Istanbul Rising: An outside perspective

Let’s talk about sharing, shall we? I want to talk about it because I had a lengthy conversation about this subject with a good Turkish friend of mine who recently moved to Germany. He was struggling with trying to understand the new world he was in, and while my last piece discussed my own outside perspective on my culture, here I want to discuss my friend’s outside perspective on Western culture.

I’ve known my friend Murat for several years now. My husband and I met him when we were traveling in Eastern Turkey and he approached us as innocently as a child would on the street.

“Do you need help?” was the first thing he said. “Join me and my friends!” was the second.

After our initial meeting with him, my husband and I got to know him better after he moved to Istanbul to find work in his field of engineering. Murat is a young, practicing Muslim man. He is therefore a bit conservative (he doesn’t drink, for example), but he does hang out with a lot of foreigners, and he likes to do crazy things, like going swimming in the Bospherous on hot, summer nights because he thinks it’s fun.

Undeterred by his relatively limited means, he has managed to learn English from the foreign friends he has mainly met on Couchsurfing. He’s told us privately that people have scolded him for not being on AirBnB and charging a bit for his extra room, but he laughs at this and says that the Couchsurfing community has given him a far better experience than a bit of money. Not only has he learned English, but he’s had a range of experiences he most likely couldn’t access on his own, and his perspective has been deepened over the years – enough to make him open to studying abroad for his Master’s.

After working for two years in Istanbul, learning English, and studying, he finally put together his application to get a Master’s in Munich last year. When he was accepted, he was thrilled but I worried about my friend. He is a sensitive soul, and I thought Germany might be too much a shock for him.

Last week, though, I had the chance to catch up with him on Skype. He seemed to be doing well, although he basically had to give up meat because he’s too scared to eat anything lest it have pork in it.

“If this is your only problem, you’re fine,” I said laughingly. “How is everything else?”

Of course, he had so many things to say about how organized things were, and how incredibly helpful everyone was.

“But I see people are so lonely, it makes me sad,” he said. “I see it on the street and on the bus.” Murat went on to tell me that he talks to people on the bus in his very broken German as a way to connect to them. “They are lonely, so they chat with me, and I need to practice my German so it’s great for me too.”

Murat then explained how strange it had been for him to attend German classes.

“No one talked to each other, not even to the teacher. Everyone was in their own groups but no one was sharing together,” he said.

I know my friend is on an incredibly limited budget but he found the situation so difficult to bear that he brought in chocolate every day to class and shared it with everyone in an attempt to get people to talk to one another.

“It was so easy,” he said. “Everyone became more friendly so fast, and it made my situation better too because it was hard to learn anything in this, this…negative environment.”

I smiled. How many times have I been in that place? I could say, specifically in terms of classes, for most of my entire graduate degree. But that’s too easy. The reality is I know exactly what it feels like to feel lost, to feel excluded, all because of my culture’s inability to share, to be inclusive, to welcome. It’s not malicious, it’s not done on purpose, but it’s there: we’re bad at sharing. It was no surprise to me that it took Murat to bring everyone together in that class. Turks are a lot better at doing this anyway, but Murat has a particular talent for it.

“Good for you,” I told him. “As a friend told me once, we give distance a form of politeness in our culture. It’s just…wrapped up in our idea of the private individual and human rights. But it sucks socially.”

Murat smiled. “Yes, human rights,” he replied, and talked about how happy he was in Germany, ultimately. “People are fair here, and this is definitely letting me learn. But sharing also helped, and maybe I can show this to people here,” he finished with a grin.

Murat and I finished our conversation and I felt reassured that he will be fine in Germany, or wherever he ends up. I’m not here to bash Western culture. As Murat pointed out, he feels the fairness of the system in Germany ultimately benefits him, and the people around him. And that’s fantastic. But our conversation did remind me that we are bad at sharing in the West, generally, and how it contributes to a feeling of being lost. I personally believe that the confidence that we have in our society’s rules and freedoms to create a healthy society contributes to our reluctance to share. We just don’t need to, in order to survive. But the result can often be loneliness, a sense of misunderstanding, and a negative learning environment. I’ve felt affected by it many times: my impulse to share is squashed down by a greater feeling of who cares – it’s not going to make a difference in anyone’s life. I withhold, but it’s me who feels worse off because I don’t get a chance to receive anything back.

As far as I’m concerned, we should all be like my friend Murat. Reaching out: not in a perfectly articulated sentence, not in savvy, sophisticated cool fashion, but in something incomplete, in something curious, and something rooted in compassion. He is not rich, he is not savvy, he is not intellectual. He is just completely and unabashedly okay with sharing, and getting people to share with him. Using these tools, my friend has not only picked up a language well enough to learn about a world beyond his borders, and follow his dream to see what unfolds. The world is a big, crazy place and there’s no way that everyone can feel completely confident in it. If you’re feeling a bit lost, I’d try sharing. And don’t wait for someone like Murat to do it first. Just try to be like him, and go ahead.

—Meghan

Meg in AlcoveMeghan MacIver is a Canadian writer and Kundalini pre-natal yoga instructor who lives in Istanbul. She has had a love affair with the city for nearly 14 years, and she is deeply excited about the opportunity to finally write about it in a spiritual way. When she is not writing or teaching yoga, she can be found exploring the city and contemplating life’s little intricacies. Her other work has been published in The National Post, CBC, RNW and ROOM magazine, amongst others.

*Note that names and places have been changed in this post.

Photo by Jonathan Macintosh, used with Creative Commons license.

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