3 FACTS YOU MAY NOT KNOW ABOUT TURKEY

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Before going deeper into the Turkish culture, I want to give you a brief introduction on Turkey by telling you a few interesting facts that you may or may not know about this wonderful country.

First of all, let’s talk about this country’s name: Turkey.
What does the country have in common with the animal? Apparently not much, but to find out why English speakers call the animal with this name, we have to go back to the times when the Ottoman Empire ruled over the Mediterranean Sea.
During those times, the Ottomans introduced in Europe the Guinea fowl, a bird which is similar to the turkey in the appearance and in the taste but that, unlike turkey which is originally from the Americas, comes from Africa. The Guinea fowl was often called the turkey-cock or the turkey-hen, so when the Europeans arrived in the Americas and found the turkeys, they mistakenly called them turkeys. Even more interesting is the fact that Turks call the turkey “hindi”, which literally means “Indian”. The reason of it is that in the past people believed that India and the New World were the same place.

Although Istanbul is the most famous and the larger city in Turkey, Ankara has been the capital of this country since the founding of the Republic in 1923. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul has been taken under control by Western countries and, consequently, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, established the headquarters of his resistance movement in this city. Because of that, after the Turkish war of Independence, Ankara became officially Turkey’s new capital. The choice of not establishing the capital city back to Istanbul can also be seen as a cut to the past Ottoman Empire and a new beginning for the country.

If you are a girl or woman and you are moving to Turkey, probably relatives and friends have told you that living in Turkey is going to be dangerous for you and that you will be strongly discriminating by society or even subdued to men. This is quite inaccurate because gender discrimination in Turkey is not worse than in any other developed country. For example and, as surprising as that may sound, Turkey established universal suffrage in 1934, 11 years before Italy (my home country).

I hope I haven’t been too annoying with all of this history and I promise I will give you more concrete advice in my next posts.

Stay tuned!

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WHERE CULTURE COMES FROM

As schools are the first places in which culture is passed from one to another, I believe I have to take some time to talk about Turkey’s educational system.

Compulsory education in Turkey lasts 12 years: 4 years of elementary school, 4 years of middle school and 4 years of high school. There are two types of high schools: general ones, in which students are prepared to continue their studies in higher education institutes, and vocational schools, in which students learn technical skills and get ready to enter the working world. General high schools usually offer two curricula: one centered on sciences and one centered on humanistic disciplines. Most of the schools are public, as the government provides free pre-primary, primary and secondary education for all the youth living in Turkey.

Higher education institutes in Turkey are universities, faculties, institutes, higher education schools, conservatories and application-research centers. Universities are republican institutions and they are under the control of the Council of Higher Education (Yükseköğretim Kurulu, also known with the acronym YÖK), which regularly approves educational programs.

In order to enter university, high school students have to take a two-stages national standardized exam. The two stages are called YGS and LYS and they include questions about maths, Turkish language, history, physics, chemistry, biology, geography, philosophy, and religion culture and morality knowledge. Students are placed in universities according to the results of this exam and according to universities’ capacity. As universities’ capacity is very low compared to the demands that universities around the country receive each year, young Turks have to study a lot for their final exam if they want to continue their studies. The whole last year of high school, in fact, is completely dedicated to the students’ preparation for the exam and many high school students even attend dershane, private schools to which students go during weekends or after their daily school lessons.

Universities allow students to have more freedom, while primary and secondary school students are a lot under their teachers’ control. Many primary and secondary schools in Turkey require a uniform, which changes from school to school. Most of the times, these uniforms are composed by a T-shirt and a checked skirt (for girls) or a pair of long trousers (for boys). Many high schools do not allow their students to have piercings, tattoos, dyed hair and colored nail polish, for this reason, many youths get piercings and tattoos during their university years.

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My Turkish school uniform

Hope you have liked this blog post about the Turkish education system. Stay tuned!

