Turkish Delight: A Conversation on Culture

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This week, I chose to have dinner at a Turkish restaurant with a few friends of mine for my visit and conversation. We each enjoyed a delicious Turkish meal, complemented by the spices that were our centerpiece, featured in Ottoman style dinnerware. After dinner, I had the chance to talk with the restaurant owner Gencer Gökeri, a native Turk who moved to Seattle in the 70’s, and who was very enthusiastic about Turkish culture and history. I learned much about the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, and he had more legends and religious stories than I could write down. My favorites were about the cats near Lake Van who have two different colored eyes, one brown, and one blue (and they’re real!). Another was that Cleopatra used the Pumakkale thermal pools as a bath, to keep her skin clear and beautiful. I also loved the Islamic story of Abraham, who was to be burned by Nimrod in the city of Ur (Sanliurfa, or Urfa). But when he was placed over the wood, God turned the wood into fish, and the fire into water, which then became the Halil-Ur Rahman Lake.

Most interesting, however, was Turkish history. The Ottoman Empire ruled over 110 different peoples, and was the center of the world. After its fall, “out of the ashes, 38 countries rose,” (Gökeri, G. Personal communication, November 15, 2014) none of which spoke Turkish or were Islamic. Within Turkey, the culture is very diverse. It was the “bridge” between countries, before we had air travel. Both the spice road and the silk road ran through Turkey, and along the way there are caravan souks (palaces) every 20 or 30 miles. These palaces housed 400-500 people at a time (and their camels!), were several stories, and were free for the travelers, so long as they were paying Turkish taxes and brought trade to Turkey. Early Christians, hiding from Roman oppressors, dug the caves of Cappadocia, creating miles of cave systems that were later controlled by the Ottoman empire. These caves have lasted centuries, and are still used today as hotels and homes, and tourist sites. Turkey (and the Ottoman Empire) also has a history of tolerance for other cultures. Gökeri mentioned that in his own hometown, there were four Christian churches, one synagogue, and one mosque, despite Turkey being an Islamic country. During WWII, Jews fleeing Europe used Turkey as an escape route (Turkey serving again as a “bridge”), and many wound up living there permanently.

Gencer also spoke about the Turkish community in Seattle. I learned that there are around 7 or 8,000 Turks in Seattle today. Many moved to Seattle in the 70’s and 80’s for Boeing and Microsoft jobs, along with many other cultures. There are several organizations supporting the Turkish community. The ACACIA foundation was formed by Turkish-Americans in Washington in 2002, with the idea to introduce Turkish culture into American society. The Turkish American Cultural Association of Washington (TACAWA) is responsible for many Turkish cultural events, such as the Seattle Turkish Film Festival (November 20-23rd!) and the Ahiska Turks Friendship Festival. According to Gökeri (2014), the Ahiska (or Meskhetian) Turks were oppressed for many years in the Ahiska region of Georgia, and were deported to central Asia. In 2005, about 65 or 66 thousand were brought to the United States as refugees, and about 2 or 3 thousand were brought to Seattle (bringing the total Seattle population up quite a bit!). Many of these Ahiska Turks were then given the opportunity for jobs and an educations, and several of them were actually employed at the restaurant we visited. According to Gökeri, they were more Turkish than he was, although they had never been to Turkey in their lives.

As a future educator, I felt that the biggest impact for me was the idea that even though Turkey is one country, there is actually a hugely diverse population there. Even more important, even within the Turkish community in Seattle, the people are widely different. Gökeri frequently talked about the continued tolerance of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey, allowing many types of people to settle within its borders even when others would not. Teachers should be aware of these differences within cultures. Just because two people are from the same country (or the same community within our state), does not mean that they have the same beliefs and backgrounds. I think this only further emphasizes the need for educators to learn about their students as individuals, and not groups. Even within the US, our cultures are vastly different. My boyfriend and I come from two very different cultures (East Coast, West Coast), although we are both American. This idea can ring true for all groups, from all walks of life.

I really enjoyed talking with Gencer about Turkey. He was very excited and knew so much about history and Turkey that I couldn’t write down enough. He even had a wonderful map that he pulled out to share with me, and allowed me to take a photo to include (below). Also, here are some interesting facts about Turkey that he told me:

  • Turkey is the only peninsula to run east to west in the world
  • Istanbul is the only city in the world to sit on two continents (Asia and Europe)
  • About 88% of Turkey is in Asia, and 22% is in Europe (a rough estimate he gave me)
  • One of the more important souks is called Ishak Pasha Palace
  • Turkish poet Rumi was a prophet of Sufism, the mystical, inner dimension of Islam

If you are interested in some delicious Turkish food, head up to Fremont to Cafe Turko! There are all kinds of cool trinkets you can buy, and you can even purchase many of the spices and desserts to have later.

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3 thoughts on “Turkish Delight: A Conversation on Culture

  1. Meghan, all of your facts about the culture are very interesting. This is definitely a culture that I wouldn’t think of experiencing so it was great to read about it. I also think it was a great point that you made, about how we must realize that even though two people come from the same culture they can have two completely different backgrounds. I think we have this idea that if people are from the same place they are going to have the same values and morals, when in reality that isn’t the case. I honestly have never stopped and thought about this concept but now that it has been brought to my attention I will definitely be bringing this idea into my future classroom.

  2. What a cool experience. I like that you not only got to learn through food and culture, but you go to learn about Turkey geographically also. I think it is important that educators know about diversity between cultures AND within cultures. Thanks for sharing.

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