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LPT Symbol Reviews of Best Books about Turkish (and Turkey)

Is there anything more riveting than a scandalous tell-all book review...?
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Books in Review
Turkish Reflections...
An Elementary Turkish Language Text...
Turkish Food, Good Eats......
Culture Shock...
Harem Nights...
Istanbul Guide (with shiny pages)...
Language Learner...
Turkey -- Lonely Planet travel...
Ancient Civilizations and Ruins...

Culture Shock! Turkey
by Arin Bayraktaroglu

Golly...Can our intrepid reviewer ever really be shocked?! Well, let's just find out ...

Generally my friends and family were openly sceptical when I said I was quitting my job to move to Turkey. My mother burst into tears and was convinced I had lost my mind.

Before moving to Turkey, I looked everywhere for something that would give me some idea of how different it would be to actually live here. Certainly the myths of what people thought it would be like were "interesting".

Most Westerners have a rather stereotypical idea of what to expect in Turkey. For many, it is televised flashes of Middle Eastern riot scenes or quaint biblical vistas with Mother-Mary-lookalikes riding on donkeys. Then too, we can't underestimate the impact of the movie industry and Midnight Express and the seething underworld of poppies and white slavers. Deep down though, I think it goes back to the Crusades and how we thought we were the good guys in that one...

Culture Shock! Turkey is an excellent intro into the "real" world. And most of the initial culture shock I experienced in moving here was that it was a great deal more modern than I'd ever expected.

This little book gets right down to the nitty gritty: sex, politics, religion, headscarfs, patriotism. It covers a little deeper than surface level for all these things, and it also gets into the social circumstances of hospitality, giftgiving and gift-receiving, funerals, circumcisions, and hiring household help. Few stones are left unturned.

There is also a nice little section on language, that is quite well done. Good little formulaic expressions and what they mean and when to use them, as well as social interaction words, numbers, requests, offers, thanks, direction and bargaining words. Basically, it is an excellent book to walk you around life's little cultural mud holes.

It has a good index, a short and a lightweight bibliography, but the last chapter is a cultural challenge quiz that I found lacking...

You see, I've encountered much more interesting and useful cultural challenges to use as examples! And I disagreed with her suggestion when dealing with cabdrivers, who may not know the way to your destination -- because I have gotten into many cabs (in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir) and been assured by the driver that he knew my destination address exactly. But when we reached the general destination area, out of the car he'd pop -- to ask for directions from assorted cigarette vendors and restauranteurs and the odd pedestrian... It's part of the game.

The one glaring omission by the writer was her underestimation of the culture shock for the typical American housewife -- in her quest to satisfy generic domestic needs. In Turkey there are little quirky things that say quietly inside your head, "We're not in Kansas, anymore, Toto..."

Fresh meats and produce, while incredibly good and fresh, are often not packaged -- and come with no directions. Now, you may scoff and say that that's the way it should be, but after 25 years of cooking up American meals one tends to develop a fondness for certain shortcuts.

The local butcher shop (kasap) is filled with carcasses hanging from the ceiling and when you ask for your "et" (meat) it must be in kilograms or fractions thereof. (How many dictionaries cover that???) The manav is your fruit and vegetable seller and if he likes you he gives you the undented stuff...also in kilograms. (Do you know how many green peppers vs. potatoes are in one kilogram...? I do.)

Substitutions for familiar foods can be confusing, too. For instance, the 16 oz. can (except it's in liters) of tomatoes I was going to use for spaghetti sauce, turned out to be tomato paste!

Spices do not come in small jars clearly marked -- they come in 40 lbs. bags [Ed. Warning ! Our reviewer does exaggerate at times...Or, maybe you guessed already?] with names that don't translate -- and everyone thinks I'm insane for wanting 3 tablespoons! (Well to be fair, I suppose they could think I was insane for other reasons too...)

And when you enter the open-air seafood market?... Large, many-colored, sea fish stare at you disconcertingly.
(I am not kidding...The eyes really do follow you around the room...)

Oh, I almost forgot...The kitchen oven is marked in Celsius -- not Fahrenheit -- making for occasionally charred baked goods. Yes, more than once. Sigh...

And one last thing...If you had to survive on just the fresh baked bread, the yogurt and the honey, you could live forever in Turkey. Ummm...

