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Turkish Village Insights

By Rick Steves
Kurdish nomad, Diyarbakır, Turkey
Village life in Turkey comes with a world of lessons. (photo: Rick Steves)

I was in Güzelyurt, a village in central Turkey, for everybody’s favorite festival of the year: a circumcision party! Locals call it “a wedding without the in-laws.” The little boy, dressed like a prince, rode his donkey through a commotion of friends and relatives to the house where a doctor was sharpening his knife.

Even with paper money pinned to his uniform and loved ones chanting calming spiritual music, he must have been frightened. But the ritual snipping went off without a glitch — and a good time was had at least by everyone else.

On another occasion, I was invited into a village home for tea (chai). While my hostess prepared the chai, her little boy let me finger his ancient-looking eagle bone flute. While we played, I heard his father playing another flute from a hill above the village. The woman went about her day with the comforting sound of her husband tending their flock. He was away...yet they were somehow still together.

Turkish villages can be ugly, with unfinished buildings bristling with rough, spiky rooflines of rusty concrete reinforcement bar. For years I assumed Turks just didn’t care how things looked. Then a friend told me: “In Turkey, rebar holds the family together.” In times of demoralizing inflation, rather than watch their money shrink in a bank, Turks invest in a family home. One wall, window, and roof at a time, they slowly construct a house bit by bit. Turkish parents strive to leave their children the security of their own home.

One time a Turkish friend and I came upon a school stadium filled with students thrusting their fists into the air and screaming in unison, “We are a secular nation!” I asked my friend, “What’s going on? Don’t they like God?” She explained, “No, we love God. But with Islamic fundamentalism just across our borders, we Turks are concerned about the ‘separation of mosque and state’ — which is guaranteed by the constitution that the father of our nation, Atatürk, gave us.”

Another time, a village mayor invited my tour group into his home. Children played squawky instruments and beat drums as all present danced in stocking feet on hand-woven carpets. Dancing in Turkey is easy — just hold out your arms, snap your fingers, and wiggle your shoulders. I was dancing with the mayor’s wife. Between tunes he wanted me to know we were completely welcome in his home. He pointed to the most sacred place in the house — the Quran bag which hung on the wall. He said, “In my Quran bag I keep a Quran, a Bible, and a copy of the Torah. It reminds me that Jews and Christians, like we Muslims are ‘people of the book’ — we all worship the same God.”

Village artisans enjoy showing off. I visited a woodcarver famous for creating exquisite prayer niches. Every village in the region wanted one for their mosque. My friends and I observed while chips flew. Suddenly he stopped, held his chisel high to the sky, and declared “a man and his chisel, the greatest factory on earth.” I asked to buy one of his carvings. He gave it to me saying, “For a man my age, just to know that something I carved would be taken to America and appreciated...that’s payment enough. Please take this as my gift to you.”

As the sun prepared to set, we climbed to a rooftop to observe a dervish whirl. Dervishes belong to a Muslim sect that follows the teachings of Mevlana. While tourists typically see the whirling dervishes as a kind of cruise-ship shore excursion entertainment, it is a meditative form of prayer and worship.

The dervish agreed to let us observe if we understood what the ritual meant. He explained that while whirling, one foot is anchored in his home, while the other foot steps 360 degrees around as if connecting to the entire world. One arm is raised and the other is lowered. As the dervish turns he becomes a conduit, symbolically connecting the love of God with all of creation.

He spun himself into a trance. With his robe billowing out, his head cocked peacefully to the side, and his arms a tea kettle of divine love, the sun set on the village that offered such a rich insight into a world so far from my own.

Simple encounters in a remote village anywhere in the world remind me that other people don’t have the American dream. They have their own dream. Turkey, the size of California with 70 million people, has the Turkish dream. That doesn’t scare me. It doesn’t threaten me. It makes me thankful.