Eggs and Ottoman music: On cultural responsivity gone wrong in one Turkish American marital moment


Syrian music band from Ottoman Aleppo, mid 18t...

Syrian music band from Ottoman Aleppo, mid 18th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, I really have to laugh at myself, along with Karagöz who is, of course, really howling at me (he tells me, “M’lady, I’m laughing WITH you, not at you.” Yeah right, Karagöz, I know you and your ways. Sigh. But in any case, maybe I am just too hyper-critical of myself this morning, but sometimes I think I may just try too hard in my work to be a culturally competent Turkish-American partner/wife.

I am reminded of when my sister and Italian brother-in-law, who were visiting Istanbul to see us, made fun of me for trying to get him to pronounce “Topkapı Palace” (pronounced “Top-kah-puh” forget even going to Sarayı (“sah-ray-yuh”), the Turkish word for it) vs. “Topkapeeeeee Palace.” I think language is important, and how you use it shows respect and allows for cross-cultural understanding even on minute levels. I also get riled up about tourists who don’t make an effort to pronounce things correctly, am I alone on that? Kenne, the Queen of Manners Puppet and Maven of the Maintenance of Etiquette and Ladylike Behavior, gives me a nod of approval at that.

Now, as you may recall, yesterday, I reflected on our annual Christmas tree argument, and how it was not, as a matter of fact, rooted in cultural and religious differences, but rather environmental and gendered ones. Karagöz in particular was the puppet yelling loudest about my need to “take it easy” on the cultural competence analytical thinking front. Well, never to be outdone (“or just DONE,” Karagöz snarks,) I did it again this morning. But this morning, the issue was not cultural competence – it was the effort towards the new hip phrase in my field – cultural responsivity. You can read more about this new term in my evolving page on the topic, but basically, I think this one is better than the latter.

Kenne, well known to be the self-imposed Queen of Manners, Etiquette and the Maintenance of Ladylike Behavior, and who re-arranges her title on at least a thrice-daily basis, sat atop a stove observation post this morning, making sure that I cooked the eggs properly.

So, as I cooked a special breakfast this morning, before M. headed off to his art studio, I overheard M. howling like a laughing lunatic over something on the Internet, I presumed. I figured it was just the latest Turkish futbol-related joke or scandal. Meanwhile, in order to honor something I know M. loves, I found the “Turkish classical music” station on Pandora. M. is often distraught that the Arabesque trend in Turkish music, and engages in a lot of recherché du temps perdu on this matter.

Thus the effort to feed him some classical Turkish favorites along with his egg whites. Of course, I have no idea if what Pandora considers classical Turkish music is indeed what it purports itself to be. Nonetheless, Kenne, the Queen of Manners Puppet and Maven of the Maintenance of Etiquette and Ladylike Behavior, gave me a nod of approval from her observation tower on top of the stove (I was not cooking eggs the Turkish way, she was telling me, and I was ignoring her with glee).

Staggering in the kitchen on the way to set the table, M. appeared before me in a teary fit of giggles. Pausing, M. pressed the giggle-pause button as he gave me a quizzical look. “What music this is? Why this, I don’t know, Arabic music maybe, canım? Sighing, as I nested my spatula before turning his way, I in a rather maudlin voice proclaimed “ I thought you loved Turkish classical music? I thought it would remind you of happy times at home?” “I am not sure this is Turkish classical music, canım,” he said gently, squinting into the iPhone to see the artist’s name. “Do you like it?” I questioned, with an overbright and hopeful look on my face. Ever blunt, M., the calls-it-as-he-sees-it type, just indicated “no, not really,” before quickly returning to the subject of his mirth.

SIlently, I remembered how my first attempt to bring Turkish music to our home included a CD of what I did not know he hated – Arabseque style. Zooks, thwarted again. I should know better, I thought, I see my students make dumb mistakes like this all the time. Not the end of the world, but…then tuned in to M.’s question to me “Now let me tell you – do you know of this, who’s on first, what’s on second thing, canım?” M.’s giggling and laughing continued, as the tinny sound of a ney slithered along in the background, replete with the little chorus of dancing lady puppets swooning on the chair below the phone – one of their rare appearances out of their self-built harem in my purse (other than the early morning çay delivery service they provide my slow-to-awaken mind).

“It is Abbott and this Costello who made this first time? Jerry Seinfeld re-does it – and I must watch it again.” After making a quick study at table setting – I heard the laughter continue with the recently remade version of the classic comic sketch including Martin Short, Jimmy Fallon and Jerry Seinfeld, among others. “Next time,” the academic over-thinker in me thought, “I’d better do more research on which aspect of Ottoman classical music M. likes. This was a cultural responsivity fail.”

