8 Ways Turkey Is Nothing Like You Expect

A Mosque at Sunset - Istanbul, Turkey

With the recent protests in Turkey the country has been launched into the news for the second time this year.  As many of you may recall Turkey was previously in the spotlight when a female American backpacker was murdered.  These events have built upon existing misconceptions and stereotypes about Turkey which are grossly inaccurate. They lead a lot of tourists to rule both Istanbul and Turkey out as a viable travel destination.  A year and a half ago I booked a ticket to Istanbul.  I had no clue what to expect. All I knew was what I had heard from trusted friends, travel bloggers, and my brother. Each insisted it was a must-visit destination. I was anxious. It was my first Muslim country.  I was nervous about what to expect and torn about booking the ticket even after I locked in my flight.  Boy oh boy did I have Turkey pegged wrong!  Not only did I enjoy Istanbul, but I fell in love with it. So much so that this past March I returned for my second visit.  If you’re like most western tourists, what you know about Turkey is flat out inaccurate. So, let’s dive into eight of the common misconceptions I hear most often.  I’ll focus mostly on Istanbul, but this information holds true across western and central Turkey.

Women Relaxing - Istanbul, Turkey

1. Turkey: The Extremist Muslim Country

For many westerners who have lived in countries dominated by Judeo-Christian tradition, the thought of visiting a Muslim country is a bit unnerving.  Especially in light of the tensions that have arisen between Islamic groups and Judeo-Christian groups over the last two decades. Tell someone that a country is Muslim and automatically images from movies like Aladdin merge with films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – all weighed within the context of terrorist hostage videos, Al Qaeda, and suicide bombers.  Other stereotypical imagery that comes to mind is that of streets filled with burka-clad women, and entire cities coming to a complete halt five times a day to bend knee and pray towards Mecca.

While things are changing (perhaps for the better, or perhaps for the worse) in Turkey, one thing is certain.  Istanbul and large portions of Turkey, while Muslim, are nowhere as extreme as most of us have been led to believe.  You will find women in burkas, true, but you will also find women in burkas here in Copenhagen. In practice, I was shocked by how few women were actually wearing hijabs or burkas. While it varies depending on the part of Istanbul you’re in, the number of women dressed in burkas was only slightly higher than what I am familiar with in the Norrebro neighborhood where I live here in Copenhagen.  It IS more common to see women with head scarves of some sort, but these are often moderate Muslims roughly as spiritual as your typical American Christian.

The founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk, is deeply respected and holds a George Washington like status for the Turks.  The Turkey he established was structured to be a secular and democratic nation-state.  The Turkish Government has, as a result, actively worked to discourage fundamentalism and religious influence on government. Turkish currency features great scientific minds and scientific subjects.  The 10 Lira note features a mathematics equation, while the 5 lira note features the atomic symbol and a strand of DNA.  This level of secularism and visible declaration for science is something that puts even the US to shame and offers insight into the compelling contrasts that define Turkey.

When re-framing my understanding of Turkey and the Turks, I like to take a historical look at the origins of Istanbul.  It is easy to forget that Istanbul, formerly Constantinople and before that Byzantium, spent the majority of its formative years as the capital of the prosperous Eastern Roman Empire. It was not until the 1400s with the Ottoman conquest that Christianity took a back seat in Istanbul to Islam.  While Istanbul is predominantly Muslim there are still more than 120 active churches and around 20 active synagogues in the city.

Religion in general, and Islam more specifically has and continues to play an important role in shaping Turkey.  It is not, however, something that tourists should be concerned about or feel endangered by. Just remember that when you treat people as individuals matters of faith, nationality, or race tend to be far less divisive.

The Maiden's Tower and Lighthouse

2. Turkey Is An Arab Country

One of the things that frustrates Turks is the common misconception by outsiders that Turkey is an Arab country.  Turkey is not, in any way, an Arab country.  In reality out of nearly 79 million Turkish citizens only 2% are Arabs.  Compare that to Brazil where 3% of the population is Arab or France where a full 9% of the population is Arab.

