Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A little note...

It's been a while since I've visited this space. You may have noticed that starting late last spring, my posts started to dwindle.  I realized that I could not longer try to be a super woman in all aspects of my life - something had to give.  So I gave up the blog for the time being.  I focused on getting married, transitioning to a new and healthier lifestyle, and just keeping up with my school work. 

I didn't forget the blog.  After our wedding and during our incredible honeymoon, I made mental notes of things I wanted to share.  Like the beautiful "secret" beaches we found when driving along the Mediterranean coast, or the joy we found in Fethiye, and the great times we had dancing to Turkish music at our henna night and Turkish wedding.  Yet, as soon as I returned back to the US - life took over.  I was consumed with moving house, enjoying life with my husband, and I faced the reality of the work I needed to put in to (one day) finish my PhD. 

The blog drifted further into the back of my mind and I decided to put it off…

I really hadn't given it much thought and I mostly took a full-reprieve from the blogosphere for several months.  Then, about a week ago, the forces that be seemed to draw me back in.  My husband made a batch of (gluten-free) aşure to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Muharrem.  I found myself browsing for Elif Shafak novels at the library and now I am fully immersed in the pages of "Honor"*.  Then to my surprise I found that three new comments had been left on my blog in the past week.  I realized that a blog cannot be put to sleep - we may abandon it, neglect it and refuse to feed it with our words, but it lives on (something that is both wonderful and scary at the same time). 

So, I pondered as I started making the daily pot of Turkish tea, should I revive my writing?  Should I let out all that creative energy that I had stuffed down inside? 

I worry that if I return my energy will not be enough to go around.  Perhaps the surge of productivity I have been experiencing in my work life will diminish when I try to spread the love back to my blog.  Maybe I worry too much…

For now I am going to honor the energy that encouraged me to write and I'm going to post this ramble, with a non-binding promise to return and write more often.    

A beautiful bowl of gluten-free aşure.

*I have since finished "Honor" by Elif Shafak - another great novel with an incredible story and message to share.  Highly recommended!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Camping as a Kiddo and Pitching a Tent in Turkey

This post is part of the BlogHer April NaBloPoMo - a month of blogging about topics related to spring and the idea of "Fresh".   I hope that you will follow along!

Yesterday's prompt was about camping and memorable trips.

Camping sends me back down memory lane to my days as a kiddo.  In fact, this past summer H. converted our old family videos to digital format and we enjoyed the summer evenings watching flash backs from my childhood.  The first video opens with me and my sister sitting around in lawn chairs being cheesy for the camera.  Then I'm playing with a paddle, my feet dangling off the edge of the chair, my hair in a white-blond curly mess, rambling about something or other that I can even barely understand with my squeaky 3-year old voice.  We had just arrived at our campsite after a long drive - you can see the length of the drive in my parents strained expressions, apparently I was grumpy during the ride.  My mom is about 6 months pregnant with my baby brother, and I can imagine that camping is not very comfortable for her at that moment, yet we are roughing it. 

A snapshot from those family videos - I was sent to wake my older sister sleeping in the tent.
By the way - look at that tent - it's an oldie but a goodie.

This was a pretty standard family vacation for us in those days - we went canoeing and camping somewhere in Missouri or Nebraska, or for a real treat, Colorado.  My most vivid memories of camping at that age involve the Colorado trip where I saw the Milky Way for the first time; it was so bright, that creamy splash of stars across the sky.  I remember enjoying the cozy feeling after the sun went down and the night air became chilly; we would put on our sweatshirts and sit around a fire roasting marshmallows and making smores. 

Other memories are harder to revive - I was so little.  However, circulating family stories and, or course, the videos bring back snippets of those fun, family trips.  For example, my mom loves telling everyone (including a committee member that we happened to meet at an art event) that I was potty-trained on a canoe/camping trip.  [See Mom - now I'm sharing with the whole world!  :-) ] I'm not sure what it was about the canoeing that helped me potty train, but I take it as a sure sign that I was born with a deep connection for the outdoors.

I feel most at peace and authentic when walking or just being outside.  These days it is hard to get outside of the city to an area where nature is more than a patch of mowed grass and a few planted trees.  So I enjoy the walks through campus and through our downtown neighborhood, where culture and nature seem to somewhat peacefully co-exist (on some level).  Yet, I yearn to really get outdoors and take a hike, pitch a tent.

This summer H. and I are planning to do just that.  A while back I mentioned that I was itching to explore the Maras mountains, yet the winter weather wasn't conducive for taking a hike.  This summer - after our Turkish wedding - we are going to try to enjoy the outdoors a bit more.  Take a small trip, hike in the mountains, pitch our tent and see how well it works against whatever weather may come our way.  It might be uncomfortable, it might be a sleepless night and then a day of sore hips and shoulders (sleeping on the ground is not for the weak!).  Yet it will be another memory, one we will share together. 

