A Karagöz Puppet-Refereed Debate about Islam as a Religion of Peace

I question what I know about Islam – and what I, and my family, experience about Islam. And this will be a long-haul question, I’m quite sure…

What I have come to realize about myself in the context of my cross-cultural relationship, is that there are things about Islam and Muslim culture in Turkey that are difficult for me to accept. They are difficult to accept as they do not conform to the beliefs (fantasies?) and experiences I have in my marriage and in my extended Turkish family. Once such thing is the relationship between Islam, passages in the Qu’ran and violence, specifically the way the latter two are used by, for example, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in Iraq.

After years of cultural sensitivity training based on, for example, abstract Islamic concepts versus lived realities, I was conditioned to expect that my Turkish boyfriend – now husband – would have good things to say about Islam and that I would accept that. Now it appears that I am a hopelessly idealistic and naïve person. In fact, I think if the shoe were on the other foot, I would call myself out as a maker of limited and simplistic assumptions. It’s never that simple. Truth be told, I don’t want it to be true that Islam is not a religion of peace – because *in part* I feel protective of what others might think about my husband and extended family. So, the Karagöz puppets have been stirring my mental pot over the last few days, and the puppets have stepped in to help me think through it all, to make sense of it a bit.

Last night, M. and I read the paper in the breezeway at sunset. Usually, the breezeway on this hot, sun-baked island is a place of respite. And perhaps we need to keep it as such, and not read the newspaper over there, just leave it as a place of peace. However, as I was reading the Hurriyet Daily News, Hacivad Bey, the learned Sufi elder puppet, pointed me to an article about how the AK Partisi (AKP or Justice and Development Party) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is trying to take control of tenure, research priorities and governance of all private, yes that’s right, private, universities in Turkey. As an academic, this is an atrocious recommendation that I find shocking and horrific. Nothing like ISIL, but horrific nonetheless. Such is the slippery slope of reading and discussing the newspaper.

As M. listened to my description of the central points in the article, he snorted “it is shocking – he has moved from being de-centralist, to a dictator. Really, he wants to control everything! I think he has gone over the edge. Sometimes it feels like we are heading to the worst of Soviet-style rule….” And then, after a pregnant pause, he softly asked me, “L., do you think Turkey could ever be an Iran or Afghanistan?” On the suggestion of Perihan Hanım, my fairy godmother puppet, I let the question hang in the air a bit. Touching his hand, I said, “I don’t think an Afghanistan, canım (dear), but maybe something more like Iran.” We sat quietly, noticing the breeze.

M. sighed as he rested the paper on his lap, ready now for another round of discussion. His tone tense, even anguished, he began to remark on the horrific violence being carried out in the name of Islam worldwide. From his perch on my left shoulder, Karagöz, ever the trickster of a marital moment ruiner, began to rub his hands together with glee. “This, he said, “well, THIS could lead to a good and SPARKY argument! Just what I like the BEST!” M. recounted the newspapers’ stories about bodies being chopped up and hearts being cut out in Central Africa, ISIL’s dictates about the role of women in their regime – and even Islamic extremist activists trying to discourage women from bathing in lakes or sea in the religiously conservative Sakarya district near Istanbul. “Sometimes,” M. said wistfully, “it seems that Muslims are making the most trouble in the world.” Shaking Perihan Hanım’s calming influence loose, I countered with “Well, geez, what about Mexico and all the drug-related deaths and kidnappings? Columbia? Central America and the gangs imported from the United States?”

Seeing pain and even fear in M.’s eyes now, I stayed quiet as he waived his hand as if to brush my suggestion away, “but that is economic, class-based, this is about religion at the core.” Although I was not sure I agreed with him, and despite the fact that I believe religion and socioeconomic status class matters can and do intersect, I stayed silent. I have begun to learn, after 10 years in this relationship, that there are times to listen and ponder what one’s spouse says, as conversations can go on for years (if not decades (Inşallah!), so why rush into it now when the topic is sensitive!). Perihan Hanım made a notation in the form of a check mark in her notebook (she keeps score of when I can temper my stubborn need to argue every single point, no matter the topic, in favor of maintaining some level of peace).