THE SOUND OF TURKEY

Music is one of the main aspects of a culture and it has had an impact on society for as long as people have made music and listened to it.
Turkish music has been influenced by Arabic music, Greek music, Ottoman music, Persian music and Balkan music and, although Western pop, rock, hip hop and dance music are largely listened to, the presence of traditional folk music is still important in Turkey. Traditional music, in fact, is often played during national holidays’ celebrations and other events such as weddings.
Traditional folk Turkish music includes instruments that I had never heard of before. The kemençe, for example, is a bottle-shaped bowed lute typical from the Black Sea area (Northern Turkey). It has three strings and it is played in the downright position by resting it on the knee. One of the oldest instrument still in use is the ney, an end-blown flute that has seven holes, six in front and one in the back of it. The most commonly used instrument in typical Turkish folk music, however, is the bağlama, an instrument that has seven strings. It can be played either with fingers or with a plectrum.

Traditional music is often matched with traditional dances. Along with the worldwide known belly dance which consists in complex movements of the torso, there are many regional kind of dances. The main regional dances are zeybek, horon and halay. Zeybek is the folk dance typical from Western Anatolia and it can be divided into slow or fast zeybek. It can be danced by a single person or by a group. Horon, instead, is the dance style typical from the Black Sea area characterized by very short steps. It is danced in group and dancers usually form a circle. Halay is the most widespread regional dance and it is largely practiced in Eastern, South-Eastern and Central Anatolia. Dancers usually form a line or a circle and hold each other’s hands making their shoulders touching. It is very rhythmic and because of so it is often danced during wedding celebrations.

Turks, even the youngest ones, love to listen to Turkish singers. Some of the most popular ones are Murat Boz, Sezen Aksu, Sertab Erener, Kenan Doğulu and Tarkan, who’s song “Şımarık” (also known as “Kiss Kiss”) has become an international hit in 1999.

Hope you have liked this “lesson” about Turkish music. Stay tuned!

LEARN FROM VISITING

Although this is not a travel blog and it is addressed to people that are going to live in Turkey, I guess you will have the time and, hopefully, the desire to discover the country. For this reason, I’d like to tell you some of my favorite small and not very well-known places in Turkey, so that you can organize a trip and get to know different aspects of the country.

While in Turkey, I was living in Izmir, which in my opinion is one of the best Turkish cities. I was happy to live there because, even though it is a big city (the population of this city counts almost 3 million inhabitants), it is not so crowded as Istanbul is and this allows you to manage the traffic better. Even tough Izmir does not have as much heritage as Istanbul, the old Constantinople, has, around the city you can find really nice places.

One of my favorite places which is attended by many Turkish tourists but not by many foreign ones is Şirince, a small village (600 inhabitants) in the province of Izmir. Although Turkish wine is not so popular in the world, this village bases its gastronomic tourism on the production of fruit flavored wine. As an Italian who has grown up with wine, I was skeptical about it, however, it is not bad at all. Furthermore, visiting Şirince will give you the opportunity to learn more about rural Turkey.

Although once in your life you should visit Istanbul and its huge Pazar, if you want to see a more typical Turkish market, the place I want to suggest to you is Sığacık, another village not so far away from the city of Izmir. In this village, which is located on the Aegean coast of Turkey, every Sunday there is a huge local market that, beginning from the ancient city’s walls, continues through small town streets. In this market, you can find organic vegetables, homemade food, lace and souvenirs such as magnets.

If you are fond of history and architecture, you cannot miss the chance of visiting Ephesus, which was an Ancient Greek city built in the 10th century BC. The major buildings of this archeological site are the Library of Celsus and a theater with the capability of 25,000 spectators. Ephesus also hosted the Temple of Artemis. The temple went destroyed 3 times, the last one in 268 AD, following a raid by the Goths, an East Germanic tribe. Today nothing from the Temple is left in Ephesus, but some of its fragments can be seen in the British Museum of London or in the Archeological Museum of Istanbul.

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The library of Celsus

Even though the aim of this blog is not to promote places in Turkey, I believe that visiting unconventional places is a good way to learn a culture and these three sites tell us a lot about Turkish culture and history.

FAMILY FIRST

Turks, as most of the Mediterranean people, value a lot their relationship with their families. For this reason, it is very important for Turks to get married and to build their own family themselves. Those who doesn’t, are not well seen from their families and friends.

The average marriage age in Turkey in 2014 was 25.9 years, making Turkey one of the European countries with the lowest average. Even though most of the Turks are Muslims, weddings in Turkey require a civil ceremony to become legally effective. A Muslim ceremony is usually done some days before the civil one. Although many people do not celebrate in this way anymore, Turkish traditional marriages require multiple steps.