I had to laugh at my attempt to be culturally responsive – to offer something of M.’s culture that I have learned that he loves – and M.’s absolute disinterest as he embraced an iconic American classic and its remake. The infamous Kenne, Queen of Manners, et alia, snapped me to attention so I would not burn the frittata – while simultaneously praising me for doing what a good American wife of a Turkish man should do, namely, in her words “make him feel at home!”

Zenne, the nervous nellie puppet, quivering with anxiety like a bowl of fresh quince jelly at her somewhat feminist assertion this morning…

And then something curious happened, Kenne’s handmaiden, Zenne, the nervous Nellie puppet who regularly jiggles with anxiety like a bowl of quince jelly, evidenced a new lead, saying “perhaps ‘home’ means many things in between and among Turkey and America? Maybe you don’t need to make such an effort to be culturally responsive – I mean – he isn’t asking for that at all!”

As she spoke, I saw that this little lady puppet was shaking, eyes down, afraid her mistress would overhear her blasphemy – it was the closest to a feminist statement that this traditionalist ruled by the ultimate traditionalist had ever uttered. I gave her a big hug (well as big a hug as you can give a tiny imaginary puppet) an changed Pandora over to the Flamenco station. That music reminds me of my Granny (Anane) and Mom (Anne) always listened to while ironing – go figure. And, true to form, Safiye Rakkase, the vainglorious dancing puppet is, after all, sashaying around the room with her castanuellas in hand!

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Pointing the way to Mecca: Karagöz questions how to share space on Turkish Airlines


Yes, there’s an app for that too – an arrow to Mecca, or more specifically to the qibla (Image thanks to MacWorld article at this link)

Before it registered that I was waking up in the airplane, mid-flight from Istanbul to New York, I could hear Karagöz swinging back and forth.  It was even more than an instant before I remembered that I was returning home to be with my family, as my father was at the end of his life, and entering hospice.

His wooden joints were creaking a bit, clearly in need of a bit of oil.  Opening one eye ever-so-slightly, I observed Karagöz to have lodged himself, upside-down, in the overhead compartment.  A perfect plan, I realized, for a puppet who categorically needs to swing back and forth in order for all to be right with the world.

Cooing at me with the craziest of tones, as he had realized I was awake, Karagöz thrust one of his usual, un-diplomatically timed and phrased questions my way.  As usual, I knew it was likely to be a hum-dinger, as my Grandpa used to say.

“I have had just about enough of being culturally aware – and more than enough of listening to debates about what to do with dead bodies in Turkey and the United States.  What I want to ask you now, M’lady, is another question altogether.  Why is it, M’lady,” he ventured with his signature ironic sneer, “that we must ALL see the way to Mecca here on this iron box you call ‘airplane?’  And why, M’lady, is it that the companies that own this mechanical beast are so caught up on being culturally sensitive – oh wait – now it’s culturally competent – oh wait again – now it’s culturally responsive? What is all of this drivel anyway?  What about the theory of shared space – you call it the theory of the commons, yes?”

“Well, Karagöz,” I began hesitantly, slowly opening my other sleepy eye, “first of all, the theory of the commons is about common resources – and people have, for example, written about the tragedy of the commons, when common resources are squandered or spoiled -”

“That’s exactly it, M’lady,” he screeched, waking the other puppets stowed away like hanging bats near him in the process, “what is more precious than our common space – and the neutrality therein?  And isn’t it a shame that each claims it for their own, thus spoiling it? A travesty of sig-nif-ic-ant proportions, M’lady, this arrow to Mecca problem.”

Sighing internally yet again, at the start of another L-O-N-G discussion, I sat upright to engage in the process.  The other puppets were waking up around me. “Well, I suppose that, dear Karagöz, is the crux of the matter, now isn’t it. Namely, should shared space be neutral – culture-non-specific – so that we may all be comfortable there.  Of course, the challenge is, that the bottom line for one culture may be non-neutral to that of another culture.  So, it seems that what is culture-neutral to you – is oppressive or, I suppose, problematic to practicing Muslims.”  Feeling quite proud of my sleepy soliloquy, I turned my head to the side and raised my eyebrows, bracing for a response.

“Hogwash!” Karagöz cried out, no religion should be the baseline – back in the day, all we Ottoman Empire subjects, well, we got along JUST FINE.” Celebi, the modernist puppet, lined up next to Karagöz, saluting his words in a muster of silent support.  His bride-to-be, Khadijah, stood nodding her head in agreement, just behind Celebi’s shoulder.

Not one to miss out on the action (a.k.a. a chance to pontificate), Kenne, the Queen Puppet of Manners (and ladylike behavior, which, in this case, started to go by the wayside a bit in favor of a good debate) stepped up to the top of the seat in front of me, pressing the “off screen” button on the way in order that all pay complete attention to her – and not the Sufi sleeping music I had located before my all-too-short snooze.

