I came across this piece of fiction while having a clear out session and thought it seemed a bit of a shame to just leave it filed away on my hard drive where no one can read it. It fits in with the theme of my previous post and hopefully it might be of interest to some of you. I wrote it as part of my English Degree for a module entitled 'Harem & Hijab: Women in Islam.' The objective was to write a piece comparing preconceived views of the East / Orient with modernity. The story looks at Western stereotypes of Turkey through the experiences of a British student who meets a group of Turkish students in Italy. (All views expressed are fictitious and copyright of the characters themselves)
Turkish Delight: Full of Eastern Promise. But as I held a piece of squidgy lokum between my fingers, I began to realise the failings of my Cadbury’s education.
“But is this real Turkish delight?” I whispered, “It doesn’t have any chocolate on it”. Ali’s bemused look informed me this thought should remain between us.
“It’s only for tourists,” he said.
Yet there it was. Sugar-coated, rose-tinted and representing Turkey. It warmly welcomed us as we entered the party Ali’s friends had lovingly organised to introduce their Italian housemates to authentic ‘Turkishness’.
As I nibbled the little cube, I thanked God lokum was nothing like the perfumed jelly-slabs that British kids have to endure (along with parma violets). Not all things Turkish tickled my taste-buds however. While the Turks and Italians were raising celebratory glasses (“serefe!”), I was slotting raki alongside Gaviscon in the ‘awful childhood tastes’ compartment of my brain. As I deposited the barely-touched glass behind a convenient basil pot, I accidently caught the attention of a nearby Italian.
“Ciao! So you are Turkish also?” he asked.
“Non, I’m English”
He looked at me blankly, glancing at my brown curly hair, then asked,
His questions left us both perplexed. I would have blamed my shoddy Italian for the confusion were it not for the entrance of more of Ali’s friends from Istanbul. Dark hair. Dark eyes. As they introduced themselves I saw in each face an alternative reflection of my own. Kara-kahve. No wonder I’d been mistaken for a Turk. I was essentially a full-length mirror to one of the girls who happened to be wearing an identical pair of Per Una jeans. I smiled, wondering if there was a Turkish woman elsewhere in the room being asked if she was English and feeling equally baffled.
While Ali scouted the whereabouts of helva for me to try, I wandered towards his friends, carefully avoiding stepping on the Turkish rug (“Carpets are sacred to Turks remember”, Ali had said). I was intercepted by a Turkish man who greeted me, “Merhaba! You have Turkish boyfriend now, you must learn belly-dance.” He escorted me to several girls, Italian and Turkish, huddled over an iPod choosing the next song. Tarkan’s ‘Şımarık’ won the Italians’ vote despite playful protest from the Turks that the song was ridiculously cheesy. The Turkish girls began to shimmy regardless while I danced in my Anglo-awkward way. Their increasingly tongue-in-cheek displays of exaggerated and amateur belly-dance reduced us all to fits of giggles. Entrenched by years of Eurovision, I had believed all Turkish women belly-danced through life, hips jingle-jangling while singing Euro-English.
And those who couldn’t belly-dance wore the veil. At least that was what my imagination had decided when I was a child. Both images were equally exotic: the veiled allure of the belly dancer and the veiled piety of the devout Muslim woman. Neither extremes were to be found in that room.
After Tarkan, it was Shakira’s ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ that emerged victorious in the iPod battle. As the opening trumpets sounded, the man beside me leapt up. He grabbed a tea-towel, sending baklava crumbs flying, held it under his eyes and proceeded to belly-dance. His rhythmic swivels held us entranced as we realised he was unquestionably the most graceful dancer in the room. We cheered him on (‘Güzel Ahmet! Bravissimo!’) as he spun exuberantly among us like a whirling dervish. His eyes gleamed as he raised his bushy eyebrows provocatively along the veil. Indeed, Ahmet’s undeniable sensuality was only hindered by the occasional glimpse of an incongruously full beard beneath the make-shift veil.
When the song ended, I found Ali in discussion with his friend Deniz, and Patrizia, her Italian housemate.
“Conservative types usually wear veil in Turkey”, Deniz was explaining to Patrizia (characteristically dropping articles that are often lost in Turkish-to-English translation), “when they banned it in universities, some of the veiled women protested – they want to wear it.”
“Like Sarkozy’s burqa ban”, Patrizia commented, “It’s the women themselves who are protesting because they’re fighting for part of their identity. I mean, why should you have to choose to be either French or Muslim?”
“Exactly, is same in Turkey”, Deniz added, “To be Turkish, Muslim, or Turkish Muslim, it doesn’t mean you must wear veil but for some it’s their identity: religious, cultural, political. You know Hayrünnisa Gül, our president’s wife? She couldn’t go to university because she wore veil. The President always had two events for anniversary of our Republic so military wouldn’t have to shake his wife’s hand. Some think that gesture would undermine the secular state. When he merged the receptions last year it was seen as Islamist, bringing Islam into politics.”
“It’s really complicated”, Ali commented, “women can wear headscarf in some universities now but theoretically it’s still not accepted. I heard there are girls who rebel by wearing cheap wigs over their scarf so they can attend university. Saying someone can’t wear something is oppressive but it’s difficult because Turkey was founded on secularism and now veil represents Islam. People assume the veil is a Muslim thing. But is the miniskirt part of Christian culture? No. Then headscarf isn’t automatically Islam. Christian Armenians in Turkey wear headscarfs.”
“Even the Queen wears one when she goes out in the countryside”, I said, “Although that’s more to do with English weather than identity.”
“Exactly”, Ali chuckled, “The West assumes veils oppress Muslim women but they don’t think twice when they see wimpled nuns wandering across the piazzas here. Are they oppressed by their headscarf?”
“Si, here in Italia, it’s not the nuns who have problems” said Patrizia, “This country is Berlusconi’s empire and as a woman, you can’t get on TV unless you squeeze plastic double-D’s into a bikini. I mean look at that”. She pointed to the mute TV screen next to the unveiled figure of Ahmet inhaling nargile. The TV screen revealed two high-heeled, thong-trussed showgirls dancing either side of seated male presenters on Italy’s primetime news programme.
“We are not in veils perhaps”, Patrizia continued, “but isn’t exposure just as oppressive as concealment?”
 ‘Black Coffee’ is a Turkish expression used to describe people with dark hair.
 ‘Spoiled’ (1997) released by Tarkan sold two million copies across Europe.
 The Turkish name for shisha inhaled from a hookah.
 ‘Striscia la notizia’ (‘The News Slithers’) is the flagship news programme of Berlusconi-owned Mediaset. The two women, called veline, are models and/or dancers in their early twenties: one blonde and one brunette. The veline have become the most popular female icons on Italian television. They do not speak.