Things settled down a bit as we went into the village for our nightly Internet dosage, not to mention our addiction to ada cayı (an herbal, citrusy tea). We even splurged on a dessert of sakızlı muhallebi (mastic pudding with pistachio dust) *and* sakızlı kurabiye (mastic cookies) for dessert. But then Karagöz seemed to take the proverbial wheel once more as we were driving home from the village later that night. Karagöz began to giggle – with a distinctly evil undertone – as once again, M. recounted some of what he had read in the evening news. He highlighted the response of one commentator to an article in which the notion of Islam as a religion of peace was questioned rather heartily. Celebi, the modern maven puppet pointed out “such is the wonderful capacity of this Internet thingy for spurring debate, in written form, underneath newspaper e-articles.”

My ears perked up – as did my marital sense that trouble might as well. But for once, the ever-increasing influence of Perihan Hanim (perhaps manifested in the form of our couples therapist’s teachings), I began to make the argument I usually make with American Christians or Jewish people who counter the claim that Islam is a religion of peace. “Well, canım, everything exists on a spectrum, that’s what I feel. ISIL is just one side of the spectrum. I believe most people are weighted on the other side in the everyday practice of Islam.”

Yehuda Rebbe, ever the wise one, pulled me aside just then, suggesting that I take a moment to consider where my strong feelings on this matter emanated from. “You, M’lady, were raised in a Christian family, albeit a Unitarian Universalist one. And you should tell your readers, those unfamiliar with that section of Protestantism, that “UUs” are very left-leaning and draw on *all* religious text in seeking truths about the world.” And it is true, raised as a politically-aware UU, Sunday mornings at church often included sermons inclusive of both the bible and the Qu’ran…not to mention Hindu and Buddhist texts as well as thoughts from a range of ancient and modern philosophers from Plato to Nietzsche.

Although exposed to some Islamic thinking as a youth, I didn’t think about it very deeply. I was given ample enough opportunity to explore the Qu’ranic passages in sermons and in Sunday school, when we compared aspects of the Bible and the Qu’ran and the conclusion of peace as the “red thread” in that religion made sense to me. But this was all “book learnin’” and devoid of the lived reality of Islam in different cultural contexts.

Not able to stay out of a potential sparking spot, Karagöz burst in. “What?” Karagöz said haughtily, “Well! You *were* a young and impressionable schoolgirl – and those were decontextualized discussions. Have you forgotten that you were not taught about how Mohamed took on a 15 year old wife- something your husband always refers to as child sexual abuse? You didn’t learn about THAT in Sunday school, did you! And don’t even start to make an argument about historical relativism, which is sacrilege as a feminist!”

So, let’s think about what was going on while I was a schoolgirl of the 1970s and 1980s. As the oil crisis unfolded in the 1970s, as American hostages were taken by Islamic militants in Iran in the 1980s and as Iranian refugees in my own school talked about many things – including having to start wearing the veil – I held on to my convictions about Islam as an essentially peaceful religion. I was also heavily influenced by Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi’s writings on the empowering aspects of Islam for women – and on Islamic feminism. “How,” I remember wondering, “Could Islam be all bad?” So, I held on to the idea that Islam was a religion of peace.

But here I was in 2014, in the car with my husband, a man whose identity card reads “Muslim” because placing “atheist” on the card would “give him trouble,” as he puts it. And I felt unsettled. Maybe I need to yank the wool off from over my eyes – well wait – my husband is about to do that for me: “Well what about the point that if Islam is a religion of peace, how is it that Mohamed’s sword, one of which sits in Topkapı Palace, was used to kill infidels in the many wars he fought in.   How can a prophet have a sword, how can a prophet kill people? How can anyone, but anyone, say this is a religion of peace?” And I was stumped, I have read the passages about killing infidels, but have somehow explained this away as a product of history – much as we don’t take all of the Bible’s teachings literally anymore. Without my English language Qu’ran on hand, I don’t have the capacity to turn to scholarship to resolve this debate for myself- and I think I have become smart enough to realize that even that would not suffice.