Turks have a strong national identity.  They speak Turkish and associate more closely with Europe and European culture than with the Arab world. The country also has a very complex power dynamic and somewhat difficult national identity due to the massive geographic area it covers and its historic position in the center of one of the world’s greatest cultural crossroads.  This clash of cultures is a fascinating subject which can be a topic which necessitates tactful discuss with Turks, and which makes for incredible reading and a rich culture.

Best Friends - Bodrum, Turkey

3. You Can’t Drink Alcohol

For many of us, understanding the relationship between Muslim countries and alcohol is a bit confusing. At the end of the day, we don’t really care about the specifics. We just want an affordable drink that doesn’t get us arrested, thrown in jail, or force us into doing something illegal.  Many of you have no doubt heard horror stories about trying to get a drink in Saudi Arabia, about booze delivery services in Iran, or about how locals and tourists have different rights of access to bars and booze in Dubai. I had no idea what to expect in Istanbul, so it was with quite a bit of surprise that I learned upon arrival that alcohol is readily available in Turkey.  While it is quite expensive by local standards it is still affordable very affordable. Beer is readily available in most cafes, particularly in tourist-oriented areas. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Turkey has several national breweries. Of these, the largest is Efes Beverage Group. You also have a vibrant club and bar district situated around the Taksim area just off Istiklal Avenue in downtown Istanbul.  You may recognize Taksim from news articles about the current protests.  It’s one and the same and while this has impacted the immediate area surrounding Taksim it has done little to stifle the greater tourist experience.

The Taksim area at night is a fantastic mixture of hip bars, restaurants and night clubs.  I was shocked to see that young folks would often walk from bar to bar with an open beer in hand. While not strictly legal enforcement seemed to be minimal.  You’ll also find beer, wine and hard alcohol readily available across the rest of Turkey.  When visiting Cappadocia we had several lovely local red wines and in areas like Antalya or Bodrum a few beers on the beach is an absolute must.

Tulips in Bloom - Istanbul, Turkey

4. People Are Rude

I was expecting the people to be rude, pushy, and constantly trying to take advantage of me. In particular I was dreading the shop vendors and street merchants. I wasn’t alone.  I’ve heard time and time again that people have avoided Turkey out of a fear of dealing with the merchants.  Boy was I wrong.  The Turkish people are incredible.  They are warm and the culture revolves around hospitality. You’ll drink more tea than you can bear and while occasionally merchants have an agenda – they’ll saddle you with a steaming hot cup of chai and then try and convince you to buy something while it cools – most are just happy to have a conversation with you in the hopes you consider their products.  They also tend to be very curious about you, your family, and how you are enjoying their country. Similarly, most of the merchants are respectful and nowhere as aggressive or high pressure as you might fear. The exception to this is in the extremely touristy areas such as the Grand Bazaar where high pressure sales are slightly more common. Even there though, they were nowhere near as pushy as I expected. You can read about my first intro to Turkish hospitality here.   I’ve found that many open and friendly folks tend to be members of the Kurdish minority.  These individuals in particular are extremely friendly to the US and Americans.

The Grand Bazaar - Istanbul, Turkey

5. Turkey Is Dangerous

Turkey is quite safe. There are some subtle cultural differences that people should keep in mind, women in particular, but those considerations are quite similar to many other parts of the world. When you consider Istanbul’s size – 13.5 million officially, 18 million unofficially – and compare it to other major metropolitan areas I felt as safe, if not safer in Istanbul than I do in Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York, or other large American cities.  The rest of the Turkish cities you’ll likely visit as a tourist: Cappadocia, Antalya, Bodrum, Izmir, etc. are all extremely safe.  Even now, in the midst of the turmoil and protests, the majority of the tourist areas are unaffected and I would not hesitate to plan a trip back to Turkey.

Church of the Holy Savior in Chora

6. Turkey Lacks History

Istanbul is, in effect, Rome’s sister city. It is, without question, one of the world’s greatest historical cities.  Yet, somehow, it is largely overlooked. The combination of ancient history, Roman history, and Ottoman history combines with Turkey’s central position to provide a spectacular assortment of historical, culinary and cultural attractions. You need at least 5 days to see Istanbul properly. Visits to other parts of Turkey will require a similar amount of time as there are incredible Crusader castles, historic Greek ruins, and wonderful Roman artifact collections scattered all over the countryside.

