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Then and Now (2012)
by Allan Gall

I have been back a number of times, of course, since 1962 and lived in Turkey 1968-74. But I tried to imagine the Turkey of 1962 as I made the observations I share with you here.

What's new:

- In the hotels: kible arrow (even in the most luxurious hotels) to indicate direction of prayer, disposable slippers, safe, hair dryer, and mini-bar.   We mostly stayed in mid-range hotels of 40 to 90 Euro. 

- Young women in special headscarves, specifically worn to demonstrate religious observance. These are different from the scarves worn by older women simply to protect their hair from wind and dust.

- Graduates of the Imam Hatip schools are about to be eligible for Officer Training School. Highest enrollment in Imam Hatip schools in history. Claims in conservative papers that the curriculum/quality of education of the Imam Hatip schools is no different from regular schools in the number of hours devoted to science and humanities, except for the addition of Arabic.

- Young people everywhere in jeans, t-shirts, polo shirts, sneakers. Even conservative young men escorting young women who wore the specifically religious headscarf were themselves usually wearing jeans and t-shirts.

- Religious young men have adopted a special head-touching greeting ritual to indicate both are religious.  

- Young children are heavier—no so much obese, but heavy—and taller/bigger. Also some teenagers and many adults.

- More religious radio stations. Many local TV stations--some religious. A number of provinces have their own stations.  Excellent diction by the news announcers—easy to understand. Lots of soap operas, reality TV etc., but didn’t have time to listen to any of it. TMTV with non-stop pop music of mostly low quality.

- High speed rail under construction.

- Sushi in Yozgat. Rotisserie chicken everywhere.

- Gas stations everywhere and many different brands of gas.

- Cops issuing speeding tickets. (Yes, I got one.) 

- Four lane roads and expensive cars everywhere. Saw the latest Porsche, latest Ferrari, latest BMW, Audi, VW and Mercedes models on the road. The upgraded roads almost all go around the towns they used to pass through. Traffic lights even in small towns. And mostly the drivers obey them.

- Population is younger. Weddings, weddings everywhere.  Three in our hotel on the night we stayed in Cankiri.  A fourth in the restaurant where we ate that night.

- Toki. This is a new government agency that appropriates land to build housing, e.g., appropriates the land of gecekondular and other older housing to replace them with apartment buildings. Value of the land—determined by Toki—is credited to the former owner/resident of the land toward the price of an apartment.  Buildings are said to be built to earthquake standards. Apartments are very small: less than 200 sq ft.: 1 bedroom, bath, kitchen, sitting room all in that space.  A retired teacher in a poor neighborhood in Cankiri scheduled to be torn down by Toki explained that his very small house was two-stories, occupied by him, his wife, their two young children and the mother-in-law.  Toki was only valuing the house by its footprint, ignoring that it was two stories which made their living situation possible.  He said the 5 of them could not possibly share such a small apartment.  Also, because of the low value assigned, he would still owe 35,000 TL to Toki to get an apartment.  He’d have 10 years to pay that but at a relatively high interest rate that was not fixed but subject to annual increases if the national rate goes up which it typically does due to inflation.  He could not afford it. Forgot to ask him what happens if he doesn’t buy in.  Does he get a cash payment for his land?  Toki construction was going on everywhere. I did not see a Gecekondu community anywhere, although the old city on the citadel in Ankara remains intact as it is gradually being gentrified and “restored” into fancy restaurants and boutique hotels. Women still deliver yogurt and eggs in the neighborhood.

The character of all the small towns we lived in has dramatically changed.  Populations have exploded and cement block apartment buildings dominate everything—miles and miles of them circle the cities and have replaced most of the original interior parts of the cities, as well.  The population of Cankiri, for example, had more than doubled. Many Anatolian towns appeared to have tripled. Samsun has a million people. But the old commercial parts of the cities are often still much intact. There seems to be less effort to tear down and rebuild these areas of town than to tear down the old residential areas. Probably the merchants have some political clout.  The old commercial areas, of course, are supplemented by many and greater new commercial districts/streets—shops in the ground floors of apartment buildings.  Where old residential areas remain, Toki has its eye on them.  Again, in Cankiri we spoke with residents in the only old residential part of town still standing and it is scheduled to be razed.  I was travelling with two of my former students. Both of them had lived in this area and their houses were both still standing—one partly falling down and unoccupied, the other still partly occupied. The neighborhood where I had lived had long since been turned into an ocean of concrete blocks. The old residential areas that are being preserved in some towns are those declared to have historic value.  If you own one of those, you cannot tear it down.  Some towns, like Safranbolu, have large areas of preserved Ottoman style houses.  Some become hotels, restaurants, tourist shopping districts, etc.  