Hopefully one day when we have little kiddos of our own we'll pack up the car, or the backpacks, and head out of whatever city we are living in to savor a bit of nature.  To learn about quiet, and how to visit a place without leaving a trace - no human tracks of garbage to follow us back down the mountain.

Some may think that camping is for the privileged, and I would agree.  Camping gear is typically expensive and it's a vacation - not camping for survival.  Yet, I think it is important for the privileged to remit some of their privilege - even if just for the weekend.  It may not change the ways of some, but for others it may create a connection with the environment, with nature, with other humans, that may lead to lasting lifestyle change or just viewing the world in a new way.  Even if the only outcome from camping is stronger relationships and a bit of relaxation, then it has served to bring more joy in the world, and that is enough for me. 

I am curious, have others gone camping in Turkey?  Or in other countries?  What have been your experiences camping in a different culture? 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Local vs. Global - Thinking about how environmentalism differs in the US and Turkey

This post is part of the BlogHer April NaBloPoMo - a month of blogging about topics related to spring and the idea of "Fresh".   I hope that you will follow along!

Which environmental cause is closest to your heart and why?

As an environmental scientist, this question should be easy to answer - I should have a favorite topic, right? 

Academically I study the effects of land-use change and climate change on nutrient-related water quality in reservoirs.  Not so alluring…(or maybe it is? )

Global climate change is a hot topic these days (pun intended) and scientists are falling over themselves to publish papers about the possible effects of climate change on crop yield, land cover, biodiversity, water resources, disease vectors and the list goes on - think of a possible topic and most likely it can be related to climate change.  That is mostly due to the fact that climate change will affect everything and everyone - no one can hide from an altered atmosphere.  While I find climate change fascinating from an academic perspective, I am not so impressed with the changes climate change research has made in the actual world.  For most the status quo has remained fossil-fuel burning, waste inducing, material gluttony.  I sadly think that the academic papers have failed to make much progress in the realm of policy and action.

Therefore, if I think about the issues that are truly aligned with my heart and my conscience, the issues are more local and action-based, such as: sustainable and local agriculture, reducing material consumption, and increasing resource efficiency.  These are issues that I can act on in my daily life.  I can buy my produce from local and organic sources, I can buy grass-fed beef and I can limit the amount of food I waste by planning meals and using food creatively.  I can find ways to buy less, or re-use something I already have. These issues are more aligned with small lifestyle changes that overall can add up to a big impact over time.

I am still in the early stages of learning about these issues in Turkey.  In relation to my academic interests - I have downloaded a few papers on water resources in Turkey, and projected impacts from climate change - but I have yet to read them.  Eventually, if I end up teaching in Turkey, I will need to become an expert in this area…but it seems like I have plenty of time for that.

Again, the more everyday issues are the topics I gravitate towards while in Turkey.  On my first trip I was fascinated to learn that every apartment building had rows of water canisters attached to solar panels.  The water was passively heated by running through the coils, the motion generated by gravity and physics.  

This is a basic example of how the water is heated - cold water sinks, is heated in the panel, and then hot water rises.

While this passive heating system means that you may not get a hot shower early in the morning, it does save a lot of energy throughout the day when heating water is not needed.  Amazing!  Why don't people use this technique in the States?  Perhaps because it is outrageously expensive to try to outfit your house with any of these passive heating technologies.  I wonder why it cheaper in Turkey than the States?  Couldn't have anything to do with politics. ;-)

Since every apartment has their own water heating system, this is what most Turkish rooftops look like.
I would imagine that the messy appearance has something to do with why these are not more utilized in the States, even though they would save a lot of money and resources in the long run.
Image from Leyla Arsan on Flickr
I was also delighted to learn that the local pazar (fruit and vegetable market) was not just a place where the local hippies and environmentalists bought their weekly produce, but that most everyone - young and old - stopped by the pazar in their local neighborhood or village. 

A young boy posing with his strawberries at the local pazar in Maras - which just happens to be on the street behind H.'s parents' apartment.  Wow those strawberries look so good right about now!
Another big difference - you will not easily find thrift stores and "garage" sales in Turkey.  Used goods are not common.  "Wait" - you might be thinking -" isn't it better for the environment to use used goods?"  In the US it sure is.  Used clothes and furniture and household goods are practically bursting from the doors of thrift stores, consignment boutiques and every garage in suburbia USA.  We are a nation fascinated with stuff.  We buy it, don't like it and then get rid of it.  This creates a lot of lightly used goods.  In the US I buy most of my furniture, clothes and kitchen appliances used.  In Turkey this would not be the case.  Instead, most buy the best quality they can afford and then use it until it doesn't work or wears out, if they need to get rid of something sooner it is typically donated directly to a person who needs the item. 

Another aspect is food waste - it just doesn't happen in Turkey.  A chicken for dinner becomes broth for soup and rice, meat for the meal and skin and bones for the street cats.  Produce is bought in season and frozen for use in later months, or pickles and jams are made to preserve.  Plates are cleaned at meals, and if you can't eat that other piece of baklava - it is saved for later.  Food is not thrown away; it is consumed by someone at some point. 

