American women's social club. Milling among the crowd at the consul general's residence, I introduced myself by describing my writing project.

"At 40? You're too young to write a memoir," snorted a white haired librarian as she arranged second-hand books on a card table.

"Istanbul's such chaos, I'd be surprised if you can concentrate," thought a freckled socialite in tasseled loafers.

My memoir was going to happen. It had to. It was the cornerstone of my survival plan.

 

MY BRILLIANT CAREER WAS PORTABLE. I moved to Istanbul in 2003 so my Turkish husband could take a job in mobile telecommunications. Even though I lacked a formal proposal for my high-concept travel memoir charting the peaks and valleys of what I was calling “an adventurous life,” I already had a literary agent waiting to champion it. I was thrilled my spouse would be developing the kind of advanced cell phone software that excites him and that emerging economies demand. Yet my international move required a defense strategy.

"I'm not going to waste a minute sitting in language classes, diminishing my facility with English," I informed him.

"Whatever makes you happy," he replied.

In my mind I'd be on an extended writer's retreat, free from the daily distractions of our “real life” in New York City, where we had met.

I'd be an asocial expatriate writer who would one day emerge at the border clutching my passport and a masterpiece.

This exotic vision had been percolating since I'd last been an expat—in Malaysia. I’d spent five years rotting away in the tropics like a less-prolific—and more sober—Somerset Maugham.

Foremost to decay in the equatorial heat was my personality—the core of my writing voice.

In steamy Southeast Asia, my first long-term stint overseas, language and cultural barriers prevented me from expressing even the simplest aspects of my identity. When I told people I was a writer they'd reply, "Horses?"

 

I WAS DECOMPOSING at time-lapse speed. Vintage handbags and L.A. sandals sprouted green fungus overnight, while silvery bugs infested my college texts and a decade of diaries. I was also mistaken for a very different kind of Western woman in Asia, like when a crew of Indonesian laborers working at my house wondered when I was going to drink a beer and take off my shirt.

Three years later, in cosmopolitan Istanbul, I was a resurrected ambitious American prepared for my future. I imagined a successful literary life abroad—supported by a defensive version of expatriatism. "This move won't turn my world upside down," I cockily assured worried friends and relatives, who recalled my anguished Kuala Lumpur days.

Now I was all about the work. My plan to avoid alienation in Turkey was foolproof.

Istanbul, a hilly metropolis of 12 million, made Kuala Lumpur look like the sleepy river town it is. I couldn't envision navigating a car on its traffic-logged streets or squeezing into public minibuses or straying too far alone without a translator. I couldn't wait to hole up at home with my computer, DSL connection and a view of the Bosphorus.

Upon my arrival I joined an expat social club for some English speaking company. There I met the scolding librarian and the socialite. I also ran into an upbeat Michigan writer named Jennifer Gökmen, a 10-year émigré also married to a Turk. She had no doubt I would write my memoir. We both needed some writing support so we created a workshop with a handful of other American women.

Within weeks, the memoir stalled as I struggled to map my entire existence... dear god, what's the arc of my life? Maybe that caustic librarian was right! My resistance to Turkey started to wear down.

Jennifer and I began playing with a proposal of our own: an anthology incorporating essays about our Turkish lives.

I was bursting with that kind of material. The cultural gauntlet I faced on my first trip to meet the family. My glitzy Istanbul wedding. Inspired by the original harem of the 15th century Ottoman sultans, where foreign-born women shared their cultural wisdoms, new arrivals comparing notes with old hands, we figured we formed a modern version: the Expat Harem.

And that’s when the harem walls closed in.

 

SILENCED BY WHOOPING COUGH: I contracted a mysterious and ancient ailment of the pharynx. Local doctors unfamiliar with the diagnosis prescribed medications for asthma and antibiotics to treat a lung infection, neither of which I had. I passed the cough to Jennifer. For the next six months we were both homebound, hacking to the point of incontinence, succumbing to every little flu. I avoided anything that might incite a new round of spasms, like conversation and laughter, the coal smoke emanating from rural shanties, chills from the ancient city's stone walls, gusts of autumn blowing down from the Black Sea. The only thing Jennifer and I were suited for was speechlessly working, and we only wanted to think about the anthology.

