While walking through Istanbul or any other Turkish city, one cannot miss the coexistence of the headscarf and western clothes. Most people in Turkey are religious at heart. They follow the eastern traditions of being gregarious and hospitable, but aspire to be western. Unfortunately, Turkey is yet to imbibe the best attribute of the West – its work ethic.

Fahri spent three years in Delhi working with us. People still remember him for his good nature, his extreme honesty and his habit of not missing any prayers. He was one of the nicest people you could have met. Fahri is now a professor at university in Eastern Turkey. He and his family were visiting Istanbul the same time I was there. I remembered Fahri as clean-shaved but found him sporting a beard. That was quite a courageous thing to do in Turkey. This is something that strikes you as a visitor. Though being predominantly Muslim, you rarely find bearded men in Turkey. This is Ataturk’s legacy. In the aftermath of the Revolution, beards were equated to Ottoman backwardness. On asking him about his beard, Fahri just smiled but the conviction was unmistakably visible in his eyes.

Handan is a bright and good-looking thirty-something Turkish scientist who also spent a year on a fellowship with us in Delhi. While in India she told us of a Turkish custom in which the groom provided the bride with her weight in gold. Since at that time Handan was engaged to marry on return to Turkey, the standard joke was to feed her well for a glittering future. I learnt she called off her wedding. Her fiancé wanted her to stop working after marriage and she found this unacceptable. Handan teaches at Istanbul University and worked through her college, for some time as an airline stewardess as well, to get an education. This is the modern Turkish woman who is confident, career-oriented and willing to stand by her convictions.

We also ran into an old friend who was in Istanbul from England to attend a conference called “Muslims in Europe”. This conference was being held in Istanbul as Turkey aspires to join the EU. Perhaps Turkey should learn something from Europe in recognizing individual freedom and cultural expression. While London and Paris are full of headscarf wearing muslim women, in Turkey there is an ongoing conflict between the miniskirt and headscarf.

In retrospect, France is another story now. The President is telling muslim women how they should (or should not dress). So much for the birthplace of liberty!!

On the outbound flight I was reading the New Anatolian, by its claims Turkey’s only independent English-language daily. Commenting on the political and cultural space in Turkey, Kemal Balci saw Emine Erdogan’s (wife of the then Prime Minister) headscarf as the real problem. Turkey is perhaps the only country where the wives of the PM and deputy PM could not visit the Presidential Palace since they wore headscarves.

No, Mr. Balci, modesty and preservation of your cultural identity is a sign of character, not a weakness. You cannot be holier than the Pope, so why try and lose yourself in the process. As an outsider, I felt that this eagerness to join the EU, even at the cost of its cultural identity, may be Turkey’s undoing.

Talking about the Pope, he is openly opposed to Turkey becoming a part of the EU and chose to quote from a Byzantine Emperor about the “evil” nature of Islam. The Pope later “regretted” that his speech was “misunderstood”. But there is no misunderstanding about the prevailing sentiment in Europe, towards its own Muslim societies and the inclusion in EU of its first predominantly Muslim country.

A Turkish friend once told me there are two kinds of Turks – white Turks and brown Turks. I understood what he meant.

Originally written for Cold Stones and Hot Zones

posts by Shahid