If you imagine a person buying most of their food from a local market, heating their water with a passive solar heating, keeping the AC off in the summer, using what they buy until it can't be used any longer, and not wasting a speck of food, in the US this person would be labeled as an environmentalist or a liberal - something along those lines.  Yet, in Turkey, this is common.  I imagine that most Turks would not consider themselves environmentally inclined.  This is how they were raised, how their children were raised, and hopefully this cycle will continue.

I still have a lot to learn about environmental issues and attitudes in Turkey.  Yet, from what I have learned so far, environmentalism is perhaps more alive in Turkey than it is here in the States (and they don't even know it!) 

Which environmental issues are you passionate about?  

Or let me know if I am missing something here... I realize that I don't know anything about environmental politics in Turkey - please share any resources that you may know of in the comments below.

Monday, April 1, 2013

April - Keeping it Fresh

This past month was a huge hurdle for me, and the next several months are sure to be some of the busiest of my life.  Our two weddings are coming up and we will be hosting guests from Turkey here in my place for the American wedding and then traveling with my parents to Turkey for the Turkish celebration.  Then H. and I will be off for a 2-week honeymoon in Turkey!  The big ideas are mostly figured out - but many of the details are still up in the air.  I have faith that it will all work out just fine. 

Last month, a strange eye problem lead to a health diagnosis that rocked my life boat and sent a few things overboard in the process.  I am now back on solid ground and I have faced some huge lifestyle changes, such as a drastically different diet (no wheat/gluten, no dairy, no sugar, no coffee, no alcohol, no soy, no peanuts, no corn, no yeast) and the need for more calm moments in my life.  In all this hullabaloo I never considered shutting down my blog.  I love writing in this space and so for what it is worth - I will carry on. 

This month though, I feel like I might need a little motivation in the writing department.  With so many obligations with the upcoming weddings, the lifestyle changes, H. finishing his dissertation, and me finishing my PhD coursework - I need some inspiration for blog posts. 

I was intrigued when a fellow blogger, E., over at Slowly by Slowly used the BlogHer NaBloPoMo prompts in December 2012  to dive into a discussion of work-life balance.  I followed these posts with enthusiasm and I decided to check out the BlogHer space for future topics.  This month the NaBloPoMo is all about the topic "Fresh".  The prompts explore topics such as environmental issues, gardening, cleaning house, outdoor activities and more.  These are all important topics for me - and there are issues that I am interested exploring with respect to Turkish culture. 

So here it goes - in an effort to keep up my writing habit and to add a little something different to this blog space I'm going to participate in this April's Fresh-themed writing prompts.  I hope you'll follow along.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

International Living in the Middle of the USA

So I had a few more posts planned out for my series on religion in a cross-cultural relationship, but I've decided to forgo that route and discuss something different. 

On this Easter weekend here in the US, Facebook was a buzz with pictures of cute kiddos hunting for Easter eggs, pictures of bunnies and spiral ham dinners - American traditions.  We unfortunately missed the Easter church and dinner celebrations with my family due to work obligations, so we missed out on the American traditions, but we were still enjoying the weekend and the beginning of spring weather (finally!) with the windows open.  The shrieks, giggles and voices of the neighborhood children floated through the dusty screen and beckoned me to come watch the group playing down below.  There were six or seven kids of various ages running around.  There were a few older kids - maybe 7-9 years old and a few younger ones (< 3), but they all seemed to play together without drama.  Oh - and they probably represent about 4-5 different countries.  H. lives in the international family housing on his campus and diversity is never in short supply in this neighborhood. 

Just walking down the outdoor apartment walkway one can savor the scent of curry simmering on a stove, and almost taste the garlic frying in several kitchens.  My mouth waters every time I step outside.  Next door is a Malaysian family, downstairs is a family from Nepal, at the end of the hallway a couple and toddler from Afghanistan, in between there are few families from China, around the corner 3-generations of Lithuanians.  Yes, I can easily say that H.'s apartment is the most diverse living space I have ever had the privilege of residing in.  I can only imagine what it must be like as a child.

Saturday, as I stood at the open door, watching the children playing in the grass below, I heard one of the older boys ask another little boy with a bit of aggression "What are you doing?"  The inquisitor was definitely the leader of the group.  The other boy was squatting in the grass, picking pieces of grass, or twigs - something like that.  "I'm getting ready for Easter." He replied.  "Easter isn't until tomorrow"  the slightly aggressive inquisitor responded.  "Well, in my country we gather plants and we make a basket for the eggs, so I'm gathering some plants to make our baskets."  The boy replied with the most matter-of-fact, non-combative tone. 

I smiled.  "In my country…."  The boy had said the phrase with perfectly American-accented English.  There was no hint as to what "my country" could be referring to, although we knew that he was from Lithuania.   I imagined how many other moments like this occurred throughout the evening playtime.  How many small bits of culture were shared back and forth.  These children, I thought, will grow up with a greater understanding of diversity, hopefully more compassion and tolerance, and a huge amount of intellectual stimulation from interacting with so many different types of people. 

