As if in a pissing match, travellers criticize other travellers who travel for a short period of time, call them airport collectors and they like boasting about themselves and their way of travel saying “I like to embrace the culture.” “Did they experience the culture though?” “Yes but did you dig into the culture?” “I immerse myself in the culture with the locals.” Every time I read such a sentence, I cringe. What is this “culture” people are talking about? What is this obviously prestigious thing called “culture”?
I am Turkish. When I think about my culture I think of all the proverbs I grew up with. I’ll be making a list and writing an article about it but it takes a lot of time as they are mostly impossible to translate and need a lot of explanation. But even with the best explanation or even if you had a deep knowledge of Turkish, those things cannot make the same impression on you as someone who grew up hearing them repeated in case after case. It’s just impossible.
Just three examples here:
1) We say “İğneyi kendine, çuvaldızı başkasına batır.” It translates as “Stick the small needle in yourself before sticking the bigger needle into the other.” It means criticize yourself first even if in a small way before criticizing the other in a big way.
2) We say “Mala gelsin, cana gelmesin.” It translates as “May harm come to property, not life.” It is used in situations when a big property loss has occurred in an accident or a natural disaster. It's used a as a consolation. Material things can be replaced but life cannot.
3) “Hayırlısı ise olsun.” It translates as “May it be only if it is for the good.” It is used in situations when we want something so much but it doesn't turn out the way we want however much we try. It's to say that it might not be the best not only for us but as a whole. I remember our religion teacher (Ah, see? We had religion at school. I don't know if religion is taught in other countries as part of the curriculum.) telling us “For example, a girl fails class. But it might be that the father said he'd buy her a bicycle if she passed. Naturally, we all want to pass our exams, we all want to have bikes. But it may be that if that happened, the girl would be falling off the bike and hurting herself badly. It's sort of like the Chinese who lost his horse story. But you express this and more, -wanting the best overall as in a utilitarian philosophy,- in three concise words.
Then of course we counter-argue this with a saying “Ahmak avuntusu” meaning it's the consolation for the dumb.
Oh yes, we have contradicting sayings as well. To be used in appropriate situations. “İti an, çomağı hazırla,” means “Talk of the bad dog and prepare your stick.” It's like “Talk of the devil,” and is used when a person we don't like appears. But if a person we like turns up right after we have talked about him, then we say “İyi insan sözünün üstüne gelir,” which translates as “The good person turns up when he's talked about.”
Another thing that pops into my mind when I ask myself “What’s my culture?” is strangely the song “Biz Heybeli’de her gece…” If you haven’t sat at a meze full table with friends singing that song, don’t tell me you have “experienced” Turkish culture ;)
Then again, ask me when is the last time I sang that myself, it's been decades! Still... That doesn't change anything. That song is a part of my culture.
if you never listened to the gramophone version of Münir Nurettin Selçuk.
Or if you don’t know Yıldızların Altında or Nesrin Sipahi.
If you haven’t listened to TRT Chorus and Yar Saçların Lüle Lüle.
If you haven’t listened to Zeki Müren songs? If you do not know Sezen Aksu, Barış Manço and their songs… Ajda Pekkan, Nilüfer... Cem Karaca... Tanju Okan... If you cannot accompany at least the refrains of most of these people’s songs, how can you say you have the slightest idea of my culture? They are the giants in our lives.
If you do not know the kings of Arabesque music: Müslüm Gürses, Ferdi Tayfur, Orhan Gencebay, Bülent Ersoy... If you do not know Ahmet Kaya... The Kurdish protest singer who didn't know Kurdish.
Or if you've never watched a Kemal Sunal movie, Metin Akpınar-Zeki Alasya movie, Şener Şen? If you do not know Adile Naşit, Hulusi Kentmen, Münir Özkul... Or Ayşen Gruda... If you do not know Yeşilçam, the Hollywood of Turkey...
Tarık Akan, Cüneyt Arkın, Ediz Hun, Kartal Tibet... Filiz Akın, Hülya Koçyiğit... Fatma Girik... Or more importantly, Türkan Şoray. I grew up with Türkan Şoray movies, if you don't know her rules of no-kissing. How it affected me because I thought I'd get married and just kiss, I had no idea of sex. Even when I did, it was just so taboo. I still believed in a “friendly” house-sharing life with my husband.
There was the song and the movie “Son Mektup”, “The Last letter”... How that last letter was to break apart the lovers. Lovers not being able to get together due to circumstances or misunderstandings was the theme of my life. You writing to wish the love of your life happiness, the one who belongs to another now.
But then there was hope. “Elbet bir gün buluşacağız. Bu böyle yarııım kalmayacak.” “Surely, we will meet again one day. This will not be left like this.”
“İkimizin de saçları ak, öyle duruup bakışacağız. Belki bir deniz kenarında, el ele maziyi konuşacağız.” “Both of our hairs white, we will hold hands and talk about the past.”
If listening to that song doesn't make you cry your heart out like mine -thinking of the future with your husband, both old and looking back- you understand nothing of my culture.
Or someone just passing fleetingly in front of the window of your heart...
“Gönül penceresinden ansızın bakıp geçtin..."
“Aşkım bahardı, ümitler vardı, sen gittin diye gönlüm karardı.” “My love was spring, there was hope. Because you went away, my heart got dark.”