Perihan Hanim stepped in to my view again at this point, reminding me to calm any upsurge of ire, and remember the context in which my husband understands Islam. M., who recounts that he wished to see and feel God as a child, was let down then, when he could not feel what others purported to feel. While his paternal Grandmother said her prayers at most every namaz (call-to-prayer by the muezzin), she was the only one in the family to do so. Nobody in the family visited a mosque unless someone died. And, when they did, M. reports, they felt distinctly like fish out of water. And with the horrors of Iran in the 1970s one country away from him, M. decided then and there that Islam was not a good thing – especially when mixed with nationalism. This notion is one of his most firmly held beliefs (and, I would argue, fears). However, unlike others I have met in his family and circle of friends, he has retained the ability to hold respect for others’ religious beliefs in Islam or any religion – regardless. Clearly, M. is the product of a wholly secular upbringing during the 1950s and 1960s during which Social Democrats were in power, and religion was truly separated from the state. Of course he sees Islam in a darker light.

Yehuda Rebbe, no stranger to arguments about whether Islam is a religion of peace or not, joins Perihan Hanım now, to soothe my ruffled feathers for the night. “M’lady, as the ISIL points its efforts north towards our part of the Levant, I suspect this is a discussion that will intensify, and hopefully deepen. As your university’s Indian Philosophies professor taught you, living with duality is one of the most central essences of life’s challenges. Remember that, and keep thinking, and listening, and learning. For what else is there to do?”

“Well, fooey!” Karagöz snorted, “that’s not nearly as much fun as the arguments we normally make these two have!”



Posted in Cross-cultural learning moments, Early exposure to Islam, On Islam and Muslims, Turkish Controversies, Visits from the Karagöz puppets | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Fisting Eggplants – or – Making İmam Bayıldı For the First Time

Imam bayıldı

My very first attempt at making Imam bayıldı – which felt more like fisting a boiling hot eggplant unhappily…

Well, apparently Hacivad Bey’s prompting to get back to writing stirred things up a little bit.  We’ll see how long it lasts, says the naysayer. As M. and I walked through the local Armenian grocery, picking up their delectable İmam bayıldı along the way (a stuffed eggplant dish called ‘the imam swooned’) a wave of shame passed over me.  The shame had a name – the name of one of the Karagöz puppets living in my head who gives me the hardest time in life….

Before I could even say başlama to myself, I heard Kenne, the Queen of Manners and Maintenance of Ladylike Behaviors puppet whispering in my ear. “You are the wife of a Turk, yet you have never, ever cooked İmam bayıldı – or anything else uniquely Turkish other than çay, although I must admit, you have mastered that passably well.”

Rolling my eyes behind Kenne’s back, I willed her out of my mind as I promised myself to go home, and cook some gosh darned Turkish food for once.  It was bad enough that the Hanım Efendi (lady proprietress referred to with an honorific) of the grocery we were in didn’t even acknowledge me or my attempts to greet her properly in Turkish – despite that I’ve been shopping there for 10 years.  I hate to say it, but this lady, she reminds me of Karagöz at his meanest – snobby about my fledgling Turkish and ready to ignore me in the cruelest of ways before making fun of me in a belittling way for mispronouncing something.  But mostly just ignoring me.  In any case, the rest of the puppets soothed me from my own thin skin, propped me up, stopped me from feeling sorry for myself and marched me out of there to cook something Turkish, damn it!

Armed with eggplant, lemons, tomato, olive oil, sugar, cinnamon and a bay leaf, I turned to the Internet for a tarifi (recipe).  Karagöz, that impish trickster puppet, quiet for so long due to being bound and gagged by his compatriots, ROLLED on his fat paunchy stomach laughing like all get-out at the idea of finding a RECIPE on the INTERNET.  “You are so in trouble – you need to learn that from your abla (big sister) or your kaynana (mother-in-law) – you’ll FAIL MISERABLY otherwise.”  I threw him down the drain with some lemon rinds and ground him up in the garbage disposal, bit by camel-hide bit.