"I wish our kids could grow up in a place like this."  I've shared with H. on more than one occasion.  To have the open space outside - a safe space, to play, to learn, to grow - what more could one wish for their child.  At the same time, I have often thought how difficult it must be for families to raise their kids  in such small, cramped apartments - 4 bodies in a one room apartment or 3-generations (including 3 kids) in a two bedroom set-up.  The closeness of family beats out comfort in many cultures, and one can see this first hand in this little international community.

Diversity.  It's priceless. 

Another example: today is Easter for all Christians (and Happy Easter if you celebrate!), but here in this apartment community, a group of Indians were celebrating Holi - the Indian festival of color.  We heard the Indian dance tunes and the crowd screaming from a quarter mile away, so we went over to see what was happening.  Pink, purple and orange dust covered the concrete sidewalk and a big pink, purple, orange dancing mob was enjoying the day.  H. was immediately greeted by a friend who put a large orange smear on H.'s forehead.  Soon after a little blond girl threw some purple dust on me.  Then an Indian lady came and added a few handfuls of pink and purple dust to my cheeks, neck and hair.  Now I looked like I belonged at this party.  We didn't stay for long,  as the event was winding down, but  long enough to savor the joy. 

Holi is something like this.  From

I can honestly say, the absolute best aspect of living in the United States is this diversity.  It can't always be found everywhere and the interactions are not always pretty, but there are many beautiful moments.  Even in this small Midwestern town (albeit with a big university) you could represent the majority of the globe with the many different faces and races.  It is a beautiful thing.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Prayer in Public or Private? Church services and prayer rugs

It's been a while since I've last posted.  Tough times have come my way and I'm finding it a challenge to stay motivated with all the various aspects of life that keep plugging forward.  Time has stopped a bit for me, this week slowly dragging by, but responsibilities beckon me into the river of work that continues to carry me downstream, whether I'm paddling or not. 

These difficult times have helped to fuel this inner discourse I am having on religion and faith.  For example, have you ever noticed that when something difficult happens - an illness, a tragedy - people comment "I'll pray for you."  Maybe this is a Midwest thing, but I've wondered about this lately, especially since the majority of people saying this are often not the church-going type, or the religious type at all.  Is this something that our Christian-based society (in the US here) has taught us to say to comfort one another?  I wonder - do those people really go home and pray?

An image of a woman in personal prayer.
From this link.

 I grew up saying a prayer every night before I went to bed.  "Now I lay me down to sleep,  I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.  God bless Mom, Dad, my Sister and Brother, and God bless everyone in the whole wide world.  Amen."  This was the prayer that we said before our parents kissed our foreheads and turned out the lights.  It was routine, automatic, and I said it without really thinking about what it meant.  I was a little kid so I'll cut myself a break here. 

When I grew older, the only time I prayed was when I went to church and the pastor asked for a moment of silent prayer.  Then he always cut me off when I was half way through my own prayer with his pre-written prayer that he read to the entire congregation.  I always felt like I was racing to make it through those moments of silence without getting cut-off right in the middle of an important request to God.

Prayer is different for everyone, so I can't comment on how the majority of Christians or Muslims view prayer.  For some I can say it is probably remarkably similar, for others, very different.

I'll start with the similarities.  Both religions encourage group prayer - for Christians that typically takes place at Sunday services, and for Muslims, on Friday. 

One day H. and I were looking through images in a book about Islam.  We came across an image of hundreds of women, all dressed in white or light-colored hijabs and long, loose dresses that covered the neck, arms and legs, standing in prayer lines in a mosque. 

This is almost exactly the image we were looking at.  I think it might be from Indonesia.
Photo from this article at The Sun.

"Is this image scary for you?"  He asked me. 

I was a bit taken back "No.  Why would it scare me?"  I replied.   What I saw was group prayer.  Pretty common here in the US.  If you go into any church service - Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and so on - you'll see a similar image (if you remove the gender and clothing filter).  You'll see people standing in orderly lines in their pews, reciting the same words as a chorus, and standing and sitting around the same time, on cue. 

A Christian church service, it seems like a very energetic one by the looks of it.
Image from this link.
The main difference between these two situations is that the women in the image were wearing traditional-conservative clothing and covering their heads.  They all looked similar, as they were all wearing about the same color.  Yet, I'm sure that underneath those white coverings their clothes were just as colorful as the bright dresses and skirts worn by women here on Easter Sunday. 

Group prayer may be scary for some.  It may spark images of fundamentalist messages spread like wildfire through the masses.  It may produce images of coins tinkling in an offering basket - gifts for the Church.  There was a time for me when group prayer did indeed strike me a bit off-balance.  The motions, the rituals, reveal who belongs and who doesn't (or so I thought).  Then once it becomes routine, there is no thinking involved and the muscle memory takes over, which in my mind meant that the brain was not as engaged as well and acting more as a sponge than a filter.  I had (and still do have) both unease and respect for communal religious ritual -it's powerful and influencing, therefore one must have their heart open, but the mind engaged. 