The first step is arranging the marriage. In this first step, the future groom asks the permission to his future wife’s father to have his daughter’s hand. If the father agrees, then the marriage is arranged. The second step is engagement. Turks often organize a special engagement party during which guests eat and dance with the couple. According to the tradition, the girl’s parents are expected to pay for this party. There is not a standard length for the engagement, however, breaking it is a serious matter.

The night before the wedding, the bride-to-be celebrate the henna party, which is the Turkish version of a bachelorette party. The bride’s family and the groom’s female relatives celebrate this party which signs the last night of the bride with her family. The name of this event is due to the fact that during the celebrations, the bride’s hands are painted with henna. Furthermore, the tradition wants the groom’s mother to put some gold in the bride’s hands. After this ritual, the bride-to-be and the guests dance traditional dances. For this event, the bride will wear a red or purple dress.

Finally, the last step, the actual wedding. On the wedding day, it is popular that the guests go to the bride’s house to “catch” her. The bridal procession is over in the place in which the wedding will be celebrated. After the ceremony, people eat and dance traditional dances. According to the tradition, the groom’s parents pay for all the wedding expenses. The bride usually wears a white dress with a red ribbon tied to her waist and, at a certain point of the celebration, the guests pin money to the red ribbon.

As you can get, Turkish traditional weddings take a long time and include big celebrations. They are colorful and noisy, but I believe that everybody at least once in his/her life should attend one traditional Turkish wedding.

LET’S CELEBRATE!

One of the easiest ways of learning about a foreign culture is probably by joining the natives in the celebrations for national holidays. In those occasions, you are most likely to learn about their traditions and their habits. As Turks are mostly Muslim, Christian holidays such as Easter or Christmas are not recognized as national holidays. However, you will not be disappointed by the many celebrations that take place each year in Turkey.

Going chronologically, the first big national holiday is held on 23rd April. In this day, Turkey celebrates National Sovereignty and Children’s Day. The country commemorates the first gathering of the Turkish Parliament, which took place in Ankara on April 23rd, 1920. You may ask yourself what this has to do with Children’s Day. The reason of this is that Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, dedicated the Turkish Republic to children. Turkey officially celebrated Grand National Assembly Day on April 23rd and held a children’s week starting on that day for more than a decade, however, in 1935, the government combined the two events into one national holiday. Schools all over the country organize events during the whole week, but the biggest celebration takes place in Ankara. There, the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation (TRT), the national public broadcaster of Turkey, organize a week of festivals. Children from different countries around the world are invited to participate. These children are hosted by Turkish families and they have both the opportunity to learn about the Turkish culture and to teach their peers theirs.

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As most Turks are Muslims, Turkey recognizes Muslim celebrations as national public holidays. The most popular Muslim holiday is probably Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish). Ramadan is an Islamic holy month during which believers fast throughout daylight hours.  However, as the sun goes down, people have big dinners together with family and friends. During this month, breakfast also takes extremely importance. Muslims take this month to think about themselves, their lives and their faith. Ramadan should remember believers which are their values and virtues, but it is also a time to spend with your beloved ones. Following this month of fasting, there is a 3-day holiday called Şeker Bayramı (Candy Holiday) which starts at sunset on the last day of Ramadan. As the name of this holiday suggests, people usually celebrate it visiting their families and eating sweets altogether.

Another popular Islamic holiday is the Sacrifice Feast (Kurban Bayramı in Turkish). This celebration commemorates Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, and so the celebration includes the sacrifice of a sheep or a cow. Family and friends will eat the sacrificed animal and the exceeded meat is often given to charity. The celebrations last 4 to 5 days and people mostly spend their time with family.

Although New Year’s Eve is not a national holiday in Turkey, it is largely celebrated since 1926, when Turkey adopted the Gregorian calendar that marks December 31st as the last day of the year. Turks often celebrate it with a big dinner, during which they usually eat roasted turkey. Right before midnight, the national lottery is broadcasted. Many Turks buy a ticket, as the prize is TL 55 million ($18.8 million). As most Turks do not celebrate Christmas, they usually exchange presents on this occasion. A very common gift is a pair of red underwear, as it is believed to bring good luck.

SMOKING LIKE A TURK

I guess you have heard the saying “smoking like a Turk” plenty of times, but have you ever wondered why we say it?

