Why Turkey? – Reflections on a Former Life in Istanbul

“Where are you from?” “How long have you lived here?” “Where do you work?” “How much do you make?!” and, of course, “Why Turkey?” It was not long after I had first arrived and looked out from a cement castle in a “sit-tay” in Ataşehir, feeling the hot winds carry the call to prayer to my ears, that I began to be asked these questions. The setting I had been placed in made the last question all the more absurd; IKEA walls, and IKEA plumbing, and aluminum railings to keep us in from the surprisingly tall and open windows as we looked across baby blue swimming pools, evenly spaced between identical buildings. I looked out from another window in another block on the rise of a hill overlooking endless construction with its dust spray over the landscape. I didn’t realize at the time that Turkey could be so much more than this sterilized hideaway a few blocks from the Palladium shopping center.

Why Turkey?
(Photo by Michael Barngrover)

In some parts of the world, personal inquiry is addressed in a timid coaxing way, such as how one tries to coax a frightened cat out from a hidden spot, moving slowly forward and back. I quickly realized that Istanbul was not one of those places. Here, in this city answers were instead demanded. People wanted to know what was up with me, what I was up to, and other things I was yet to understand. On mini-buses sloshing their occupants from side to side headed to unknown places listed on windshields and in rugged cafes and shops, I found myself stumbling in speech. I would carefully listen, observe, and study my Turkish; then spout out what they wanted to know, correct in my head but misunderstood from my lips. “Ah, yabancı! You don’t know Turkish.” They would say to me, telling myself and each other that I was foreign.

Why Turkey?
(Photo by Michael Barngrover)

I quickly embraced a set of auto, though relatively honest, generated answers to the reoccurring questions that followed me. I handed out these exchanges around the circles that I knew to travel, building the blocks for some of the things that I wanted to say, trying to get got. As these blocks grew more substance, so did my Istanbul world, expanding out along the winding backstreets and neighborhoods with their fleshy old culture and vibrant characters I met. I found myself telling people that I was from a range of places in the general vicinity of where I was from and my workplace could be very vague, big city paranoia keeping strangers at a distance. I learned enough Turkish to understand the random taxi drivers who were asking about my salary, then I used my Turkish to tell them that I didn’t understand the questions and quietly enjoyed the passing scenery outside the window. Later on, I found myself telling random ablas that I had been here for less time than I had to avoid a scolding. “Neden Turkçe bilmiyorsun?” was a conversational path I had been down enough times. Is it because I am lazy?

These conversations became part of Istanbul’s music along with the car horns, calling seagulls, and cat love screams. Patterned into it was the chance to voice what I thought of it all. I found myself experimenting with these dialogues, working them out like a puzzle in a foreign tongue, striving to find more interesting and deeper paths to take these everyday interactions.

(Photo by Michael Barngrover)

For me, “Why Turkey?” even far outside that hill surrounded by barbed wire, was still the question that came with the most nuance. I could be addressing a smirking rendition of the question spat out over a flat Efes in a cafe, “So, why would you choose this city, being that there are many reasons not to, such as…?” the question finishing with a bit of humorous, or not so humorous, self-deprecation. Or, perhaps, it may have been a more pure-hearted version of the question, lined with a sense of, “What series of life experiences could have possibly led you, a person very much NOT from here, to becoming a person who is building an existence here?” Or perhaps, it would be something else entirely. All of the varying contexts, building color to my answers as I produced them.

Always put forth with a genuine curiosity and leading to indulgent musing both internal and external, this question struck a resonant chord, rung again and again by the constancy of its asking. Further depth was added by the fact that it was not only asked by the locals that surrounded me in my new(-ish) life but also by those that I had known in different times and worlds. During Skype phone calls to loved ones and in chance family gatherings where people were rounded up to culminate a short visit to where I came from people were prompting, coercing, and demanding to know, “Why Turkey?” “Are you still living there?” “How long are you going to live there?” The emotional weight of these interactions sliding up and down on scales of intensity.

Why Turkey?
(Photo by Michael Barngrover)

Those of us who immigrated away from a home, find ourselves laying out our answers carefully as we traverse these lines. We converse backward and forward slowly, stretching empathy out towards a person who was known much better in another time, painting with metaphors to best bring what we want to say to the light. Sometimes its laid out in blog posts filled with brilliant photos and emotional wordplay. Sometimes its presented alongside a series of aesthetic delights shared in person or in words; breakfast tables strewn with jams and cheeses, a turquoise Bosphorus stroll filled with passing tankers and dolphins that are just always out of sight. I have always found it very hard to find the way to best express it. It’s a culmination of things and emotions that change over time.

One year, I remember flying into Atatürk airport after a return summer visit to the land that produced me. I made amazing progress through the visa line, cut through the milling crowd just outside the airport, and turning down a cigarette from the taxi driver, began casual conversation as I directed him along the streets to my home. I remember the feeling of relief at being back in a place where I knew how things operated, the streets and the people. They made some sort of chaotic sense, moving in patterns that I had grown accustomed to, while the place and the people that had been the foundation of my formative years had changed, becoming something separate from me. I realized then how much I had grown into the spontaneous decision I had made just a few years before.

Why Turkey?
(Photo by Michael Barngrover)

Why Turkey? Perhaps, because after one walks the same cobblestone streets over days and then years, a decision becomes something else. To the natives we expats converse with in Istanbul, perhaps this is also hard to express. In our arrogance, we have grown roots that spread deep below the city in the solid and memorable connections we build, becoming a part of it through the consistency that we have chosen it again and again, yet refuse to give up that thing that makes us different. We take pride in having a special perspective, but also more humbly can celebrate the uniqueness in charms we have not always had in our lives. Perhaps we can have a love for easy baklava, impassioned speech, or street cats that is hard to equal by those that haven’t lived without it.

However, when I remember the voyage from being that stranger looking out from a hot windy hilltop over the stretching tangle of rooftop and highway to becoming a small part of it hidden on a backstreet adding my own bit of color to the undefinable masses, the human connections are what mattered most. Big cities are known for being impersonal and insensitive. But, in Istanbul, it was in the everyday relationships built with neighbors and shopkeepers through years of insignificant yet constant interactions that the most meaning was found. It was in the casual exchanges occurring with strangers randomly thrown into my life momentarily by unknown rhythms of the city, and it was in the people whose lives became a part of my own, as I chose these people again and again.

Why Turkey for me is now in the past tense. But it is not a question of why I chose it or why I continued it. But how it became a lasting part of me.

All images courtesy of Michael Barngrover.

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Joe Vickers

Joe Vickers is of average height and standard weight. At least, that is what he would like to think. He majored in Creative Writing and has believed in self-expression in most but not all forms for all of his adult life. Istanbul has grown on him both painfully and pleasantly for the past six years.

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