While communal prayer and religious practice may have many similarities between the two religions, the private aspects of prayer are quite different.  For practicing Muslims, prayer is required five times daily, at dawn, midday, afternoon, evening and night.  For Christians, whenever the inspiration strikes, or whenever one dedicates the time.  Muslims must prepare themselves for prayer, they wash their feet, arms, ears and face - otherwise known as performing wudu.  Muslims also must pray facing Mecca and on a clean prayer rug, or rug of some type.  Prayer is performed in a sequences of movements, which is repeated a certain number of times depending on the time of day.  It is a process not only spiritual, but physical as well.  For Christians, well I guess it would depend on what type of Christianity one follows, for Catholics there may be more ritual involved, but for Protestants private prayer is very informal - a chat with God, so to speak. 

A Muslim woman praying by herself.
Image from this article at Muslim Voices.

 I think the ritual associated with Muslim prayer is something that may seem unfamiliar to an outsider.  It is different from what we are used to and involves a process, cleaning, laying the rug towards Mecca and then performing the prayers.  It is open to observers - through these actions it easy to tell if one is praying.  It is not the same as sitting with eyes quietly closed and praying - one can do this without being noticed, without any religious act being observed.  I don't think anyone can say that one way is better or worse than the other, just that they are different. 

For me, I'm drawn to the private aspects of religion.  The moments that happen internally, and without the words of anyone else raining down on my ears.  Moments of private prayer.  Yet, I'm not much involved in the practice.  Although, I wish I were more so. 

I would love to hear others chime in on these topics!  I know religion can be a bit of a scary topic, and that many prefer to keep to themselves about it, but I think it would be great to hear more moderate voices on this topic - I know you are out there!

This post is the third in a series of posts on religion and culture in a cross-cultural relationship, you can read the introduction here, and the second post here.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Religion and Community - Zakat and the Call to Prayer

Religion and community are two concepts that fit together rather well.  Of course, there is community without religion, although I think it is challenging to find religion without community.  In predominately Muslim countries, and especially Turkey, I believe the religion-community connection is especially strong.  One of the five pillars of Islam*, Zakat (alms-giving) , which emphasizes the importance of giving back to those less fortunate, is one driving force for community.  While I was in Turkey this past winter I heard many stories of the wonderful acts of Zakat people had done for one another, and for those that needed a little hand up - not only substantial donations of money, food and brand new belongings, but donation of service - such as using financial and real estate skills to help a struggling family finally buy a place of their own and achieve some security for later in life.  

Grains are often given as Zakat, especially during Ramadan
(Photo credit TafreehMela)

I know that donating to those in need is a common phenomenon throughout the world, and especially in the US there is no shortage of Goodwill and Salvation Army stores where people can drop off their unwanted junk, excuse me, goods and get a tax write off while also "donating" to the community.  There are also many fundraising drives through churches that help raise money to give to the needy.   Yet, the examples I heard in Turkey did not involve donations at the mosque, they did not involve giving away unwanted stuff, and as far as I could tell, no tax write-offs were given.  Instead these examples involved middle-class people taking significant portions of their income and time to help others fulfill large, important, unmet needs.  I'll be honest - I was extremely impressed with this personal initiative and generosity.  Society did not rely on religious institutions, charities and their $1 donation into the coffee can at the grocery store to help others.  Instead, those in the community took care of each other.  While some of this attitude is surely Turkish culture, I would say the root is in religion - in Islam.

Islam, indeed, has a strong role in the historical and modern culture of Turkey (and other countries, of course).  One aspect of Islam that shapes the audible Turkish landscape is the call to prayer, the Ezan. Discussion of the Ezan is ubiquitous throughout the travel literature.  Yet, I find that there is a common reaction, a common story - a traveler is shaken out of bed by the echoing, out-of-tune, voice blaring through a loudspeaker - a traveler is annoyed by the intrusion of this voice peaking into their windows every morning, bright and early, to send out the call to prayer to all believers. 

Often these accounts are meant to be humorous and to highlight the exotic nature of the call to prayer.  It may in fact, be quite exotic for those of us that have never heard it before.  I remember my first time hearing it - I was high up in a historical tower in the middle of the Muslim section of Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh in India, where I was studying abroad.  I was 19, knew nothing about Islam, and so I asked our local guide what the singing was for.  "It's the call to prayer coming from that mosque over there."  I was informed.  I felt the goose bumps rise on my arms, the way they will sometimes during a song when the singer hits an emotional high note. 

