Sunday, August 11, 2013

American in Turkey

The call to prayer undulated from the minarets of mosques, mixing with the burble of Turkish voices and the smell of roasting lamb rising from various food stands.  The narrow streets bustled with activity as a crowd consisting mostly of men and a few women went about their afternoon business.  With ease, the Turkish crowd made their way around vendors displaying their wares of cheap goods and name brand knock-offs, while simultaneously avoided being pushed off the high curbs into the manic vehicle traffic.  The noise of honking horns as the drivers wove between the other cars, ignoring painted lanes and most other rules of the road, joined the other sounds of a Turkish city.  Visiting Turkey at any time would have been an amazing and wonderful experience.  Visiting this Muslim country two weeks after the Iraq war broke out added an element of concerned wariness for travelers coming from the West, especially for Americans.

I was traveling with a culturally diverse team: British, Swiss, French, Chilean, and one other American.  We were in Turkey to do some work with churches and orphanages, so we had taken the time to learn of the cultural differences we would find ourselves immersed in.  The Chilean felt the most comfortable in this foreign land, but we all felt the cultural shift.  The team was enjoying the opportunity to learn about the foreign culture, eat the wonderful food, and be surrounded by the staggering amount of ancient history housed in this exotic land.  The wonders of Turkey and Turkish culture were all enjoyed, even while playing with a lonely child in an orphanage or doing physical labor.  A day of labor had just ended and sustenance was our new priority.

We followed our noses to find a small restaurant.  It was not very crowded, with a clientele of men ranging through the ages, from the trendily dressed young men to the more traditionally dressed older men playing backgammon.  The women in my team were the only females in the restaurant.  The atmosphere of the restaurant was quiet and relaxed; the various conversations were muted, the backgammon pieces clicked quietly, and an underlying background noise coming from a small, mounted television.   

We were just finishing our meal when there was a noticeable change in the atmosphere of the restaurant.  Brian, my fellow American traveler, and I noticed what the television was showing about the same time.  I could feel my face pale and my body tense.  I could not understand the words that were coming from the television, but I understood the message being said by the images showing on the screen.  I was not the only one.  A Middle East news station was covering the activity of American soldiers in neighboring Iraq.

Pictures flashed across the small screen.  Images of American soldiers with guns, American soldiers next to dead Iraqis, and American soldiers standing next to the rubble of Iraqi buildings paraded across the television.  Pictures of Iraqi men standing proud and Iraqi women cowering, faces dusty and eyes wide, gave a somber contrast.  The message was clear: Americans were the invading force, the bad guys.  The Turkish men in the room had heard us talking in English; they knew we were from the West.  Brian and I visually stood out amongst this group of mixed cultures, for we were dressed casually in jeans and sneakers, a recognized American characteristic.  We could feel the attention of the Turks moving to our group.  Whether the Turkish men recognized us as Americans, or they saw the entire team as members of the infidel, decadent West, I still felt the sudden pressure of being an American, a representative of a potential enemy.  Suddenly, I was not just a Western tourist; I was an American.  An American that could be considered an enemy strictly because of the country that birthed me.

The others in the group also noticed the television and felt the change of atmosphere.  The check was called for, and we left the restaurant as quickly and quietly as we could.  The group was somber and watchful as we made our way back to our lodgings.  What had just occurred was quietly discussed, with Brian and I frequently exchanging glances.  The conversation did not linger long on the television broadcast, as we did not want to dwell on the message that was being sent out to the people that we were going to be spending the next two months with.  As a group, every effort was made to be culturally sensitive and to be aware of what was discussed in public, all in the effort of building bridges across cultures.  While everyone we had met so far had been extremely hospitable and friendly, we had just been put on notice that not everyone we met during our time in Turkey would feel that way. 

It was a sobering experience, one that brought home that we were traveling in a Muslim country shortly after America had declared war on Iraq.  While there were other events that occurred in Turkey that made my team feel unsafe, including a bombing and the simple fact of being a Western female, what happened in the restaurant was the only time being an American made me feel unsafe.  The fact that I was an American, not just an Alaskan, or a foreigner, slowly faded from my immediate consciousness, but I never forgot how I felt to be judged solely on the basis that I was born in the United States of America.