[Turkey] What is your memleket? Semi-bohemian coffeehouse reflections in Izmir

Yabancı in İzmir

In Izmir, I was a hampered and hobbling yabancı (foreigner) with limited contacts, with less „world“ than in İstanbul. I moved myself from one to another café every day, where I would contemplate in front of my field diary, throwing myself into the indefinite ocean of writing, contained by my migrant notebook, only. My mantra was: You are married to your research topic now, and this is why you are (t)here. Filling my leather-bound black notebook, I also developed a new passion for semi-bohemian writing in cafés. Not that I wasn’t doing other things there, in Izmir. For instance, in a moment of ultimate boredom, I went to the cinema at the waterfront to watch Spiderman. And hadn’t I watched Spiderman, the two friendly Bosniak ladies met the day before at Izmir’s Bosniak homeland association wouldn’t have called out my name and invited me to have a conversation. On my evening walk on Izmir’s Kordon, right next to the cinema, just after Spiderman, they called me „Thomas! Thomas bey!“. I joined them for a series of tea, and they taught me an important lesson on the importance of kinship and marriage habits amongst Turkey’s Bosniaks.

A çaydanlık in Istanbul

The taboo of cousin marriage: we are Westerners

One of the ladies elaborated abundantly on how important it was to Bosniaks, not at any price, to marry a relative, how distant the family relationship might be. At the time of the great earthquake in the Marmara area in 1999, she was attending a wedding in a Bosniak village close to Balıkesir, accompanied by her 15 year old daughter, whose father, that lady’s divorced husband, was a non-Bosniak Turk from Adana. Marking her ex-husband as a non-Bosniak allowed her to express her own (and her folks‘) Bosniakness as a differentiator – simultaneously reducing her former relationship to a mistake. I would hear similar statements by Turkish Bosniaks frequently: hadn’t they married a non-Bosniak, an „Easterner“, they would have been spared of many discussions about their children’s future partners. However, the members of the wedding’s host family were distant relatives, Bosniaks, she went on to explain. At one point, the father of the groom approached her and asked who that beautiful girl next to her was. She said it was her daughter. Consequently, the father of the groom asked her why she had been committing the sin (günah) not to introduce her daughter to him and his sons as her daughter. One of his sons could have fallen in love with a girl that is a relative – which would have resulted in a disaster for both, regardless of their low and distant degree of kinship! Of course, this example might have been an exaggeration, and my own „Westernness“ may have played a certain role in her decision to tell this story that way. In any case, the rejection of cousin marriage amongst Bosniaks is one of the topics that I would hear very often during my field studies. The scandalization of the practice of consanguineous marriage amongst other people in Turkey was never uttered per se, but coincidently with a direct or indirect reference to the own origin from “the West”, from Europe, from „the other side of the water“ (suyun öte tarafından gelen) – as opposed to the Middle Easternness of Kurds (and, less frequently, “autochthonous Turks”), originating from “the East”.

The solitude of writing about society

In İzmir, every day had twenty-four hours. Even those precious days when I had the chance to meet my friend Ozan*, who was working by that time at a university in the nearby province, would force me into one or more cafés. Besides my friend Ozan, whom I had met on a business trip to Izmir in my old job, I met few other people in Izmir. One of them was Ozan’s colleague Bora*, an immigrant from Bulgaria who had written his doctoral thesis on Bulgarian migrant associations in İzmir; And, of course, I met members of the Bosniak hometown association. But even when on those days when I enjoyed society, meetings would come to an end, I would hobble to another café, there would be a series of tea, I would attract inquisitorial gazes on me, and sooner or later, a concerned waiter would come over. Sometimes, he would be obviously pitiful. He would address me Beyefendi (Sir), and he would ask me why I was alone. His pathetic attentiveness woud increase my sense of solitude. He seemed to tell me: Nobody else is alone. Nobody else would sit alone in a café, for hours, in İzmir, in this society. In this society, you are in society. The pitiful he was, he would compliment me. Sometimes, he would be intrusive: wasn’t I a nice yabancı, didn’t I have good Turkish? And what were I writing? Where was my memleket (homeland)?

The memleket issue

The memleket issue, alongside other questions of belonging, longing, and security is another topic constantly raised during my field studies. But before (or simultaneously with) a deeper understanding of my interlocutors‘ needs for expressing their longings and belongings, I had to respond to these questions for myself; in fact, every cab driver in Turkey will dare, if in a good mood, to ask you for your memleket. The question where is your memleket? (memleketiniz neresi?), as part of a first glance disclosure of your social coordinates, comes as naturally in (traditional) Turkey as the question of your marital status (Evli misiniz, bekar mısınız?). The correlation between both questions, I would argue, is not coincidental. While in a traditional sense, the question of the memleket redirects to your spatialized origin and personal past, and more precisely: to the origin (land) of your father (atanın toprağı) – your marital status is expected to be indicative of your present and your future. This especially concerns you as a man, who is expected to be reproductive in a monogenetic, patrilinear and heterosexual sense, as Carol Delaney has shown in her seminal The seed and the soil (tohum ve toprak). Having said this, it is important to keep in mind that this patrilineal correlation between both questions applies in a traditional or semi-traditional context, only – though very frequently in contemporary Turkey; however, it does not mean that everybody in Turkey will check your social coordinates according to your marital status or your memleket, and neither do I say that both notions necessarily are of utmost importance for everybody in Turkey. On the contrary, the hegemony of the patrilineal principle appears to be under heavy pressure in the past few decades, which needs an own discussion.

