Why I Became A Turkophile

Have a look at the first of our guest bloggers and their stories! Here, Eugene shares a thoughtful essay on curiosity, travel, and his journey into the heart of Turkish culture.

I was attending a cooking class at the Turkish Embassy in Washington DC recently and before our instructor started demonstrating how to cook some delicious köfte (Turkish meatballs), she asked the class if anyone had visited Turkey before and tried the food there. I raised my hand, but she casually dismissed me.

“He’s Turkish,” she said, smiling.

The class rolled in laughter. A few moments before, as we were waiting for more people to stream in, I was talking to our instructor in Turkish. In this case and numerous others, I have always managed to put a smile onto the faces of the Turks I met when they found out that I speak some Turkish.

It was moments like this that vindicate my endeavor to dive deeply into this wonderful country called Turkey—a personal project that began spontaneously the moment I went to the country two years ago for a semester-long study abroad program.

I did not even plan to go to Turkey in the first place. I knew nothing about the country, much less the language. Nevertheless, an email from a professor of mine encouraging me to take a look at Georgetown University’s very own study abroad program in Turkey, changed everything. As someone who loves to travel, it was the prospect of numerous “study trips” included within the program that led me to sign up and book my plane ticket to Turkey.

As it turned out, the semester I spent in Turkey proved to be intensely enriching. I travelled to—almost literally—the four corners of the country, and learnt much about its history and society. Even after coming back to Georgetown, I continued to learn Turkish and oriented my academic focus around issues related to Turkey. Last summer, I also returned to Turkey and worked on an organic farm there for two weeks, where I obtained a new name and inadvertently got featured in an episode of a documentary series of a women’s cooperative that my host mother was involved in. Even though my physical appearance screams yabancı (foreigner), I am not afraid to say that kalbim Türk (my heart is Turkish).

I had become a full-fledged Turkophile.

If you were to ask me how this occurred—why I kept being drawn to Turkey—my answer would simply be this: curiosity. I am curious about the entire country, its diverse inhabitants, and all their histories. The journalist Ryszard Kapuściński describes this curiosity best in his book, Travels with Herodotus:

“I was seized at once with a profound fascination, a burning thirst to learn, to immerse myself totally, to melt away, to become as one with this foreign universe. To know it as if I had been born and raised there, begun life there. I wanted to learn the language, I wanted to read the books, I wanted to penetrate every nook and cranny.”

Indeed, I want to learn everything I can about Turkey, all on its own terms. In the words of the travel writer Paul Theroux in his book, The Last Train to Zona Verde, I want “to look closer, to dig deeper, to sort the authentic from the fake; to verify, to smell, to touch, to taste, to hear, and sometimes—importantly—to suffer the effects of this curiosity.”

Yet, you might still be wondering: what is it about Turkey that inspires such curiosity? Of course, I can easily cite the warmth and hospitality of the Turkish people, Turkey’s breathtaking array of landscapes, its historical depth, as well as its incredible diversity of cultures. However, in fairness to the rest of the world, Turkey does not monopolize these qualities. Other countries are worthy of our curiosity too!

Perhaps, the main point here is not about Turkey, but curiosity. It does not matter what the objects of our curiosity are, but whether we nourish our curiosity and allow it to work its wonders. If humans are creatures of meaning, then curiosity is the fuel for a meaningful life. It compels us to go out, discover, and learn. In the process, our worldviews can only become a tad richer and more expansive.

In fact, every time we indulge our curiosity, we are in effect uncovering a little bit more about the universe and the interdependence of its myriad components. Curiosity illuminates the constellation of connections that make up the precious world we live in. It makes the vast domain of humanity a little more familiar, a little more like home. But best of all, it renders the whole process so much more delectable, just like a delicious piece of Turkish delight.

That said, the fruits of one’s curiosity do not come easy. They require effort and perseverance to be reaped. One does not go to a new place and acquire all relevant cultural insights at the mere wave of a hand. New languages, new customs, new ways of being and thought must all be diligently learned and put into practice before we can even begin speaking of cultural immersion and its attendant benefits—expanded mental horizons, a higher degree of creativity, and a more holistic sense of our own humanity.

Like a long, arduous trek then, curiosity demands a lot from you, but gives much too. This is why I chose—and worked hard—to become a Turkophile. It is not that Turkey is qualitatively a better country than all others. Rather, circumstances in my life had provided my curiosity with a certain opportunity—a direction—one which I seized to the utmost. Looking back, I am very satisfied with the things learnt and connections made that my curiosity had rendered possible.

Ultimately, as human beings, creatures of meaning, we are all looking for some sort of transcendence. As the Turkish novelist Elif Şafak writes in her novel, The Forty Rules of Love: “No matter who we are or where we live, deep inside we all feel incomplete. It’s like we have lost something and need to get it back.” Perhaps, curiosity—and the learning that it inspires—might just be the very thing to help us feel complete again.

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