- The call to prayer is recorded by the perceived best of the best in Ankara and sent out to the mosques.  Thus, we heard the same voice coming from multiple mosques simultaneously everywhere we went, although it appeared that there were at least a couple of choices.  In Sivas, for example, the voice and the length of the call was different but again it was the same from all 4 of the mosques within earshot of our hotel.

Imams receive government salaries. The Friday sermons are also prepared in Ankara and sent out.  In Safranbolu, the hotel owner said his local Imam’s salary was 2500 TL but a teacher friend of his with two young children received 1700. 

- Banks, banks, banks everywhere. As in the U.S., apparently making money from money, rather than by adding value to something, is highly profitable.

- For rent signs by Coldwell Banker.  Sports clubs.

- Groups of professional women in their mid-thirties to 40’s having long, slow lunches, marrying late, smoking, appearing to enjoy life.

- Newspapers are much more rarely seen.  I saw men sitting around everywhere, idle.  In the old days they would have been reading newspapers.  Not now. Also newspaper stands are now few and far between. All my teacher friends in the old days bought multiple papers every day.  Clearly they no longer do. 

- Dogs. I only remember Kangals and generic brown stray mutts.  Now, there are dogs of every description reflecting the injection of blood from specific designer dogs presumably brought in as pets and obviously in some cases turned loose in the streets. Some attractive results and some not so much so.  Many stray dogs had ear tags to indicate that they’d been given a rabies shot by the municipality. Cats everywhere and better fed than before.

- Working seat belts in taxis.  Meters in taxis and actually used to determine fares.

- Soccer playing fields with artificial turf—fenced off and locked.

- Parking enforcement—collection of parking fees and fines on some streets.

- Cell phone use everywhere and service everywhere.  I have a picture of a female street sweeper in Ankara on her cellphone.  On the other hand, I did not see teenagers using electronic devices. And generally the use of cellphones by people on the streets even in Ankara was much less than is the case here. 

- Public bathrooms with the latest in automatic water dispensing faucets, soap dispensers, towel dispensers and reasonably soft toilet paper—but don’t count on it.

- First class Turkish wines, but expensive. In the U.S. we drink the same quality for less than half the price. We can even get Turkish wine here for less than we had to pay for it in first class restaurants—even after bargaining the price down. 

- A beef feedlot outside Kastamonou. Beef has replaced lamb/mutton in many dishes to the detriment of the dishes.  The food generally was not as good as I’d remembered in ordinary eateries, such as lunch at roadside restaurants. It was still possible to find great food, but it required going to expensive restaurants, but even there fish was often over-cooked. An exception was soup.  Great soups everywhere: Ezo Gelin, Mercimek, Yayla, etc.

- A woman doing Sudoku.

- Many greenhouses in villages. Many village houses with TV dishes and solar hot water heaters on the roof.  Village housing generally seemed modernized, although I did not visit a village house. Most farming appeared mechanized. Most villages had new mosques.  

- A teenage girl in a village playing soccer with two teenage boys. Her head was not covered.

- Plastic and cardboard collectors on the street. Also plastic bottle cap collection containers hanging about and people seemed to use them.  Bottled water used by everyone.

- Ultra modern and efficient airports. And THY is rated # 1 among European airlines. Well deserved. Great way to fly.

- Merchants hawking tourist wares were polite and waited for a show of interest, rather than hustling customers.  Bargaining is still the norm and tough.  Our Turkish friends bought a small kilim that started at 400TL. Eventually, they got it for 250, but they were more rude than I could have been. 

- Towns appeared to have more distinct characters along religious lines. In Cankiri and Inebolu, for example, there was not a single restaurant in which alcohol was served and veiled young women were the norm. In Cankiri we went to the best restaurant where they said they’d never had a tourist before in their 5 years of operation. In Amasra, Kastamonou, and Sivas the religious veiling was rare among young women on the street. Outside Kastamonou in a village, a middle-aged woman with beautiful long hair in a ponytail was herding cows. No head scarf.  In the same village a girl of about 18 approached us to sell fruit.  No headscarf of any kind.

- Fragments of conversations with an older couple running one of our hotels: “In my day, as parents, we worried—especially for our daughters—about sex. Today’s parents worry about drugs.”  “I’m a retired military officer, so I am looked upon with suspicion.  I have to be careful. I have a friend who is very angry about what is going on and he is outspoken about it.  I’ve told him he is risking arrest by what he says publicly, but he is too angry to keep quiet. I am sure he will be arrested soon. It is not possible to be outspoken against the government today.”


- In the hotels: Even when paying 40 Euro and up, the bathrooms still don’t always have plumbing with sewer gas traps, so some of the bathrooms smelled of sewer gas—one in a modern building. It was so strong that we had to keep all the windows open. No evidence of sewer line breathing pipes even in new construction. Bathroom construction even in nice hotels often has some idiosyncrasy that makes you scratch your head. Generally, Turkey needs plumbing codes and inspection of plumbing in all construction.