At first, I thought that the reason for this saying had to be addressed to the fact that many adults in Turkey smoke tobacco and those who do it, usually smoke it a lot. In fact, most of the Turks I know, smoke cigarettes and the average consumption of cigarettes per year in 2014 in Turkey was 1580.91 per person. It may sound a lot compared to the US (1082.87 cigarettes pro capita) or to Italy (1442.87), however, it is nothing compared to Belarus (3830.62) or Montenegro, the country which smokes cigarettes the most (4124.53). This saying, in fact, is not only related to cigarettes, but also to nargile (hookah).

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For those who do not know, nargile is a water pipe used to smoke flavored tobacco or sometimes even cannabis.  Its origin is unknown: some think it was invented in India, others believe it came from Persia. Anyways, nargile reached Egypt and the East during the Ottoman dynasty and it is now part of the culture of many countries in the Middle East and in South Asia.

Returning to the saying “smoking like a Turk”, it is believed to root back to the Ottoman Empire, when the Sultan Murad IV ruled over the country. During that time, people were gathering together to smoke and talk about politics. Sultan Murad IV was afraid of critics, and so he banned smoking to prevent a revolution. However, Murad failed and smoking became part of the Ottoman culture (before) and of the Turkish culture (later on).

Murad’s smoking ban has not been the only one. Indoor smoking of cigarettes in public places has been illegal in Turkey since 2008, however, it took a little bit longer for nargile. The law that banned indoor smoking of nargile passed in 2013, but Turks still smoke it in the designated areas of cafes and bars, even if it means sitting outside during cold winter days.

Today smoking nargile is still extremely popular in Turkey and friends often spend time together smoking it and chatting. You can find tobacco in many different flavors, so anybody can find his favorite one. However, it has the same risks of smoking cigarettes, so if you are a healthy person, do not try it!

TASSEOMANCY AND OTHER POPULAR BELIEFS

Turkish culture is full of superstitions and popular beliefs. As a person who loves this kind of things, I was fascinated by all of these folkloristic traditions, so I will list some of them for you.

One of the most famous superstitions involves the nazar boncuğu, also known as the evil eye bead. The nazar boncuğu symbol is extremely popular all over Turkey. It is a blue, white and black amulet that looks a little bit like an eye. Turks believe that it protects people and houses from bad energies and envious glares, and because of this, they wear it (you can find it on necklaces, bracelets, earrings and t-shirts) and they hang it on the walls of their houses, but most of all, they give it to pregnant women and babies. When a nazar boncuğu breaks, it means that it had done a good job in protecting you and that it is time to buy a new one.

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Of course, Turks believe that black cats, breaking a mirror and walking under a ladder bring bad luck, but they have another superstition that we do not have in Italy and that I was not expecting. While I was living in a Turkish family, I was always helping my host mother in preparing the meal. Often, she was asking me to cut the vegetables, but once, while I was doing so, she needed the knife I was using. So I’ve offered it to her, but she started to stare at me and asked me to put it on the table instead of passing it to her directly from my hand. This situation got me a little bit confused so, as soon as she has realized that, she explained to me that Turks do not take knives directly from one’s hand, as it is considered to bring bad luck.

Tasseomancy (kahve falı), the art of fortune-telling by reading coffee grounds is extremely popular all over the country. It can only be done with Turkish coffee as, unlike espresso or americano, it leaves grounds in the bottom of the coffee cup. As the cups are usually white while the grounds are very dark, the fortune-teller will take into consideration both the white symbols, which usually refer to something positive, and the darker symbols, which, on the contrary, are usually believed to be bad symbols. Although I wasn’t a huge fan of Turkish coffee, most of the time I’ve drunk it, I’ve done it for having my friends reading my coffee grounds. What I can say from my personal experience is that, even though many people cannot do it and are inventing everything (as my classmates and I were doing), there are a few people, usually old women, who actually can read the coffee grounds and tell you about your past and your future. So, even though you are skeptical, I recommend you to give it a try just for fun.
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Last but not least, Turks have a ritual to do when someone is leaving for a long journey. As soon as the person leaves, the ones that are staying will throw a glass of water on the road after him/her. This ritual is done so that the trip will “flow like water”.

Either you are skeptical or overcredulous, I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick lesson about superstitions and popular beliefs. Stay tuned for more curiosities about Turkish culture.