Ms. Bayraktaroglu covers most of the standard, run of the mill, "culture shock" type things you will come across. And she does it very well. But we all bring our own version of "culture" with us and we see civilization through the sunglasses of our own experience. You can never be completely prepared to come to Turkey, but you will be constantly -- and for the most part, pleasantly -- surprised.
JS (April '97)

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Harem : The World Behind the Veil
by Alev Lytle Croutier

Omigod! This time our peregrinating reviewer wanders behind the curtain of one of our all-time favorite dreams (No, not the eunuchy one, thanks...) Did anyone remember to bring the lite-bondage gear?

"The European mind has become so imbued with ideas of Oriental mysteriousness, mysticism and magnificence, and it has been so long accustomed to pillow its faith on the marvels and metaphors of tourists, that it is to be doubted whether it will willingly cast off its old associations and suffer itself to be undeceived." Julia Pardoe (1839)

This book absolutely fascinated me. Most women, at some time in their lives, have had images of slave markets and captive odalesques -- images that play with their imagination and fantasies as they dream dreams of Nancy Drew, and Wonderwoman, and Scheherazade.

With puberty, fantasies morphed and 'rock star' and 'movie star' elbowed in... But sometimes, in spite of woman's lib (or maybe because of it) the captive-fantasy remained.

The author of Harem is a woman born in Izmir, Turkey -- with childhood memories of servants and odalesques who lived with her family. Her Grandmother and Great Aunt were both among the last to live in harems before they were legally abolished. The author's personal memories of stories told by the women of her extended family are wonderful.

There is a lot of excellent research that went into the writing of this book. Included are poems and letters and diary entries from women who lived in harems in the 17th through the 20th century. There are travel accounts from merchants and sailors going back to 1545, as well as accounts from people like Lady Montague (1717) and Florence Nightingale (1850), who each spent time visiting harems.

There were some literate women in the Harem who never mastered the language of their captors. Some of the women practiced witchcraft. Some rebelled and were killed. The average age in the Harem was 17. Most female children were married off at 5 to much older men who couldn't see them alone, until they were 13 and had reached puberty.

Harems must have been boring places for the most part -- and there are many similarities to the Convents in the middle ages (except of course for sex with the the Sultan once in a blue moon, and the raising of children...) There really wasn't that much to do. You could sew, eat, go to the baths, shop, sleep, take care of a child if you had one -- and pray... That was about it.

You could not, however, leave, see or talk to any male (other than the Sultan) who was not a eunuch -- and they were rather strange folks... The author devotes an entire section to history, and types, of eunuchs -- and the procedures of castration, its effects on sexual desire, and the marriage of eunuchs. It is interesting that men often have fantasies of harems as well, but the reality was just as nasty as it was for women. There was only one Sultan -- the rest got turned into eunuchs or killed!

So the women of the Harem channeled their energy into vanities, and vied for positions of most-favor -- while trying to maintain their status in a group of 200 to 300 women. It was a fiercely political environment where women fought each other for every tiny scrap of power, or what was perceived as power. From 1541 to 1687 women ruled the Ottoman Empire through the power they created for themselves using the tools forged in the Harem.

The use of drugs was fairly common -- mostly opium, and hashish to forget... And it was also a fairly violent life where women died quite regularly. Not just of childbirth and old age, but of strangling, drowning and poisoning, too. But doing drugs only worked if you hadn't caught the fancy of the Sultan and had abandoned all claims to the power of the politics. Otherwise, life swung between bored to death and death.

The Baths really seemed to be the high point of their lives. It was their only social outlet -- the first "women's club" as it were. The Sultana's had private baths. But everyone usually got together anyway -- for the social enjoyment of it all.

When I got to Turkey, I myself wondered what a Turkish bath would be like. And, after some fits and starts, I got up the courage and had one at a five star hotel in Istanbul.

Are you interested in a full account of what it's like at the
Ladies Turkish Bath???

Start to finish it lasted an hour. Certainly there is a difference in going to a five star hotel and to a regular public bath. (And bathing a la Turque is probably not for everyone.)

But it was a wonderful experience that did more than simply fire the imagination. It would seem that the women in the Harem did have a trade-off, if they got to spend part of each day in the baths. Hmmm...Maybe I'll decide to stay in Turkey -- just for the Turkish bath. It's such an addictive luxury -- and in western countries, it just isn't the same...
JS (April '97)

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