"Embedded here, we're destined to be alien."

I brainstormed in an email to Jennifer, pointing out the dilemma of life abroad—even for those who want to blend in to local culture, it’s near impossible. Our cultural instincts will forever lead us to different choices— from simple aesthetics like lipstick color to complicated interpersonal communications.

Topkapi Palace harem door by A.Ashman

"The Expat Harem is a place of female power," she shot back, linking us to an Eastern feminist continuum little known in the Western world.

Harem communities offered women the possibility of power—in the imperial harem, they offered the greatest power available to women in this region. These women had the sultan's ear, they were the mothers of sultans. Several harem women shadow-ran the Ottoman empire, while others co-ruled.

Giddy with our anachronistic metaphor, I replied.

"Ethnocentric prison or refuge of peers—sometimes it's hard to tell which way the door is swinging!"

Like a secret password, news spread as we called for submissions from writers, travelers and Turkophiles. Fascinating women from fourteen nations poured their stories into our in-boxes. They shared how their lives had been transformed by this Mediterranean country in the past 50 years, moments that challenged their values and their destinies as nurses and scientists, Peace Corps volunteers and artists.

These women's tales were not universally known.

Many had never before been published and all were minority voices in a Muslim country with a reputation for censorship.

 

ALTERNATE REALITIES flooded over me: eerie Sufi pilgrimages to Konya, the intimacies of anthropological fieldwork on the Black Sea, glimpses of '70s civic unrest in Ankara, a wistful gardener's search for the perfect Ottoman rose in Afyon. Many represented a depth of involvement with the country I couldn't imagine: harvesting dusty hazelnuts on a brambly hillside, trying to follow the 9/8 rhythms of a clapping Gypsy, sharing space on a city bus with a dancing bear in the Technicolor 1950s.

I whispered to Jennifer, "Compared to these women, I'm a cultural wimp!"

Their struggles to assimilate nudged me to forgive my own resistance, and inspired me to discover the country, the culture and the Turkish people.

Now I could use the editing skills I had been suppressing since I was an infuriating child who returned people's letters corrected with red pen. From the comfort of my home office-with-a-foreign-zipcode, I was able to shape other writers’ stories. The anthology rewarded me for postponing the memoir, by laying the foundations for a more insightful next book. The joys of collaborating with writers from my home office clarified confusing aspects of my character—like how I am a prickly introvert who nevertheless craves connection with people.

One late winter day Jennifer and I stopped coughing and sold Tales from the Expat Harem to Doğan Kitap, a prominent Turkish publisher.

"That's more like it," snapped the librarian when I next saw her at a club meeting, my reputation somewhat rehabilitated in her eyes.

Four decades’ worth of expatriate self-discoveries earned its shelf space, more than my own 40-year life story would have.

"It's a love-letter to the country. I put it on my house guests' pillows!" shared the smiling socialite.

The anthology became a #1 English-language bestseller in Turkey and was recommended as a social and cultural guide by National Geographic Traveler and Lonely Planet.

My literary career and conflicted mindset about life abroad now had a promising new cultural context in the expat harem.

 

I FOUND MY THEORETICAL HOME. I arrived an insular writer afraid of losing my voice. In a temporary silence, Turkey suggested an empowering metaphor. It seems the country not only connected me to a worldwide band of my global nomad and expat writing peers, it provided a place to flourish out of restriction -- and raised my voice in the cultural conversation.

[This essay first appeared in JANERA: The Voice of Global Nomads, January 2008]

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What surprise context has your location provided you?

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[18 months, 2 expat writers, one feminist travel anthology with three editions. Our first book! A bestseller. How'd we do it? Read the story of making Tales from the Expat Harem]