Türkan Şoray singing it in a movie or by Yıldırım Gürses, the owner of the song.
Let alone know the movie, if you cannot sing and dance listening to “Mavi Boncuk” by Emel Sayın. Or “Feride”
If you do not know of the defiance of love: “Geçse de gençlik çağım, boş kalsa da kucağım, sözümü tutacağım, adını anmayacağım..."
“Even if my youth passes by, even if I am all alone, I'll keep my word, I'll never utter your name...”
These are the epitomes of my forming years.
If you do not know the rich boy-poor girl themes, or vice versa. These have a deep impact on your life. Without your being conscious. “Davul bile dengi dengine...” we say. “Even the drum beats with the same size.” It's similar to birds of the same feather flocking together.
Or if you haven’t read Yaşar Kemal?
I wonder how many of you who have been to Turkey can recount one Nasreddin Hodja story let alone know them all. It's such a big part of our culture. We make references to them so very often daily.
One definition of culture is “the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts.”
So my examples are to the point.
Cambridge defines culture as “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time.”
See? That’s important too. “A particular time…” My culture is not the same as those growing up in Turkey now. The “new generation” has no idea of most of the things that make me me. Or okay let’s not make it specifically about myself, what made my generation “us”.
What’s more, Turkey is not homogeneous at all. In fact, I think Turkey is one of the rare countries with so many different regions from the Black Sea to the East to the SouthEast area that it is really impossible to get to know all those different cultures within Turkey by just travelling through it.
That takes us to the discussion about “visiting” time. Let’s make it even “living” instead of visiting. I’ve been living in Italy, married to an Italian for about nine years now. What is my knowledge of Italian culture? Sure, I have an idea of the perks of the Italian language. Sure, I have an idea of how Italians live, where they go, what they talk about etc. I have visited almost all around Italy and have friends from Napoli and Sicilia etc. Sure, I know Toto... but I'll never know all the famous scenes that my husband can recount word by word and find it on youtube to show me. I'll never be able to sing anything of “Nessuno mi può giudicare nemmeno tuuu” past from the refrain.
I have been to the Vatican, I have dined in their cafeteria, and even if I did not crash on the couch of the pope, I’ve been to his private studio, I’ve spent hours sitting and chatting with one of the high priests in his house. So I've definitely “mingled” with at least one local in the Vatican.
Does any of these grant me the right to say I immersed myself in Italian culture? I don’t believe so. I will never be able to sing along the arias like my husband does on the weekends. I will never be able to learn all the art history and philosophy that my husband has (knowledge of) intrinsically. I will never have a total grasp of their Christian fables.
Even though I now have an Italian citizenship and passport, even though I sometimes say “Italian” when they ask me where I am from when travelling, even though I say “So we lost/won!” when Italy plays, I will never be an Italian myself. I will
never get to know “Italian culture” fully.
On the other hand, A Turkish who has learnt Italian at an early age, who has studied Italian art, who has read many Italian books, who has so many Italian friends and spends most of his life about things Italian can be way more knowledgeable in Italian culture than me living here for so long. So I just wish this could be the end of any discussion on getting to know a culture and superiority.
Culture is not something to be embraced/immersed in/experienced or something easy to dig into, it is something deep and profound, it is an identity that takes a lifetime to form, so naturally it takes a lot of study and effort to understand. Besides, even though generalizations can be made, it is also very specific to the individual. Travel sure is a good way to witness other ways of life, get exposed to other ways of thought/beliefs, but if you consider yourself to know the "culture of a people" by travelling for a certain period of time, or even by living for a time, then I'd say you are just fooling yourself. You, at most, only get a glimpse of it. Which is not a small feat in itself. And it should suffice if you have the humility to acknowledge the vast amount of human experience out there.
PS: Ah, what came to my mind? Does one really need to go to America, travel or live there to know about its gun culture? It’s enough to read the news and follow up a bit on the social media. I wish nobody learns that culture by being a witness to it.
Or the movies? They're invading our lives, more dominant than our original culture.
Or about the hamburger culture? McDonalds and KFC are everywhere, everywhere around the world. Just like Chinese shops.
Do you need to go to China to know their rice culture, do you need to come to Italy to know their pasta and pizza culture? Sure, you may taste them in its place. But now, there are so many good Italian chefs around the world, who beat most others in Italy itself.
What I wish to say is... Travel, read, listen, learn, think, analyze, improve yourself. I see all as an investment in myself. But then don't boast of the amount of time travelled; it's of no value by itself. Share what you have distilled out of your travels and adventures. That's what counts.
Seneca has written it thousands of years ago:
... there is no reason for you to think that any man has lived long because he has grey hairs or wrinkles, he has not lived long – he has existed long. For what if you should think that man had had a long voyage who had been caught by a fierce storm as soon as he left harbour, and, swept hither and thither by a succession of winds that raged from different quarters, had been driven in a circle around the same course? Not much voyaging did he have, but much tossing about.”
And in Turkish we say "Akıl yaşta değil, baştadır." Wisdom is not in the age, but in the mind.
Wisdom is not in travelling extensively either. Travelling is not the ultimate criteria to show anyone's worth. There may be travellers who have been to so many countries without acquiring much knowledge of the world; there may be people who, sitting at home, have accumulated more knowledge and understanding of life, the world, and the people living on it.