By Lily Qi
I have meant to write about my last year’s trip to Turkey for a while. The recent turmoil in Turkey and its neighbor Egypt brought back memories that prompted me to revisit that unique experience of last spring.
What a difference a year makes. About this time last year, I was having dinner at an Egyptian friend’s home, when several of the local Egyptians around the table talked about the newly elected President, Mohamed Morsi, with much anticipation and excitement. Morsi would be Egypt’s first democratically elected president. No one would have foreseen that just a year into the office, he was ousted recently amidst protests and violence which has cost dozens of lives.
A month earlier, in May 2012, I visited Turkey as part of a capital region government delegation and left with wonderful feelings about Turkey’s vitality, hospitality and beauty. And yet just last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cracked down on the protestors who opposed a plan to turn a park in Taksim Square in Istanbul into a shopping mall, leaving several dead and hundreds wounded.
I am glad I visited Turkey last year. As a culturally rich and diverse country, Turkey spans both Asia and Europe and sees itself as the bridge between the East and the West. Its largest city, Istanbul, was the capital of the ancient Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Geographically, today’s Turkey is a mere fraction of its ancient self during the height of its power spanning Asian, African and European continents. The Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul, with a soaring dome and striking architecture, was the world’s largest cathedral for almost 1,000 years before it was turned into a mosque and now a museum.
Some of the most fascinating sceneries, blending mountains, buildings and water, reminded me of San Francisco with its layered beauty. At the same time, some of the housing structures also reminded me of Shanghai in the 70’s and 80’s. From ancient ruins to modern metropolises, from schools and nonprofits to business, government, and media, our visits exposed us to all facets of the Turkish society with the constant indulgence of Turkish tea served in bulb-shaped glass and the signature Turkish coffee.
This was my first time visiting a Muslim country. One of the most memorable experiences was probably the call for prayer, which could be heard five times a day starting before the crack of dawn, permeating through the air. Both mythical and musical, it was an experience unlike any other whether you hear that in the middle of the day at a bustling street corner or in the stillness of night in your hotel room. In the public, Turkish women looked modern and fashionable. Some wore headscarves with carefully coordinated handbags and outfits while just as many didn’t wear headscarves, which are more of a fashion statement than a religious symbol, as I was repeatedly told by the locals and the tour guide.
In spite of Islam’s deep influence on its culture, Turkey is a mostly secular government and society with a parliamentary democracy and multiple parties. While in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, we got the special treatment of visiting the Parliament and sitting at the back to observe the discussions on the floor among the major political parties debating whether to allow foreign-born Turks to vote in Turkish elections. A woman presided over the parliamentary debate, which was quite refreshing given what we typically think of women’s roles in Muslim countries, especially in politics.
Of all the visits and conversations, the ones at Turkish families’ dinner tables were the most meaningful and enriching. Our conversations ranged from American presidency and U.S.’s roles in the Middle East, to sports, youth, economy and America’s cultural minorities. The fact that I am a government official from the U.S. but a Chinese immigrant clearly fascinated them.
Here in the capital region, the local Turkish community, though relatively small, is highly active, youthful, and well-organized. The annual Ramadan Iftar dinners often involved Christian ministers as well as a cross-section of government, civic and community organization leaders, and the Rumi Forum actively facilitates interfaith and intercultural dialogues throughout the year. This is a community eager to be understood and proactively reaching out to build cultural ties and understanding.
Summer is a travel season for many. Wherever we go and whatever we encounter, the most fascinating thing will always be what we learn about our own humanity from learning about others.