Turning back to my iPad without distraction now, I chose a recipe from the New York Times.  Although I could hear a cackling warning in my head from some errant puppet saying “you are going to trust the NYT to teach you how to make İmam bayıldı” , I ignored it.  What else was I going to do?  Trust some crazy blogger with photos of clearly under-cooked eggplant? No.  Here is the recipe that I started with - click here.  Mercan Bey, the Arabian Spice Trader puppet cheered me on, however, reminding me that I should be very careful with the amount of cinnamon that I had chosen to add – from reading a Turkish recipe and adding that bit to my NYT choice.

Starting with the eggplants, I sliced them in half – careful not to break through to the other side.  I considered removing the bitter seeds right then and there but decided to follow the recipe (something I rarely do).  After cooking them at 450 degrees F for 20 minutes – they were barely shriveled. Despite the ghost of Karagöz the questioner who had taken up residence in my mind by now, I gave them another ten minutes, to good result.  In the meantime, I practiced my conjugation of the verb “to cook” while softening the onions and then peeling and coring the tomatoes.

After leaving the eggplants to drain for a bit, I took at look at them, burning my fingertips along the way.  “I f*ing hate eggplants!” I found myself calling out, terrifically Karagöz-like as I really don’t, I really LIKE eggplants.  M. stormed in the door at this point, grumpy from a tough day – clearly not ready to be my in-house culinary consultant.  I left the eggplants to sit a little more while making him a tomato-cucumber-white-cheese salad with lemon and olive oil (his nectar of the Gods).

Facing my task anew, my renewed enthusiasm flagged, as I saw the chunky, heavy flesh before me, with no room present to receive the delectable tomato-onion stuffing I had patiently prepared.  “I shoved my fingers into the largest eggplant, trying to pull out the deceptively slippery seeds, which seemed to be GRINNING at me with spite.  I couldn’t pull those God Damn things out without ripping the skin, which was supposed to be intact – and my fingers were getting singed to boot.

I stomped my foot.  It did not help.  I looked up at the windowsill and saw the ENTIRE puppet troupe there, cheering me on.  I shoved my hand back up into the bowels of the big eggplant, determined to harvest those seeds by any means necessary.  I emerged with a tiny string of seeds.  “F this,” I said to nobody in particular, ignoring Kenne’s horror at my potty mouth, “I’m using a knife.”  Diverting from the recipe, I held the steaming hot eggplants under water and hacked away at the seed threads in a way that could NEVER be referred to as yavaş yavaş (slowly by slowly). I even tried speaking lovingly to the eggplant seeds, for a second, before cursing them again.

At this point, M. walked through and said, very unhelpfully, “you have to take the seeds out.”  After cutting onions thinly, blanching tomatos in boiling water to peel them, coring and seeding them – and fisting those hot and heavy eggplant bottoms, I could only think of the great respect I have for all the Turkish women out there who cook this dish on a daily basis.  Damn!

In the end, my red-hot fingers managed to survive my first fisting eggplants episode – and M. (and the rest of the puppets) deemed the lemony sauce “just right,” although I’m not sure if he was placating me or not.  Come over and visit, if you promise to cheer me on, I’ll fist eggplants for you too – and you can be a judge of my version of the dish!

(Or send me your secret for how to get rid of those awfully stubborn seeds!)

P.S. Later that evening, M. said “it actually needed more salt, and those eggplants are shit – they have no taste! They are not Turkish eggplants.  But it is not YOUR fault.”  Sigh.


Posted in Cross-cultural learning moments, Turkish Food!, Turkish-American Matters, Visits from the Karagöz puppets | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Ten Years, Ten Moments: Hacivad Bey Speaks

Our niece Melia, having a tactile experience outside of the Haghia Sofya...just one of Hacivad Bey's top ten moments from our ten years together

Our niece Melia, having a tactile experience outside of the Haghia Sofya…just one of Hacivad Bey’s top ten moments from our ten years together

Today, Hacivad Bey poked his head around the corner of my living room and inquired about my well-being.  “It’s been a long time, M’lady, since you’ve let us come out and play!”  Sighing, I responded, “Indeed, Hacivad Bey, it has. I’m just not in shape for blogging like I used to.”  So much has peaked the puppets’ interests in the last six months – by my fingers have been leaden to their whims.

