Stereotypes where you least expect it: Turkish breakfast for colleagues

A freshly-cracked walnut

Placing the lovely, fresh walnuts on a baking pan to roast, my husband remarks “why are you spending all of this money on breakfast for your colleagues – do other people do this?”  We are making ezme, a purée akin to hummus that consists of red peppers, lemon juice, walnuts, garlic, tomato and pomegranate syrup, etc., well, that’s how I make it anyway, there are lots of variations across Turkey.  With a big sigh, I finish mincing the garlic and reach for the pomegranate syrup.  “I want them to learn a bit about Turkey – whether they want to or not – you know, like Malcolm X, by any means necessary.  I am troubled that the Middle East is some big ‘other’ that can be generalized into some vitriolic mullah or blue-sheeted lady in pain.  I want them to know more and this is my stealth way of doing it – most people bring coffee and donuts, but I wanted something healthy and interesting too.”

As we move to the counter to peel the charred skin off of the red peppers, my husband chuckles, telling me “this is one of the reasons I love you so much, you are such an idealist in this way – usually you are more of a cynic.  I want to be honest, though, I do not think most people will get it.”  Feeling deflated, Hacivad tells me to keep it low and slow on the emotional front, but I am pissed.  Karagöz is needling me, poking his pointer finger into my shoulder over and over, ready to make me engage in some sort of angry outburst about how wrong my husband is, insisting he learn about cultural sensitivity trainings “the authentic way.”  All I can muster is “Rome was not built in a day, and neither was Istanbul.” Smirking in the loving manner only he can do, he just turns to tending the roasting walnuts and making sure that they don’t brown too too much.

It is 2009, I am making ezme for a Turkish-style breakfast I am offering at work during our monthly meeting.  In my idealistic mind, it is a small way that I am trying to raise awareness of Turkey, of the Middle East, of the culture (if it can be lumped into one) that I have become a part of or the culture that has touched me some.  I am carrying brown grocery bags up the hill into my building, hoping to race the rain so that the glass jars of home made ezme do not fall and crash on the asphalt.

Hacivad, indelibly marked by his non-stop academic attitude and commentary is right along with me on my shoulder, supervising the entire breakfast-spread preparation process.  “You have to set up the educational Powerpoint on Turkey next to the cheese, not the jam, this will be the most effective spot.,” he pronounces.  Karagöz is nowhere to be found.  I am feeling proud of my effort – and perhaps at the same time a little too full of myself today – doing this good deed for the knowledge of my colleagues.  It is for the latter reason that I am surprised that Karagöz is not screaming in my ear and highlighting this insecurity with wild enthusiasm like he normally does.

Running back to the parking lot to get more of my breakfast prep stuff, I realize where Karagöz has been – I hear him before I see him.  “Well, looky here,” he whoops in a cowboy drawl – perhaps picked up from the spaghetti westerns filmed all over Turkey’s Anatolia region – “looky here I got me sum ‘Mericans what for you to edjudicate!”  I sigh, knowing I am in for something now.  “This one over here,” he motions with a long, pointed finger and his long pointed shoe, “he’s about to spring a doozy on you – I can read minds, did I tell you?”  Ignoring Karagöz, I greet my colleagues warmly – they are some of my favorite folks to work with.  The morning starts to sour immediately as one explains that the educational PowerPoint presentation I sent out the previous night (about Turkey, the middle east and Turkish breakfast in particular) clogged the person’s mailbox.

As start to explain what the file contained and why I was sending it, Karagöz whispers in sotto voce“it’s a LOST cause, man, give up the ghost – don’t even try – whattayagonnado – fix the ugly American in them?  Not gonna happen, boyee!”  I continue my studious effort to ignore Karagöz, wishing for Hacivad to weigh in, but he is silent, watching the whole thing unfold with his head cocked to the side and a chartreuse silk parasol twirling over his head.  As we walk in the door, one of my colleagues turns to me and says “so, is your husband’s family arguing for him to have another wife yet?”