So, what was my memleket? Why do people ask you for your origin? Is this question directly comparable to the habit of many Germans to ask people who are expected to be newcomers, foreigners, foreign-born Germans, migrants, of „Migrationshintergrund“ („migration(al) background“), or whatever notion is in use, for their so-called „real origin“ („Ich meinte: Wo kommen Sie ursprünglich her?“)? Which part, whose origin is meant – if your parents, as in my case, and even your parents‘ parents, originate from very different places? Can you have hyphenated origins? Why do many people in Turkey react unsatisfiedly when you utter two or more origins (hem Almanım, hem Bosnalıyım) – and sometimes even „assist“ you in clarifying your „real“ origin, by the auxiliary question of your father’s origin? Why do they seem to expect you to have a memleket congruent with your father’s memleket? Does the notion of memleket matter for you (me), at all?

Is there there there?

I don’t know whether it was by coincidence, and I tend to guess not, but during my stay in İzmir, I was increasingly fascinated by English/American literature. I developed a nerdish passion for Gertrude Stein: did I become odd? I was fascinated by her oddness, and like countless of her readers, I was stunned by her there, as in her well known phrase There is no there there:

What was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there. (in: Everybody’s Autobiography (1937), Chapter 4)

Stein, an American immigrant („expat“) in France („America is my country, and Paris is my hometown„), had given birth to this phrase while revisiting Oakland — where she had spent a part of her childhood and youth. When Stein arrived in Oakland, the house where she had grown up – the eucalyptus trees, the rose hedge, her dog, everything that could make there there – had gone; thus, to her, there was no there there. In the strict sense, Stein’s estrangement from Oakland isn’t comparable at all with Turkey’s Bosniaks‘ constant vocation of Bosnia or the Sancak area as their memleket, for two (and even more) reasons.

Firstly, the place (there) in Stein’s case is lost (not there) – while in the second, the Bosniaks‘ case, it doesn’t count as completely lost, although in popular and nationalist texts, it actually often is qualified as lost (kaybedilmiş). For Turkey’s Bosniaks, Bosnia or the Balkans often appeared to be some sort of a lost there, just waiting to be rediscovered. And when I spoke to Bosniaks, whether Turkey-born or born in the memleket, upon return from a touristic „rediscovery“ to there, I often heard or read them rhapsodizing about there: everything was greener there; car drivers were „more cultivated“ there; houses were „şirin“ (mignon) there; the food was delicious there (footnote: from my personal regard, this is a very dubious finding; compared to the much richer Turkish cuisine, the „meat only cuisine“ of the Balkans is quite poor and simple, deprived of any other spices but salt, pepper, garlic and origano). To them, one could conclude, there is there there.

Nothing really connects Stein to Oakland, where she was neither born, nor did she „originate“ from there: strictly speaking, she originated from a Jewish American family with patrilineal and matrilineal ancestry from Germany. The „American condition“, being a „country of immigrants“ – as the official myth goes, often overseeing those who were there before – also paved the way to a very high rate of social-spatial mobility. And so Stein and her parents moved to Oakland when she was a child, from where Stein would move to Cambridge, as a young adult, to study. Finally, she would move again, this time accross the ocean, to France.

Stein’s case seems to be significantly different from the case of Turkey’s Bosniaks. Nevertheless, Turkey, too, is a country of immigrants (and emigrants). [this and the next paragraph are „under construction“]

[Conclusion: on „there“, origin, connectedness]

The author’s there

In a completely different way (?), there is no there there also described my „İzmir-mode“ so well: There was no bike and no graduate school – and isn’t that paradox: Izmir calls itself the city of bikers? Indeed, the epic disrespectfulness of Istanbul’s car drivers for hobbling pedestrians and bikers was reduced to a bearable level. There were even biking lanes, in İzmir. From time to time, I felt pressure: real artists deliver. There is a scholarship; There is a deadline due July – and extrinsic motivation plagued my intrinsic motivation. I knew that I had to go through it, and I remembered E.’s farewell words, when I left my job in the international office: trophy droughts will occur. And they are like cloudy weather. Only keep in mind that the sun is always shining from above. Wasn’t it the tension between thought, world, and written word that a PhD student had to confront? Licking on both metal strips of an old-school, continental European lantern battery comes close to it: I had to taste the energy – but I also had to retreat when it would become too intense or sour. I had to take this challenge: to find, to keep on track, to question, to keep the connection, to withstand the tension.

The same was true a few months later, in the Balkans. There, I embraced all available sources of inspiration wholeheartedly. From time to time, when whatever there threatened to fade away, I threw my anchor to Norbert Elias‘ writings. The Established and the Outsiders. All but established, always an outsider, I tried to feel like a fish in the water. Following what vocation?

thomas pastasi

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