What has, however, managed to sneak through, are the puppets’ thoughts on the Top Ten Moments of our Ten Year Cross-Cultural Roadtrip. We celebrated our ten-year-together anniversary this year (and 5 years with the legal papers)…and there is much to look back on.  So much, in fact, that Hacivad Bey has handed me a stack of notecards with careful calligraphic penmanship indicating which of those rise to the top, and here they are in no particular order (with my narration)….although not the best blog post, if nothing else, I have enjoyed recalling these special moments, and I am grateful to Hacivad Bey for appearing today and shaking me up a bit!

10. Eating Ayva Tatlisi (a.k.a. poached quince): Who knew a quince could bond two people together quite so deliciously.  For years, M. ranted and raved about his love of Ayva Tatlisi – but only made it last winter.  As soon as I tasted his carefully poached confection, I was taken back to my Spanish Granny’s kitchen – and a dessert I had almost forgotten.  We had two helpings each, as we recollected our childhood love of that dessert.  And then M. told me what Ayva is a slang word for in Turkçe. :)  And we had a good laugh. Click the hotlink that is the title of this item for the whole story. 

9. Bargaining for a Car in the ABD (USA):  Nobody ranks quite as low on the totem pole of scorn as car salesmen…and one of the worst set of offenders are located nary a few blocks from our house.  When we decided on the car we wanted, we headed down the block with our heads held high, an order for me to shut up, and a very secret weapon – namely M.’s Turkish negotiating tactics.  It was all I could do to keep a straight face – and M. scared the bejeezus out of the car salesman who dropped the price as soon as possible.  I loved every minute of it.

8. Freestyling in Turklish: Over these ten years, I have struggled to make time for learning Turkish.  Once successfully off the tenure track at my university, I had no more excuses.  While I amped up my efforts – my attempts to freestyle with my slowy-acquired skills have led to many corrections – and a few big mistakes.  None was funnier than the one I dropped on the 2nd bridge while stuck in gridlocked traffic with my Abla (Big Sister) and her kids, namely “Taş gibi.” Translated as “like a stone,” this phrase is also slang for a hot woman – a woman with some substance.   You’ll have to read the story at the hotlink above to get the picture – literally and figuratively. :)

7. Su Gibi Git Su Gibi Gel with Teyze:  After visiting M.’s Teyze (Aunt) for the first time, a trying visit to say the least, I was happy to be leaving.  I felt terrible about it.  I never imagined not being able to get along with someone – much less someone with whom I did not share a language (the only person in M.’s family for whom that is true).  I turned around to wave goodbye, still hoping I could make a good impression – and saw Teyze throwing water after us.  I burst into tears, presuming that this was her wish to get rid of us.  Pulling over the car to comfort me, M. tried to understand what was wrong – and when I explained through boogery sobs, he descended into laughter.  I had no idea that the tradition of throwing water behind those leaving on a trip was to wish that they would “go like water and come back like water.”  In other words, safely!

6. Seeing Turkey Anew with Our “Child:” One year, we decided to bring our niece, Melia, to Turkey with us.  Fascinated by world religions and travel at a young age, her parents decided to let us have her for three weeks.  And they were a grand three weeks indeed.  While we did all the standard stuff, the most wonderful thing that happened was the response that people had to us as a couple – with a child.  We were clearly “legitimate” as a couple and gained entry into elements of Anatolian society that we heretofore had not.  We were even told “not to come back without Melia next time!”  Over the course of the trip, this led to many rich conversations about our different cultures’ expectations of women, men, couples and families.