A few images of minarets - the ancient structure designed to send the call to prayer far and wide, these days electronic speakers are more commonly used and often all are synchronized within a city to prevent the various echos.
(Image from

In Turkey, each time the call to prayer begins to pulse through the city streets I secretly savor the quite moments that pass, when people seem to slow down a little, the loud music in restaurants and clothing shops is turned off, and the air seems to hum with a different energy.  Even at five in the morning, the Ezan has never been an intrusion for me.  One morning I awoke on my own minutes before the call started.  I was thrilled that I had happened to wake up at that moment.  I laid in bed listening to the low undulations echoing down the boulevard in front of the apartment.  I knew exactly where the sound was coming from, we had passed the speaker the other day.  I took that moment as a minute of peace for myself.  I thought about those, just down the hall from me, that were pulling themselves out of bed at that very moment, laying out their carpet and kneeling towards Mecca. 

Later in the trip, I asked H. what he would miss most about Turkey when we went back to the US, besides his family of course.  I expected to hear tarhana or Maras ice cream, or his mom's amazing food!  Instead, he said, "I'll miss the Ezan."   

That reminder, five times throughout the day, to pray.  To practice faith. 

While there are plenty of software for the computer, iPhone, iPad and other devices that will sync to your location on the globe and play the call to prayer at the appropriate times - it's not the same.  

What is missing?  


When the entire town hears the same call (or in reality often multiple calls that are mostly synchronized), it seems to drip little drops of glue into the community structure. 

I realize there are many people who are not Sunni Muslim in Turkey - there are Christians, Jews, Atheists, Agnostics, Alevis, and more.  I realize that for some (or many) the call to prayer may not be a welcome sound during the day.  Yet, I can say for myself, it doesn't matter that I am not Muslim, or that I do not pray five times a day.  I still need a reminder to quiet my mind, to stop worrying about petty things, to think of those in my community in need, to look to something bigger beyond me, and to say a small prayer for the health and safety of those close to me, for those suffering around the world, and for the wellness of the planet.

Yes, I like the call to prayer.  Do you?

This post is second in a series of posts on religion and culture in a cross-cultural relationship, you can read the introduction here.

For those who would like a little more information:
  1. Shahada: Declaration of faith and trust in one God
  2. Salat: Prayer - 5 times daily at dawn, noon, afternoon, evening and night
  3. Zakat: Alms-giving to the poor and needy - important point - zakat is distributed within the community from which it was taken (give back where you generate your wealth)
  4. Sawm: Fasting - most commonly we think of fasting during the month of Ramadan
  5. Hajj: Pilgrimage to Mecca

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Dare I do it? Dare I talk about Religion...

Religion is often considered a topic to keep away from the dinner table, and I wonder, perhaps the blogosphere?  I am hesitant to begin this post.  Hesitant to put forth this introduction, this idea, for a series of posts related to religion, faith, and how a Christian and a Muslim compromise in a cross-cultural relationship.   For some readers this may be a non-topic, yet for those of us with any bit of Turkish in our lives, we all know that religion is a powerful aspect of Turkish culture. 

Religion and faith are two different entities in my book: religion is organized, prescribed, (at times) dictated and predetermined; faith, on the other hand, is open, enduring, unpredictable and resides in the heart.   They are obviously intertwined, yet also may be independent of one another (at least the way I see it).

Unfortunately, religion is often used as a tool to create violence and hatred - I don't think it is difficult to think of an example in this case, so I won't go into details here.  In many cases, especially in the US these days, religion is used as leverage to achieve certain political goals as well.  With all the bad press about religion, I have developed an aversion to discussing it.  History, geography, culture, and politics all get thrown into the messy religion soup and just a tasting of these topics in conversation can burn your lips.

Yes, I have shied away from discussing religion, even though it is probably one of the most frequent curiosities I am questioned about with my cross-cultural relationship. 

For example:
"Where is your fiance from?"
"He's from Turkey."
"Oh really, is he Muslim?"
"Um, yes, why do you ask?"
"Just curious…[insert all sorts of questions about head scarves, women's rights, war and terrorism]"

Many of these questions are about religion (and often politics), but not about faith.  Questions about rules, not about meaning.  It is understandable, people want to know about the rules, the dress code, the stigmas and the drama - yes, especially about the drama.  Yet, few, unfortunately, want to know more about the why and the meaning behind said rules.

Yes, what does it all mean?

I'm trying to answer these questions myself these days, sifting through my earlier ideas of religion and actualization of faith, and trying to gain a greater understanding about the religion and faith that hold such a prominent place in the heart and mind of my other half.   I'll try to keep my own  philosophical musing out of these posts, and instead, shape them with facts and stories.  (I'll try!)

I invite you to share your thoughts and engage in a discussion as these weeks unfold.

Cairo street art
Copyright Giulia @ TravelReportage

Monday, February 25, 2013

Tarhana - Turkish Chips

Close up on the distinct texture of tarhana chips
(Photo by Turklish)
Tarhana: paper-thin, jagged edges, specks of wheat floating in an almost transparent, tangy concoction.  No matter what time of year you will find these interesting chips taking up a prominent spot on the dessert table.  The young will eat them while they are hard and crispy, the older generation might add a few sprinkles of water to soften the edges and go easy on their gums.  Along with ice cream, tarhana is one of the most common items you'll see in boxes coming off the baggage claim from a Maraş flight.