Busy Turkish Streets - Istanbul, Turkey

7. It Is Primitive

Another misconception a lot of people have is that Turkey is poor and/or relatively primitive. Many assume that the country has more in common with developing nations than fully developed ones.  While this holds true in the country’s most rural areas, and on the outskirts of some of its larger cities, it is grossly inaccurate when discussing the country’s western half.  Istanbul has a vibrant transit system, and is every bit as modern a city as those you’ll find across other parts of Europe. They have a prolific number of state-of-the-art shopping malls, new theaters, international airports and a thriving business center.

The Turkish Spice Market - Bazaar, Bodrum, Turkey

8. Squat Toilets Are Everywhere

While it sounds silly to say, there are a lot of tourists who avoid countries out of concerns over their bathroom conditions. The good news is, you’ll very rarely find a squat toilet in the modern parts of Turkey.  What you will find periodically are water hoses to supplement the toilet paper for those who have a preference one way or the other. The handicapped stall which is present will also always be a traditional western-seated toilet. So, have no fear, Turkey is a western-friendly toilet destination.  Just make sure you pack a little backup paper just in case.

Istiklal Avenue - Istanbul, Turkey

Turkey is an incredible destination.  I now find myself recommending Turkey in the same breath as places like Scotland’s Isle of Skye, Prague, Central Italy and Budapest. It will defy your expectations and leave you breathless.  Don’t wait to head to Turkey – I can promise you, it is far less of a heart palpitating adventure than you might expect.

While these are eight of the most common concerns and misconceptions I hear, there are many more.  If you have a question of your own, or have something to add, please share it in the comments.

Terrorism & Technology – Ignorance is Bliss

I can’t sit idly by any longer keeping my view on this matter to myself or limited to select conversations. The House’s recent vote to approve the FISA bill with provisions allowing immunity for the Telco companies that participated in the blatant violation of constitutional rights has left me steaming. Call it the straw that broke the camel’s back if you’d like but it’s time to take a real look at everyone’s favorite word – terrorism – and the delusional behavior that’s allowed otherwise intelligent Americans to sign off on atrocity after atrocity while selling the constitution and bill of rights off wholesale.

Willing to give up our constitutional rights in the name of security? All because you’ve been told and believe it will prevent Islamic terrorist attacks and that air travel, buildings, etc. will be safer and that you and your fellows will no longer be at risk if we give up enough of our liberties or allow enough supervision? I’ll let you in on a little secret. Not only are you wrong, but you’re so far off base you should be embarrassed. You want something to be afraid of? I’ll share the TRUTH with you and let me assure you it’s FAR scarier than the cinematic garbage you’ve been cowering from for the last 7 years. Only, these threats are hardly mentioned. These are just a taste of the real threat you face and the sad reality is that the steps being taken, and the rights you’ve offered up for sacrifice won’t make you any safer from them.

Edit: In reviewing this post I’ve decided that I need to attempt to clarify a key point before going into the following illustrations. I’m sharing these threats not to illustrate the danger we are in, but rather to illustrate the general dangers out there…To paint a big picture in the hope it helps you understand better, the real situation.  I believe that once you understand the situation better that you will, I hope, be less willing and susceptible to fear tactics based on over exaggerations/lack of perspective. I’ve included the following illustrations because while useful, I don’t believe big picture statistics such as the following register for the average individual. On the off chance that they do please note that the CDC has reported the following top 10 causes of death in the U.S. in 2005: Heart disease: 652,091, Cancer: 559,312, Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 143,579, Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 130,933, Accidents (unintentional injuries): 117,809, Diabetes: 75,119, Alzheimer’s disease: 71,599, Influenza/Pneumonia: 63,001, Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 43,901, Septicemia: 34,136.  When you add up these 15 diseases they killed 1,891,480 in 2005. Keep in mind that these statistics do not accuratly include the estimated 400,000+ people who die from smoking each year, or the 43,000+ estimated car accident fatalities which occured in 2005.  Consider how these threats impact your behavior and then consider how your behavior and ability to live life to its fullest has changed given your reaction to the threat of terrorism.  Now please consider these illustrations. I remind you they are real and shared not to drive you to give up your constitutional rights but rather the exact opposite. These are shared to educate and to give you perspective. Before you give something up paramount to the quality of your life, consider the relative nature of the alleged threats to your life.