5.  When the Karagöz Puppets Met the Archers: Although I (still) have not blogged about it, one of the best moments (drawn out over a week) of our relationship was meeting the illustrious Archers of Okçular and bonding over scads of things – including the receipt of a GENUINE Karagöz set of puppets for me!  After starting this blog, Alan became a devoted supporter – for which I am so grateful!  We became e-friends and several years ago, made the jump from 0/1 bits to face-to-face contact near Dalyan. Our sharing conversations barely paused for a week – and spanned the gamut from hilarity to tears about all manner of things Turkish, political, botanical, familial and otherwise.  Can’t wait to see the Archers of O this summer on our hunt for the blue mollusk in the Black Sea region!

4. Shared History in Gelibolu’s Lone Pine Cemetery: On my first trip to Turkey with M., we drove from Istanbul to Bozcaada – stopping at Gelibolu (Gallipoli) on the way.  Many people have heard of the national friendship spawned by the terrible battles at this location between the ANZAC forces and the Turks.  Each year, on ANZAC Day, the displays of international friendship are extreme – and being known as the relative of an ANZAC soldier in Çanakkale, for example, is likely to get you a free meal, a story and a sympathetic hug.  While I’m not an Aussie – or a Kiwi – my great uncle ran away from Southern Spain, gained Aussie citizenship and was promptly drafted into WW1 – only to die on the second day of battle at Gelibolu.  My Granny’s favorite, her grief over his death never quite left.  By sheer luck, M. found my great uncle’s gravestone – bringing some level of karmic closure to a painful familial fissure on my mother’s side.  We both cried and hugged each other in the sun, the first of many cultural overlaps on our road trip.

3. Finding another Turkish-American Couple: We know plenty of Turkish-American couples – many of whom we adore and share interests with.  Many of whom we protested with during Gezi Park solidarity protests.  But it was one particular couple we met – and became fast friends with – that have brought an even deeper cross-cultural element of life examination into our lives.  Meeting J. (American) and S. (Turkish-American) has been life-changing.  Something about the constellations of our respective relationships allow us to delve deep into topics that are unique to our relationship combinations.  For example, J. and I have commiserated about our at-times “Turkish wife” status – or the unexamined expectations held by our Turkish partners.  Meanwhile, M. and S. have bonded into blood brothers based on their acculturation level to the U.S. – and more importantly their equal (in my eyes) identification as Turks and Americans.  This sets them apart from others who seem to be one or the other.  We have been welcomed into their extended family and cannot imagine life without them.  So here’s to the Internet for making that happy accident a wonderful reality that has led to so many ‘elevated’ conversations. :) That’s for you, S.

2. Gaining an Abla and Her Kids:  This one can’t be quantified as a moment – but rather a span of time during which one of M.’s best friends became one of my closest…and through that process I not only gained a wise Alba, but a close friend who can translate my unending cultural confusion into understanding and relief.  But she is much more than that to us – she has become our family member in heart. She once famously said to me of her child who stayed with us for a time “You take the meat, I’ll keep the bones” when referring to a short period of collective child-rearing we engaged in. While we have blood siblings – we often wonder – what would I (therefore “we”) do without her?  (We love you and your kids, G.)

1. Saying No Over Lamacuns in Kilis:  For years and years, there have been odd and somewhat unsettling moments in our marriage.  They have always involved me posing a question – and Murat looking at me, but not saying a word.  One of these moments came at a lamacun shop in Kilis, on the Syrian border. We love trying out lamacun wherever we go – as we both grew up with them – M. in Cihangir and me in Watertown, MA, where my Dad picked boxes of them up from the “Exotic” Armenian bakery on his way home from work.  But in any case, there we were in Kilis.  I posed a question to M.  He stared at me – his mouth full of the best lamacun either of us has ever eaten.  And just as I began to feel that familiar feeling of frustration at his odd lack of responsiveness, he lifted his eyebrows – and it hit me – he’s saying “NO!”  It took me 7 years to learn his Turkish body language for “No.” Oy vey, what a laugh we had. I wonder what else there is to learn!



Posted in Cross-cultural learning moments, Family Challenges, On writing about my life with the Karagöz puppets, Turklish Moments, Visits from the Karagöz puppets | Tagged , , | 5 Comments