Cross-cultural marriage on the road: Karagöz shadow puppets as backseat drivers

Karagöz: four major shadow puppet characters (image from Marc Riboud/Magnum at

There is a common saying in Turkey “Yavaş, yavaş,” pronounced “yavash, yavash,” which, when translated directly, comes out as “slowly by slowly.” At first, I thought that this phrase was appropriate for use during a careening ride with my husband through Istanbul, but he disabused me of this notion, saying “it is more a way of life than a direction for a driver to chill on the gas pedal!” I thought about it some more, sure in my etymological superiority that my husband’s pretty good but not great English was the meaning of its intent. Over the years, I stopped trying to correct the round peg of yavaş yavaş into the square whole English language concept of “little by little.” My husband would always say the same thing, explaining “that takes the true meaning out of it, bleaches it like clothes under the Aegean sun for too long so you lose the color.”

Over time, I began to feel the difference between “slowly by slowly” and “little by little” – a difference between timed movements forward, and weighted amounts down, I often think. But I wouldn’t have gotten the difference if I hadn’t spent a significant amount of time co-existing with my husband on our summer road trips through Turkey – and been lucky enough to learn to pay attention to the ever-present voices of my internal, Karagöz shadow puppets (pronounced “karah-geuz”). No, I have not lost my mind, but I did find a set shadow puppet characters that perfectly explained the confused, funny and often conflicting voices in my head during the (continuing) process of learning how to be married in a cross-cultural relationship – in this case one where one partner was from Turkey and the other from the United States.

Karagöz Oyunleri, or the particularly Turkish art form of shadow puppetry, is famous for heightening stereotypes and truths about the nature of people, places and things in the way that only puppets can. Emanating from the city of Bursa, the first capital of the Ottoman Empire circa 1326, Karagöz puppets have delighted children and adults alike for centuries. Said to be a tribute to Karagöz and Hacivad, two spirited men that loved to co-recite stories to their co-workers while taking breaks from the construction of Bursa’s stunning Ulu Cami (Ulu Mosque, see below, or), the puppets are the living memory of those men who were executed for slowing the process of the mosque’s construction.

Our niece looking out the window at Bursa's Ulu Cami in June 2011

Over the centuries since this time, the two primary characters have been joined by many more – drawn from the stereotypes and issues of the day. Karagöz puppet plays involve jokes, pranks, fights, intrigues, stupidities and above all else, camaraderie. When attending a Karagöz show, you will see a great white sheet, backlit, upon which flat figures created from translucent, oiled camel leather are mounted on sticks for use by a puppeteer. Each character has known shapes and colors that denote who they are and/or their status in Ottoman Turkish society. Always battling stereotypes about each other and our nations of origin, the Karagöz puppets allowed for some humor – and a surprising amount of insight into how to deal with both others’ expectations and views of us as a couple – and our own expectations and views of each other. Slowly by slowly, these characters have become beloved to me, in their gross representations of living in the cross-cultural reality of the Ottoman Empire – and their interpretations of my cross-cultural life in the empire that could be known as the phenomenon of globalization.

People say the true test of a relationship is to take an international trip together – to see how you handle the inevitable challenges of a different culture and a different geography together. “It’s about understanding how someone reacts in a crisis – and how you react to that – what makes someone tick,” my friend Michelle once said, “slowly, you see their true colors.” As a punk rock/hippie teenager, bachelor’s student of anthropology and social work practitioner, I have always been interested in understanding what makes people tick (or what can get a rise out of someone). Therefore, embracing different cultures has always a part of my life – often while trying to flee my own mix of Yankee New England and British colonial immigrant roots in Spain. It is no wonder, then, that I ended up in a cross-cultural marriage. I suppose I have extended the challenge – from the international trip test – to the whole marriage lived cross-culturally.

This entry was posted in Cross-cultural learning moments, Karagöz puppets in dreamland, Visits from the Karagöz puppets and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Cross-cultural marriage on the road: Karagöz shadow puppets as backseat drivers

  1. Shannon says:

    I’m excited for your new blog! Can’t wait to have the time to actually read it!!!

  2. Liz Cameron says:

    SBM – thank you so much! I think I just “hit a wall” on leaving my personal writing to the side in favor of the academic writing (maybe this is called “procrastination in the face of the tenure portfolio”) and decided to pull all of that travel blog writing together. I am almost done with the book proposal to send to agents and/or publishers. It is exciting – but who knows if it will go anywhere!!! As I have said to Lisa and other friends, maybe we should write an edited volume on cross-cultural marriage? XOXOXOX

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  7. Tim Sullivan says:

    Enjoyed the post, great writing. Looks like we’re cross-culture kindred spirits. Here’s my take on being married to a Japanese woman – Samurai Wife: The Myth About Subservient Japanese Women.

  8. E. says:

    Tim, I am so pleased to make your acquaintance! I am psyched to look at your work on this topic and indeed it does seem we are kindred spirits in this regard! See you around the inter-webs. Best, Liz

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