“Now hear this, puppets and M’lady,” she bellowed in as ladylike a manner as possible, “THIS is a moment for cross-cultural etiquette consultation if at all possible.  We must, you see, respect our fellow puppets and humans who wish to pray – and wish to pray PROPERLY as fits their religious practice.  Really, what is to us to see an arrow pointing to Mecca on the screen of this airplane – if we want to?  It has it’s own channel – and we may look at that channel or not.  This, therefore, for anyone with HALF a brain and a care for others, is the best possible option in the form of cultural sensitivity, a VERY IMPORTANT aspect of modern day etiquette – and – not surprisingly – the topic of my forthcoming book.”  Harumph-ing across the seat and jumping down onto my armrest in order to capture more of her classroom’s attention, Kenne continued “and you, Karagöz, might do well to a) consider the potential for revisionist notions of Ottoman history in the acceptance and difference department and b) remember that you too are a Muslim!”

Esma, the hippie puppet stood up at this moment, with Yehuda Rebbe and Hacivad Bey close by her side.  “While what Kenne Hanim says is a bit shrill and self-serving, if you don’t mind the lovingly-intended critique, it is also true – and we may think of this Turkish Airlines company as being quite culturally sensitive – or as the new rage in the American political correctness sphere dictates – culturally ‘competent’ and ‘responsive.’  Yes, this is indeed the way to harmony and understanding, not to mention peace abounding, if I might quote from the musical Aquarius.”  At this point, all of the puppets began to argue loudly.  It’s a good thing humans (well, most humans, can’t hear these puppets or we might have been arrested by the on-board TSA-goons).

“Will you listen to yourselves, fellow puppets?!” Karagöz blurted out in frustration – like a bunch of mewling kittens you are, so eager to kow-tow to the religious zealots amongst us. Beyond the importance of the neutral commons – listen to this drivel – I mean really, what IS the difference between cultural sensitivity, cultural competence and cultural responsiveness?”

“A good question, you thinking puppet you,” I said with confidence – hoping to improve the tone of the raging debate around me, “I can tell you how I experience these terms in my line of work – although I am not sure I can solve the pointing-to-Mecca debate for all of us.  It doesn’t bother me personally, but I can see it bothers you and Celebi…but back to your question…as I understand it, these terms came about sequentially.”

“Yes,” Yehuda Rebbe cried, “this is true – I have made quick study of this matter on the Internet – puppets have free WiFi wherever we go, you see, and I have learned a great deal.  It all started, you see, with migration patterns and inter-cultural existence – and the need to move away from assimilation-only stances (in the U.S. context) to a stance in which people at least KNEW or were OPEN to knowing about cultural differences or specific cultural practices. This was an attempt to show goodwill.  According to this model, I suppose those that are culturally sensitive would show that they know how important it is to observant Muslims to know the location of Mecca, or the Qibla – and what that is.”

“Yes, Hacivad Bey cried, “I heard about that old approach in an encounter group retreat I went to last year – but it has been supplanted as of late with a different approach that is called cultural competence, as Karagöz has mentioned.  It is my understanding that BEFORE interacting with someone of a different culture, one should study up as much as possible in order to understand what may be hot-button issues ahead of time – and show that one is ready to avoid those hot buttons in favor of safe passage.  So, I would argue, this model would basically be the same with respect to the Qibla, but people would be more ‘out there’ about pointing out their knowledge and facilitating people’s prayers before they pray.”

Rolling his eyes, Karagöz turned to Esma the hippie puppet, who had risen to speak as Hacivad Bey was finishing up.  “And you,” he snorted, “what PC drivel have you got to share with us now?”  Turning the other cheek, the righteous and confident Esma puffed herself up and pronounced her verdict on the arrow to Mecca mess, stating “Well, she said, I favor the ‘cultural responsivity’ approach in general.  This one means that you show people from a different culture that you encounter that you can be responsive to learning from them – without solely putting the burden of teaching on them AND simultaneously not pedantically ‘studying up’ ahead of time in a way that would make people uncomfortable.  It seems to me that the owners of this airplane are being culturally competent – and that is their choice.  There is no right answer here, no right approach.  Just the challenge of co-existence.  How to resolve the potential for a neutral commons, well, dear friend puppets, that is an unanswerable riddle that we shall all likely debate in myriad ways for years to come.”

Nodding their heads in agreement, all the puppets, even oppositional Karagöz, began to settle down, it was, after all, time for kahvaltı, and nothing gets between a puppet and their morning Çay.  Just as we all began sipping the aforementioned Çay, I looked ahead to the front row, and noted a tiny lady, conducting her prayers in between the seats and the screen, approximating as best she could supplication towards the Qibla given our cramped quarters.