Tarhana on the dessert table - right in the middle so everyone can grab a few.
(Photo by Turklish)
Yep, I'm back to finish up the Maraş themed posts on a savory note.  Tarhana - you may have heard of it, but the tarhana known throughout the rest of Turkey is not the same as the tarhana chips adored in Maraş.  These chips are unlike anything else I have ever tasted.  They are not sweet, but not really salty either.  They are tangy, with that particular flavor that comes from Turkish yogurt.  They are addictive, you can't stop munching once you try a few.  I guess this is probably the only thing Tarhana chips have in common with the typical potato chips - "betcha can't eat just one". 

While I'm still a little unsure of the details of the entire cooking procedure, I can tell you that tarhana is made from a combination of cracked wheat, yogurt and then flavored with some spices, such as thyme.  It is cooked in a large copper pot and stirred with a large wooden spoon, which the Kahramanmaraş travel guide lovingly calls a "Tarhana Shovel". 

You can see how the tarhana is prepared in this video below, and if you know Turkish, you'll hear these ladies explain it in more detail than I can provide:

When the mixture is ready, the thick paste is spread on reed mats and laid out to dry on rooftops, in open areas, and even in the city on the sidewalk in front of shops.  If the tarhana dries from morning to dusk it will be "Fresh Tarhana" and retain a limp texture, which is a delicacy savored in those lovely, early summer days.  After drying for two full days, the tarhana is crisp and can be stored for the rest of the year. 

The tarhana goop before it is spread on the mats.
(Image from Market Maras)
 This winter we were enjoying stashes of stored tarhana and came upon a white, crusty blob in the middle of the chip.  I looked at H. and giggled, "It's bird poop." 

"Tarhana is 100% natural."  He grinned back at me.

Yes, it is all natural and dried with the grace of nature, with a few presents from the local avian population mixed in.  Don't let that discourage you - it's part of the experience.  To be honest, I just put that piece off to the side and kept on eating.  A little poop won't hurt anyone.

The tarhana drying on mats in the fresh air.
(Image from Market Maras)
Unlike the Kahramanmaraş ice cream, there is no one selling tarhana on the street corners or playing fun games with an ice cream cone.  It has not won worldwide awards for its unique flavor or texture, and as a tourist you may not even know it exists unless you were invited to a home for dinner, or happened to be in town during the few weeks when the tarhana was hanging out to dry in the streets.

Tarhana is like many beauties of the Turkish culture, it is soft-spoken and unknown to the rest of the world, but deeply loved by its owners.  If you happen to stop in Maraş  I recommend you find a shop* selling tarhana and try a few chips - I betcha can't eat just one! 

A Question for the Readers: Have any of you heard of this type of tarhana before?  I'm curious if others know about it or have ever tried it.  Share your comments below!

*In Maraş there are a variety of shops selling tarhana, they will usually advertise this on their shop front window or awning.  Your best bet is to ask around to find a shop close to where you end up in the city.  There should be quite a few.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Books, Books, Books: My Turkish Book Collection

“Books to the ceiling,
Books to the sky,
My pile of books is a mile high.
How I love them! How I need them!
I'll have a long beard by the time I read them.” 

Today the weather and I had a lot in common.  This morning it was bright and warm, but at the edge of town I could see the dark clouds moving in.  By mid-afternoon it was cold and grey, with large bursts of wind throwing me off balance as I trudged along the near empty campus roads.  I like it when the weather matches my mood.  It adds some cohesiveness to the day, and it is in fact comforting to let a dark mood simmer in a dark day.  As a child I always loved a rainy day when I didn't have anywhere particular to go.  I would sit inside, get cozy, and read, read, read. 

All I wanted to do today was read, read, read.  I wanted to head home, curl up on the couch, make some tea and read.  Reading isn't a great option for me right now, with this serious eye problem that has plagued me in the last few days, but the desire to read was still there.  To appease my soul I went to the bookstore instead.  I looked at books, I scanned through the pages.  I told myself not to buy one.  (Books are so expensive these days.)  Yet, I savored the aroma, the texture and the feeling of being surrounded by books.

You see, I love books.  Books are to me what shoes are to many other women.  I find myself buying them, even though I don't particularly need any new reading material.  Sometimes I buy them because I'm in a bad mood, sometimes I'm feeling particularly nostalgic for my childhood, or I just feel like I NEED to buy that book.

My collection of Turkish books began this way.  I started with one or two, just to educate myself about Turkish culture and history.  Then I found a few more that satisfied my desire for travel writing, then a few more that spoke to the culture junkie in me, then a few that would help me learn Turkish, a few to give me new recipes and tips for cooking Turkish cuisine, then a few more…you get the picture. 

