Photo: Safia Osman
YOU’VE HEARD ABOUT the endless glasses of tea, the kebabs, and how to haggle in the bazaar, bBut if you really want to get under the country’s skin, here are ten less commonly known things about life and culture in Turkey.
1. Not all Turkish men have mustaches.
This Turkish stereotype is remarkably persistent (see picture above!)
While you might see members of the older generation sporting a mustache, young Turks are more likely to be clean-shaven.
2. There aren’t any camels.
In Turkish holiday resorts it’s not unusual to see a couple of camels lined up strategically outside the tourist attractions, waiting to be photographed. Like apple tea, someone discovered that tourists like them. Turkey doesn’t have a desert, and it doesn’t have any (native) camels either.
3. The official language is Turkish.
The only official language of Turkey is Turkish, although other languages spoken by minority groups include Arabic and Kurdish.
Turkish is part of the Turkic language family; similar languages are spoken in Azerbaijan and Central Asian countries such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Turkish is not related to Arabic, although the two languages have some words in common. Although most Turks are Muslim, they are not Arabs.
4. Every meal is a barbeque opportunity.
Breakfast, lunch or dinner: the grill can be used at any time of day. Picnics are also popular in Turkey and the portable mangal (barbeque) usually comes along.
There’s also a whole restaurant format devoted to the barbeque: called kendin pişir kendi ye: cook it yourself; eat it yourself. At the table you’ll get a pre-heated barbeque and a plate of raw meat. The rest is up to you.
5. Turkish soap operas are huge.
Local studios churn out dizi (soap operas) at an impressive rate. Almost every Turkish region has its own soap opera. Most socializing in Turkey is done at home, and watching soap operas is a favorite pastime.
Turkish soap operas are not only popular inside the country; they are also watched throughout the Arab world and Central Asia. These shows have even been credited for an increase of Arab tourism in the country.
6. Turkish people are extremely hospitable.
If a Turkish person invites you to their house after you’ve known them for half an hour, don’t panic.
Turks are incredibly friendly and hospitable and as a misafir (guest), you are highly valued. Many will consider it an honor if you accept an invitation to visit them. Once inside, you will be plied with food and strong black çay or Turkish coffee.
7. Turkish people are also very inquisitive.
A typical conversation with a Turkish person you’ve just met might go something like this: “What country are you from?… Are you married?… Is your husband / wife Turkish?… Do you have children?… How old are you?”
If you come from a different culture these might seem like very personal questions. Compared to other nationalities, Turkish people are much more comfortable talking freely about personal details, even with someone they don’t know well.
8. Until recently, wearing a headscarf was forbidden in public buildings.
That meant that a girl who wore a headscarf could not attend university. Some found ways around this, such as by wearing wigs. Thanks to new regulations, it is now a matter of personal choice. The proportion of women wearing a headscarf varies depending on which city or even which part of town you’re in. Interestingly, a recent study by ESI showed that while most Turks think headscarf wearing is on the rise, the percentage of Turkish women who cover their heads actually decreased from 73% in 1999 to 64% in 2006.
9. Like Tarkan? There’s more where he came from.
Like soap operas, Turkish pop music is popular throughout the region. Other homegrown musicians to look out for include Sezen Aksu and Öykü & Berk, who are pioneering their own brand of Turkish flamenco. For something a bit edgier, try Orient Expressions or Mercan Dede.
10. Don’t mention Midnight Express.
I asked a couple of Turkish friends about the questions and stereotypes they encounter most when they travel outside Turkey, and this is possibly the one that makes them cringe the most. The screenwriter of Midnight Express has apologized for the film’s negative portrayal of the Turkish people, but Turks feel they have to explain to the world that you shouldn’t believe everything you see at the movies.
This article was originally published on April 14th, 2010.