- Shopkeepers sprinkling water on the sidewalk in front of their shop and in courtyard spaces.

- Gardeners still water plants and even lawns with an open-ended hose. Very expensive hotels with lawns did have sprinkler systems.

- In the old sections of Anatolian towns, small shopkeepers are unchanged. A single tailor in a 7x9 ft. space with a single sewing machine. Sellers of various wares in front of small shops whiling away the hours, sitting on stools with the occasional tea and seemingly even more occasional customer.   

- Lots of bread still served and eaten with meals. In the truck stops, half a loaf per person was the norm and some people asked for more. Much of the bread now uses bleached flour, but it was still possible to get some of the good stuff, some of the great pide, and a new thing was multi-grain in high end places.

- Jaywalking. Pedestrians crossing everywhere at all times, dodging traffic.  The difference now is that the cities are much more populous in both cars and people, so the art of jaywalking and avoiding hitting jaywalkers is of a high level.

- Drivers still create a third lane when someone is passing where they should not be.  No one panics.  They just adjust.  It works.

- When you’re having a conversation in a group, if one man decides to light up, he offers every other person a cigarette first.  High rates of smoking continue among men. It seemed to me that smoking was common among young professional women, also.

- The sidewalks, which are packed with people, are often treacherous. Many ways to trip or fall due to uneven surfaces, depressions, and significant holes.  

- Simitci’s still roam the streets. Simits are still delicious if you buy them fresh and terrible if you don’t. The answer to the question, "Taze mi?" is always "Demin firindan cikti, abey." or some version thereof. 

- There are still a lot of men sitting idle everywhere—young, middle aged, old. Some in groups but often singly. Many hours seemingly doing nothing. I’ve asked several economists why Turkey’s economy is robust despite its high un- and under-employment, while the U.S. economy is considered in the tank with an 8% unemployment figure.  No one gives a credible explanation.

- You can still get things done by asking someone who knows someone. Our car battery was dead in Cankiri. It was Sunday morning. All car parts places were closed. “No problem,” said the hotel receptionist. He called the owner of the hotel who happened to also own a car parts store. He sent a technician to verify that the problem was the battery.  The technician arrived within minutes, verified that the old battery was a goner and called the boss from his cell. Minutes later the owner arrived in his high end Mercedes and produced the right sized battery for our vehicle from his trunk. We were delayed only ½ an hour.  

- Sexism and ageism. A sign on a lamppost in Ankara: Wanted: a female employee, aged 17-35. No indication as to what the employee would do. Also, many signs in windows of stores indicating the gender desired for openings.

- Parking remains every which way you can get away with most places. And with the proliferation of cars, it's a # 1 problem.

- You can still get oralet—if you’ve been missing it.

- You still get menus showing many things that the restaurant actually does not have. But, of course, after the first day you remember to start by asking the waiter what they have, rather than by reading the menu.    

- Men walking arm in arm is now rare, but I did still see it. They were over 40.

- Still a lot of trash casually tossed in public places. Sign in Yozgat national forest where clearly Sunday picnicking is the local pastime: Along with your memories, please take home your trash.

- Sign in a museum: Do not cross beyond the rope. Second sign beneath it: Please obey the rules. We had a laugh over this later in another museum where the second sign was missing and a group of Turkish tourists was having fun beyond the roped off area, having their pictures taken with the mannequins representing Ottoman life. As Erol observed, “The problem in this museum is that they forgot the sign saying that it was necessary to obey the rules.”   

- Hospitality remains generous.  We received invitations to join in on weddings everywhere. We stopped at a gas station to use a restroom without buying gas and asked if they had tea, thinking we’d at least buy tea.  We had our tea and the man was adamant that he served tea as a matter of hospitality and not for pay.  He refused to take any money. And there remains the genuine warmth--even in this age when polls show mostly hostile feelings about the U.S. among Turks--that I felt when complete strangers approached me on the street and said, "Basin sagolsun!" in the days after Kennedy's assassination. 

The above does not do the subject justice. Just sharing a few observations. It was great to go back and find Gazi Egitim Enstitusu still in place and to re-visit the Ataturk Anit Kabiri. Yes, there has been a lot of change. Some of it clearly good for the inhabitants. Some not. Some of it necessary in the 21st century. Fortunately, some important things have not changed. Wonderful people. Great sites to visit and sights to see. Excellent fruits and vegetables and plenty of everything good to eat. An ever improving infrastructure of hotels, services, transportation. No better place for a vacation and so many options for where and how to do it! 

Allan Gall