I now have around 30 or so books that are somehow related to Turkish language, travel, culture and cuisine, this is not including the many books I have stored electronically on my Kindle.  Yes, it is becoming a source for my nerdy pride - so I must not get out of control - must keep my nerdy pride in check.

However, I want to share this collection with you all.  I am adding a new page to this blog, called "My Turkish Book Collection".  At the moment this list in incomplete.  I have a partial list of titles for now and I'm adding reviews and book information as I read through my list.  You see, with my obsession I have bought far more books that I have been able to read and now I'm trying to get through them all. 

I would love to have suggestions for books that I am missing - if anyone knows of a relevant book that they feel fits with the collection - please leave me a message - either here or on the "Collection" page. 


Trying to avoid this:

“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.” 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Hulkiye's Turkish Fruit Cake

When I was in Turkey this past January I did my best to learn some Turkish recipes.  I wanted to be able to re-create some of the savory meals, creamy soups, oh-so-delicious pastries and scrumptious cakes that we enjoyed in Turkey.  I would eagerly hang around in the kitchen when meal-prep or baking was underway.  H.'s mom knew that I wanted to learn, so she would call me in and explain to me what she was doing, by showing and using some words that I could understand. 

In this way I learned how to make an incredibly tasty chicken with roasted almonds, and I now know the secret to an intensely rich and creamy soup, without using even a drop of cream.   Perhaps I'll share these secrets soon (although many may already know them, they were news to me).  

However, one of the recipes I was most eager to learn was the famous fruit cake.  Ever since I first began dating H., I heard about this incredibly tasty cake that his mom would make for him and send in packages while H. was away at university.  This cake was the favorite of the dormitory and won H.'s mom cake-baking fame among college friends.  I'm sure it is famous in many social circles in Maras as well.  Now it's fame has come to the USA - and I am eager to replicate this delicious treat.

The first slice!
This cake could be spruced up with a little sugary syrup drizzled on top , if desired.
 As is, it is a nice, no-too-sweet, treat that goes great with tea.
Replicating a Turkish recipe is not always an easy feat.  Yes, there are recipe books that lay it out nice and clear, step by step.  However, most recipes are not written, ingredients do not conform to standard measurements, and in fact, many beautiful creations are based on what is on hand at that moment, without any extra trips to the local grocer.

H. has collected many of these recipes from his mom while living in the US.  When feeling homesick, a meal from home would help ease the soreness and bring an indescribable joy.  A while back, H. had collected this recipe for Turkish Fruit Cake.  So today I asked if he could share it with me so I could whip up a tasty cake and use up some of the Cuties (mandarin oranges) drying out on my counter.  So here is the recipe - Turkish measuring style and all.

Hulkiye's Turkish Fruit Cake

3 eggs at room temperature
1 water glass of sugar*
3 water glasses of flour
1 heaping TURKISH teaspoon of baking powder**
1 water glass milk OR orange juice
(we like to add the orange juice to make the cake fruitier, fresh-squeezed is the best option)
1 water glass oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract(my addition because I love vanilla)
15 or so dried apricots, cut into 6 pieces
A handful of raisins
A handful of chopped walnuts (or whatever other type of nut you have on hand)
Zest of small orange
The few handfuls of dried fruit - this is what makes the cake! 

Cuties - so bright and cheerful!

Preheat oven to 350F or (180C)
In a large mixing bowl, beat the eggs and add the sugar, mixing well.
Add vanilla extract at this point if you want to add it .
(NOTE: if you want to use the Turkish powdered vanilla, add that the flour mixture instead)
Add oil and milk or juice to egg and sugar mixture, mix well.

All the liquids together.

In a separate bowl, put the 3 glasses of flour and stir in the heaping teaspoon of baking powder.  Add the apricots, raisins and walnuts and coat them in the flour (this will help prevent them from sinking into the cake as it bakes).  Add the orange zest.

Now, add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients and mix by hand.  Batter will be fairly thick.

After the flour is mixed in the batter is quite thick and you might need a good silicone spatula to get the last drop out. 

Grease and flour a bundt pan.  Add batter to pan.
Bake for 1 hour - you want the cake to be a little crispy to keep the moisture in and stay fresh longer.

Just right!

* Water glass can mean whatever you want it to mean - the basic idea is you use the same glass to measure everything so the proportions are the same.  That being said - I used a coffee mug that was about 1 cup and that seemed to work well.
** Turkish teaspoon is not the same as a measuring teaspoon- but probably similar.  When the Turks say "teaspoon" they mean the tiny spoons used to stir sugar into tea.  So if you use a measuring teaspoon - make sure to make it heaping!

 I'm sure other dried fruits could be easily substituted for the apricots and raisins - and as I mentioned, I didn't actually use orange juice, but a similar citrus fruit and the result was the same - delicious!  So the moral of the story is be creative and bake with love, and the taste will show it!

It took all those little cuties to make a cup, but it was worth it and I used up some fruit that was at the end of its prime and would have spoiled otherwise.  Win-Win.

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