I have always suffered from wanderlust. Even as a child I recall my fascination with images of far-off places and strange people. I have also been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit in my youth and experience many such distant places and new people.
When I decided to leave the University of Texas and take time to travel in Europe, my focus was on the usual destinations – Italy, Germany, France, England, etc. I had no idea that the most incredible and memorable experiences that I was to have overseas would be during six weeks in Turkey.
Let me first say that I was not raised in a religious household. Weekly worship was not part of our routine. My parents left such decisions to me, to be made as a more informed adult. Though I consider myself an agnostic I respect others’ choices and beliefs, even if they are not in keeping with my own (excluding, of course, those ideologies that fall into the categories of extremist or fundamentalist.)
That said, when I was talked into spending time in Turkey by a group of friends, I had no preconceived expectations of the Turkish people beyond a certain inescapable sexism to be expected from the men. And male chauvinism did abound. Even from the very first minute, when I was shocked to have a 70-year-old Turk repeatedly brushing intimately by me in a border-crossing line so that he could sniff my hair. The men on the streets of Istanbul trying to hawk their wares were constant sources of openly salacious looks and verbal “flattery” best not repeated. The most benign came from a boy who could not have been more than ten, encouraged by his older companions: “Lady! Lady! Lady, you are a dream, oh really!” Wherever we traveled in Turkey, the same archaic mindset toward women was apparent. Frequently women appeared in public literally covered from head to toe in shapeless black, the only part of them visible their eyes.
But what I did not expect to find in Turkey was an incredibly warm, kind, and hospitable people. Their open giving was beyond what I have experienced anywhere else in the world. Time and time again, exploring ancient, tiny towns, we were followed by children bearing gifts and adults offering invitations of tea.
By far, the one incident that stands out in my memory is that of a family of ten that lived along a trail we followed one day to meet a new friend at a lake at the base of a cliff. On our way to the water, we passed by the entire group standing beside the trail in front of their tiny three-room home, the children offering the flowers that we had become accustomed to. We stopped briefly to say “hello” and “thank you” (this strained our working Turkish to the limit, and they had absolutely no English.) We then went on to find our friend at the lake, without luck. Upon our return we again passed the little house, only to be practically dragged within by the children, shown seats, and handed cups of chai. The language barrier was formidable, so we and our hosts spent a rather awkward few minutes drinking tea and smiling and nodding at each other.
Many gesticulations later, they had made it clear that they wished for us to stay for dinner. We tried to politely decline, still concerned with finding our missing friend.
When they finally seemed to understand, the mother and grandmother disappeared for a few minutes while the rest indicated that we should wait. We were astonished when the women walked back into the room with two grocery-sized sacks of food and a large loaf of bread, insisting we accept them for ourselves and our friend! Of course, it was impossible to reject such generosity and kindness, even though it was quite obvious to us that a family living in such poverty could little afford to give away so much. We left them waving from the edge of the trail, humbled and moved beyond expression.
This is just the most vibrant memory of many wonderful ones that I brought back with me from Turkey. I have not returned there, so I cannot really know how much the Turkish people’s attitude has changed toward Americans since 9/11 and its aftermath. Certainly a great many American minds have become willing to paint all Muslims with a fundamentalist brush since the attacks, so it seems reasonable to expect, with human nature being what it is, that they would repay us in kind. But I do believe that, in spite of what we see and hear through the media each day, their basic goodness and generosity will not have changed. That there are a minute number of extremists compared to those who remain true to the tenets of their faith. I was lucky enough to stroll down a dirt path and get a glimpse of the real Turkey, of people who struggle through every day and still find room in their hearts to be giving to strangers from a foreign land with foreign beliefs. These are the true followers of Islam.