Illustration I: It’s 113 degrees outside right now, tonight’s low will be 77 degrees. My air conditioning is running, I have constant access to cooled water, and I still go home dehydrated. In fact when I walk into my apartment I have to take off my shoes, or wait for the tar that’s melted onto them from the asphalt in the parking lot to melt. On my way home from work I’ll pass through at least 10 traffic lights. When I get home and go to cook dinner I’ll pull a T.V. dinner out of my freezer and microwave it. Now imagine the death toll that we could expect among Phoenix’s 6 million residents if the power went out for 2 days. The death toll aside, imagine the catastrophic economic impact?

Don’t think that’s possible? The Washington Post, January 19th 2008:

In a rare public warning to the power and utility industry, a CIA analyst this week said cyber attackers have hacked into the computer systems of utility companies outside the United States and made demands, in at least one case causing a power outage that affected multiple cities.

‘We do not know who executed these attacks or why, but all involved intrusions through the Internet,’ Tom Donahue, the CIA’s top cyber security analyst, said Wednesday at a trade conference in New Orleans.

The article goes on to quote:

Over the past year to 18 months, there has been “a huge increase in focused attacks on our national infrastructure networks, . . . and they have been coming from outside the United States,” said Ralph Logan, principal of the Logan Group, a cyber security firm.

At the time MSNBC noted:

In a test last year, the Homeland Security Department produced a video showing commands quietly triggered by simulated hackers having such a violent reaction that an enormous generator shudders as it flies apart and belches black-and-white smoke.

Illustration II: The power issue aside, let’s talk about Nuclear threats. We are, after all discussing invading Iran for continuing to pursue nuclear weapons – but again, let’s look at the REAL threat to Americans. Compare the impact of a foreign nation located on the other side of the world in which, despite all of the posturing and what’s happened in the middle east over the last 6 years, has a relatively positive view of the U.S. or…the potential harm just one or two rogue hackers could inflict if they were able to hack our nuclear facilities. Let’s look at Arizona again. Arizona is home to the Palo Verde nuclear power plant which has 3 reactors and is the largest in the U.S. It’s also located less than 50 miles from DOWNTOWN Phoenix. Anyone in the mood to speculate what might happen if hackers were able to compromise the facility and initiate an overload resulting in an enormous generator literally ripping itself apart? Oh, and I forgot to mention Presidential Candidate John McCain stated last week that his future energy policy would focus on building 45 new nuclear reactors in the U.S. by 2030 (NY Times).

Illustration III: Feeling nervous? That’s hardly anything compared to what would happen if malicious hackers penetrated the FAA’s flight system. You thought Sept. 11th was bad? As I’m writing this I did some flash research. According to FlightAware there are currently over 5,500 airborne aircraft being tracked by the system right now, with over 53,000 arrivals tracked in the last 24 hours. What happens if the software coordinating part or all of that traffic is compromised?

Illustration IV: Attended a major concert or sporting event recently? Pretty tough security right? Pat downs, searches, no opened water bottles or containers. Heck, more than a few of us have had our small nail clippers confiscated for “safety” reasons. All in the name of preventing terrorism and keeping you safe – it makes you feel better, right? One catch – when I was a student at ASU we snuck all sorts of things in through those security measures. Luckily we were focused on getting in tortillas and bottles of alcohol not plastic explosives and marbles. The student section typically holds several thousand of Americans best and brightest youths, packed shoulder to shoulder. The pathetic thing is, that despite all the money being spent and time being wasted, those security precautions still miss more than they actually catch. Just last week I was talking to a friend, who realized after the fact that she’d accidentally flown with a can of mace in her handbag. It’s an uneasy feeling I’m sure more than a few of you have shared.

Illustration V: Let’s put death, destruction and devastation aside and look at the information wars. Earlier this month an important, though little covered, news story broke noting that at least 3 members of Congress have reported that their computers had been compromised by Chinese hackers looking for information on dissidents. Even more interesting is this quote;

The Pentagon last month acknowledged at a closed House Intelligence committee meeting that its vast computer network is scanned or attacked by outsiders more than 300 million times each day.

