Sunday, February 3, 2013

Keeping a Balanced Perspective with "An American Woman's Letters to Turkey"

As a lover of literature, travelogues and the written word in general, much of what I know and understand of the world comes from a paperback (and these days, often an e-book).  With all the recent bad news seeping out of Turkey - such as the tragic death of an American woman in Istanbul, and the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, today seemed like a fitting day to discuss a book that I recently read while I was in Turkey: Yes, I Would Love Another Glass of Tea: An American Woman's Letters to Turkey, by Katharine Branning. 

Why this book?  What does it have to do with these incidents?  Well, to start, the book has nothing to do with these incidents.  It has everything to do with spreading cultural understanding, open-mindedness and an honest appeal to English-speakers about the people and nation of Turkey. 

Katharine has been travelling to Turkey since the 1970's, spending a few months or a few weeks travelling back roads, visiting forgotten places, and chatting with the locals.  Katharine is a librarian and therefore also has a deep love of the written word and research, she also was born and raised in the Midwest, USA - so I find myself relating to her on many levels.   Yet, what I find most appealing about Katharine's writing is her honesty, her ability to describe cultural differences without criticism, without negativity towards either culture, and without the "Western hegemonic eyeglasses". 

"When you are confronted by an unexplainable situation, you must take a deep breath and stand back from it, and then remove your Western hegemonic eyeglasses.  Then, and only then, can you start to analyze what is theirs, yours, and the truth.  Opening your eyes to the value of other people and other countries and societies unlike yours has a reward beyond price.  And no other country in the world makes this encounter so gentle and as colorful as Turkey."

Her book is organized in letters that she directs to Lady Mary Montagu, a name which may sound familiar as Lady Mary has authored her own book of letters from her time spent in Turkey during the era of the Ottoman Empire, titled "The Turkish Embassy Letters" (another book I plan to get around to reading soon).

Portrait of Lady Mary Montagu by Gervase Spencer from

Katharine mostly travels alone in Turkey.  She has visited many big cities and small villages in the East, West, North and South of Turkey.  Katharine realizes that this is not customary in Turkey for "Islamic tradition states that no woman should travel for more than three days unless her husband or an appropriate male family member accompanies her."  Yet, she does not follow this tradition.  However, she does maintain appropriate dress, manners and demeanor that respect Turkish culture, which she maintains is how she remains so safe and well-cared for while traveling. 

While I find myself questioning if I would ever have the guts to do the same, Katharine explains WHY she goes alone:
"The best part of traveling alone is that it is possible to do so, for Turkey is a very safe country.   I never feel afraid in Turkey.  My fate is entrusted to the good care of the 72 million pairs of hands at my service.  Another reason I travel alone is that quite simply, I have experiences I would never have if I were travelling with a man or in a group.  In Turkey, a woman alone is showered with all kinds of attention and kindness, for Turks just do not want you to feel alone."

And Katharine shows many examples of these unexpected moments when she is gifted with hospitality, warm gestures and the kindness of strangers - such as a shared birthday cake, or an invitation to dinner, or to stay in a local village house, not to mention the thousands of glasses of tea she has been offered throughout the years.

Katharine Branning from

Katharine's book may not be for everyone - she has an extremely optimistic hope that the many cultures of the world and the world's religions may one day cohabitate in peace, and this optimism may grate on the realists out there.  As I find myself spastically jumping from realist to peace-loving optimist, I found her enthusiastic calls for peace idealistic, maybe a little improbable, but very encouraging.  I echo every sentiment she expresses in this fervent call for us all to remain open to the traditions of others, in whatever way we choose to connect:
 "The truth is more layered than one religion can provide answers for, so the more a human beings learns from traditions other than those of his own upbringing and culture, the more he will be able to carve his own meaning and truth.  These meanings can indeed be found in religion, but also in art, philosophy, nature, in work, in private and intimate self-dialog, in science, or in service to others.  There is not one path, one voice, one text.  The world is too big for that."

This book may be preaching to the choir for all of you already living and loving Turkey.  For those that carry their "Western hegemonic" and may I add "xenophobic" eyeglasses with them at all times - this book will probably never be opened, and a word will not be read.  For those that are somewhere in the middle, this book may open a door to you - a door to Turkish culture and customs and a way of experiencing that distant land that has won the hearts of many around the world.  If you are ready for such an experience, I recommend you turn off the news and open this book and open your mind.

Further reading about Katharine Branning and her book:

Katharine's website about the Seljuk Han's of Turkey:


  1. L.,

    Thank you for this VERY thoughtful post. I am going to re-read her book - and I am inspired to read Lady M.'s letters - which I have known of but never picked up. Thanks for inspiring me on that front.

    The first quote from K. is very inspiring to me!



  2. Thanks Liz! I have Lady M.'s letters on my bookshelf, and I even brought it all the way to Turkey with me, but I haven't read a's on the list, but there are so many fascinating books out there - it's hard to find the time!

    I love that quote too :-) Her book had a lot of great quotes. I'm thankful that the Kindle makes it so easy to go back and look at all of them!

  3. . . an excellent review! I don't think I'm being over-optimistic by sharing Katherine's hopes for a more tolerant and caring world - I've been an Utopian Socialist for many years and haven't lost my belief that our day will come. Our 'job', as lovers of this country and its people is to never stop telling it like it really is.
    Again, such a good post.

    1. I really appreciate your positive feedback Alan! I'm glad that you retain your optimism for a more tolerant world, I shouldn't falter in mine as well. Some days when the news is especially bad it is a challenge, but I think being more involved in the "blogosphere" has really helped me stay positive, especially when I realize there are so many other like-minded people out there!

  4. The blogosphere is a wonder in this regard - you just have to tap into the right vein! :)


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