There’s nothing quite like the Muslim call to prayer. I heard it earlier this afternoon while walking through an open air market. The air was full of the sharp scent of citrus, the earthy smell of fresh vegetables, and the spiky odour of fish out on display. Mothers and grandmothers manned their stalls, haggling with patrons and keeping an eye on children who played at their feet. Chickens strutted and clucked in the background. The occasional stray cat poked his nose around corners. A small boy in a red sweater snuck his hand into a tray full of green almonds, snatched a prize and his diminutive naughty face broke into a smile as he devoured his treat. Then the voice of the muezzin rang out true and clear from the silver, white and lilac mosque: his voice didn’t waver, but wrapped around the Arabic words in a close, loving embrace. I don’t speak Arabic, but I did catch references to Allah; there was no mistaking the praise for Him from all His creation.
I am not a Muslim, but it was at that moment that I understood the faith most clearly: if the universe can seem a void, then the words, or rather the Word, effectively fills it with God’s presence and meaning. He may seem distant, but He is simultaneously close. The universe can seem random, but the Word reassures us there is a plan beyond our reckoning and we should grant all honour and glory to Him for it and granting us a place in it.
The call finished. The voice changed. What I presume was a sermon began in Turkish. This is apropos: I am presently in Turkey, and I was on an expedition to the town of Göynük, which is just a few kilometers away from the city of Antalya.
It had been my hope that I would take a trip to Turkey some day, but the genesis of this trip lay more in necessity than desire. Sometimes it’s essential to take a break and open up the gift of free time: Turkey is a wonderful place to do so. While the Mediterranean sun has been an inconsistent companion during this trip, the hospitality shown to myself and my other half has been outstanding. For example, after our trip to the market, we wanted to have a snack. We found a small restaurant which served lamb meatballs (Köfte), fresh Turkish bread, and a garden’s worth of salad. We were attended to by a young man who literally ran from table to table, taking orders and serving customers. Did we want more food? Ice cream? Turkish tea? We chose the tea and weren’t charged. I also believe this is the only occasion in which a waiter has shook my hand after he finished serving me. Nevertheless, the restaurant itself was half complete: as we sat and ate, welders were working on the roof: sparks flew onto the pavement below. I thought it was a miracle that nothing and no one caught fire. However, the workmen pressed on.
The Turks are working relentlessly to make their nation into a rich country. My trip to the market was in two parts: prior to the food section near the mosque, which was where the locals did their shopping, there was a street’s worth of stalls full of handicrafts and grey goods, e.g. Louis Vitton and Polo knockoffs, which were intended for tourists like us. We were pursued by the stall holders in multiple languages: every time we were offered a good price on something special, something brand name, something, anything they could sell. This entrepreneurial spirit is not the prerogative of the open market: yesterday, I along with my other half experienced a Turkish bath. The bath house appeared to be a new establishment: it was a gaudy building clad in white and obviously intended to resemble the Taj Mahal. We paid a basic price for a sauna, steam treatment, a wash and a massage, but just prior to going in, we were given an entirely new menu of options. For an additional €60, I could have had a longer massage which no doubt would have excellent health benefits. A polite refusal did not deter the salesmanship later in the process: after being roasted in the sauna, frozen in the bitter shock pool, steamed like a lobster (albeit with menthol vapours) and then washed by a man who possibly tenderised veal as an additional employment, I was massaged. During this, a worried looking colleague of my masseuse came in carrying in a clipboard and told me my body was tired (which given that I was obviously on holiday wasn’t much of a guess) and loaded with toxins. Was I sure I didn’t want the extra massage in order to get rid of them? No, no thank you. After the event was over, I overheard one of the managers say to another customer that at peak times they had between 600 and 700 patrons a day; assuming that a significant portion of that crowd is more susceptible to men with clipboards, they’re making a fortune.
Entrepreneurship displays itself in less “in your face” ways. En route from the Antalya airport, I noticed that there were several miles of very large car dealerships for nearly every conceivable make, ranging from Chevrolet to Mercedes. The size of the dealerships as well as the width of the road were American in scale: what caught my attention also was that dealers of the same make were so close to each other, no doubt locked in fierce competition.
In the city of Antalya itself, it appeared that every last portion of commercial space was crammed with shops. Virtually any good or service that one wanted, whether it was an Efes pilsner or a Turkcell phone was on offer. And despite it being late afternoon, there was no indication that the commercial activity was tailing off for the day. It doesn’t matter if a few sparks fly or if too many hotels are being built in the vicinity of Göynük, of if the Queen Elizabeth hotel in Göynük centre has lost the “N” on its sign and the fountain pumps don’t work fully leaving the hotel resting in a stagnant pool – there is an energy and dynamism that shows that the nation is pushing ahead. I have no doubt that the N will be put back, the pumps repaired or the hotel will be simply demolished and replaced with another, which will be bigger and better.
I wonder if part of this raw ambition comes from the Turks’ stated desire to join the European Union. If we accept the idea that symptoms are messages arising from the subconscious, then two items will suffice in this instance: first, Turkish license plates are already in a European format. On the far left hand side, there is a blue strip with the country’s abbreviation in white letters. All that’s missing to make it in line with virtually every other EU license plate is the circle of yellow stars.
I can find another bit of evidence by opening my wallet. There are striking similarities between the 1 Turkish Lira coin and the 1 Euro coin. Furthermore, most merchants in this area will take Euros just as readily as they take Turkish money: one shopkeep told me how he and his colleagues wanted to serve “Europäisch” customers (As a student of the German language, I’ve found it interesting how German and English cross over each other here). However, lately, most of the tourists were Russian.
This leads to some troubling messages for those who still believe that Western Europe and America dominate the world; this is not the case insofar as the people of Antalya are concerned. I’ve seen a Turkish barman speak fluent Russian to a customer at my hotel. Many of the shop signs are in Russian as well as Turkish and German. If I go back to my hotel room, I’ll find more Russian than English channels on the television and one of the English channels is Russia Today. We are broke, and as a result, the entrepreneurial and progressive Turks will turn to those who do have money. We are broke, and fewer of us will be able to indulge in the distinctly middle class privilege of the all inclusive holiday to sunnier climes; the market signals are clear, the raw capitalism that predominates in Turkey causes a course correction. We are broke, and this perhaps will eventually feed through to the Turkish consciousness: their revered leader, Kemal Atatürk, whose likeness is to be seen throughout the country, pushed the nation on a modernising, European course. But what’s the point of being European if it means you burn up like Greece? Cast aside the English and the Germans and the French, Russia is open for business. If Turkey isn’t offered a European destiny, it may choose one which means that Europe will not get the benefit of its zest and dynamism. The French and Germans may be under the impression that Turkey needs the European Union more than the European Union needs them: a view from Antalya suggests quite the reverse.
No doubt I will uncover more wonders prior to my departure. On Sunday, I will take a trip to Antalya old town; on Tuesday, there will be a visit to the Roman ruins in the vicinity. I am hoping some touches of the ancient and Byzantine will make themselves evident on the latter trip; will I get a glimpse of the places where Hadrian, Diocletian, Heraclius once stood? It all seems possible, and then I’ll return to a comfortable hotel where a Pina Colada is one order away and the sounds of America’s heyday, Sixties rock and roll, will echo in the halls. This is Turkey, a broad, diverse, and fascinating place. No doubt, I’ll be back.