Do I have your attention yet?

The Reality: These dangers are a basic snapshot of the threats out there. I’ve shared them with you to 1) educate you and to 2) offer illustrations of the extreme dangers out there in the hope of illustrating the triviality and blatant stupidity of the fear tactics currently being used on the American public 3) illustrate why terrorism is not sound grounds for giving up our constitutional rights. The panic-laden behavior of the current atmosphere of fear is a very real type of terrorism. The talking heads also have it right, in part. The target IS America and the American people. The unsettling and unpopular truth, however, is that we face two distinct groups of terrorists. The Islamic extremists we’re all more than familiar with and then a second, equally insidious group. The politicians, corporations, and consultants encouraging an atmosphere of fear for political and economic benefit. Since the viewpoint I’m about to cover is extremely controversial let’s start out with a basic definition:

“terrorism“ noun

1. The use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.
2. The state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.
3. A terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.

In a post 9/11 world we are all more than familiar with this definition. Most of us have used the words terrorist, terrorism, etc. on a weekly basis over the past 7 years. However, this post is about what happens when we take a close look at the actual definition – at the significance of the word, the meaning, and what it truly means for American’s health, freedom, and safety as it relates to domestic threats.

For the sake of this post the two parts of the definition we need to focus on are the 2nd and 3rd points. In respect to the 2nd, I’d like you to take several moments and to reflect. Ask yourself who are ALL of the parties that have played a role in the creating and perpetuating the current atmosphere of fear and submission in the U.S.? Second, I want you to ask yourself who has capitalized the most on those fear and used the threats posed by terrorism to the greatest advantage? As you ponder these two questions keep in mind, that no one can hear you right now. No one is there to judge you. Now is a moment for true, honest reflection, for you to look at the concepts fairly. Ask yourself if you’ve been correct in your assumptions, and if you feel you have to defend those assumptions to yourself.

Now – consider the 3rd definition. This is of paramount importance as it’s something we seldom look at fairly. When we discuss terrorism it is typically as a tool for resisting government, as is the case with the Islamic zealots. Occasionally, as was the case with Saddam, we apply it to foreign dictators who have shown a blatant disregard for human rights, who typically operate above the rule of law, who imprison political prisoners, and who discourage opposition through fear. Say it again, “A terroristic method of governing a government” and now ask yourself how that fits against what has occurred in the U.S. under the Bush administration. Consider it relative to the questions you answered in regard to the previous point and keep in mind that the current administration and it’s supporters have violated the Geneva convention, made a mockery of habeas corpus, have made proven use of reported terrorist threats to shift elections/political favor, has ousted secret agents for political gain, has facilitated countless no-bid contracts, forced into retirement or disgraced any qualified dissenting voice, and illegally spied and detained Americans among a plethora of other scandals and violations.

Realistic Threats

Don’t mistake my words. I’m not saying that religious zealots are not a threat. I’m not saying that we should ignore their preferred use of hijackings and suicide bombings. I AM saying that they are a relative threat. I AM saying that the fear of boarding an airplane and having it hijacked should be kept in perspective. That if we give in to fear and are willing to sacrifice everything America stands for, and even our morality for a false sense of security, then we are anything but patriots. The war on terror hasn’t just been a war against a small minority which attacked us. It hasn’t just been a war on the government (Afghanistan) that supported them. It has been a war on an entire religion, a war against sovereign nations under false pretense and most disturbingly, it has been a war against what America truly stands for carried out by self proclaimed American patriots. The real threats to America come not only from extremists but those bereft of morality seeking power or financial gain. It doesn’t matter if the threat comes from an Islamic zealot, a Christian zealot or an Atheist hacker. This is not truly about religion. It’s about money and power.

My only hope is that from this point forward, when faced with new legislation, or a decision that affects the future of the world, that you will pause. Ignore the false appeals to fear. Transcend the impulse to sacrifice anything and everything for the illusion of safety. Judge the measure, bill, action, or statement by its legitimacy instead.

Let the words of our founding fathers guide you:

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
-Benjamin Franklin

It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others: or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own. -Thomas Jefferson

For further reading: A recent Forbes article on tech threats.

Something unclear?  Want more information?  Have a question? Disagree? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.