Stereotypical image of a Muslim man with many wives

I am floored.  Karagöz screams with delight at the immediate representation of ugly Americans right here in New England.  “Who knew,” he croons, “they can even be ugly about other cultures when they are still IN the United States.”  Hacivad drops the parasol and it rolls into the gutter in front of our building immediately becoming caked in mud.  This is an educated, thoughtful human being whose teaching and activism I respect tremendously. Stammering, all I can get out is “Turkey is a secular country – that is not allowed – and he’s not from a religious background.”  Karagöz is in his element now, speaking in an exaggerated, slow and almost whiney tone, he scoffs “up to your eyeballs, it only gets worse from here – the point of no return!”

“Oh,” says my colleague with a confidence that re-confirms his previous comment was totally serious, “I am sure if they don’t want it now – it will come along soon enough – I have heard this from all of my Arab clients.”  Hacivad is trying to act like a shadow puppet teleprompter, telling me what to say, strategizing on response, but my hearing is in slow motion.  Karagöz is whooping and rolling around the top of the grocery bag now, running victory laps.  “Well,” I offer in a somewhat defeated voice, “Turkey is not an Arab country and my husband likes to joke that I know more about Islam than he does – as he was not raised in a religious family.”  As if I have not even spoken, my colleague, an experienced professional trained in the art and craft of listening to people carefully effectively ends the conversation, saying “well, culture comes out whether you like it or not – you’d better be careful.  Remember Sally Field in Not Without My Daughter, yes?”

(Click on film name for info about this film on a custody battle in an American-Iranian marriage during its dissolution.  The film has been heavily criticized for unfairly portraying a demonized version of a Muslim husband but may also get at some of the truths of some people’s experiences).

Hacivad’s mouth is agape, and Karagöz is cheerleading on my colleague’s shoulder, whispering things into his unconscious ear. Once again, I am astonished at how many people feel they have the right to tell me about my life, how it is and will be, and seem to have lost their ability to listen or channel new information in to their brains to augment, supplement or replace existing knowledge and/or stereotypes.  Deflated for a moment, I force myself to lay out the rest of the Turkish breakfast spread – strong black tea in tulip-shaped glasses, green and black olives, fresh bread, white farmer’s cheese, rose and sour cherry jam, my ezme, and a salad of fresh tomato and cucumber with soft red pepper flakes and dried limon kekik (lemon thyme) picked by ancient looking old ladies on the hills of Behramkale near the Temple of Athena, overlooking the Isle of Lesvos from the western Turkish coast.

Athena is still revered in Turkey as a symbol of feminine power and strength, and I wish that this image could balance the stereotyped images that abound about women in Turkey (dominated by men, living pure gender inequality, not valued, treated as chattel, etc.) These are stereotypes for a host of important reasons as I am sure this is present in many Turkish communities, but what gets me is that this certainly not the whole truth for all communities in Turkey – and I have witnessed this firsthand.  Hacivad pronounces his great pleasure at my thinking on this topic and commends me for my reasoned analysis whereas his jester colleague has started snoring at the bottom of the bag, exhausted from those laps.

Suddenly, I am conscious of some other voices out there – and I turn to see two Ottoman era women clapping and hooting at me.  “Bravo, bravo,” they cry from the olive plate, “you are getting it just right about women in Turkey.  I am Aglaia, the wife of your jester, and she is Zenne, Hacivad’s wife.  We have to go to the hammam (communal baths) now as it is the woman’s hour and we have business to attend to there along with bathing, but we’ll be back to talk more – for now you can entertain our husbands and keep them out of our hair.  Hee hee!”

One image of the wife of Karagöz

As my colleagues wander in one by one, I welcome them and walk them through how Turkish breakfast is eaten – a bit of fresh cheese on the bread and a dollop of rose jam with tea.  People loved the food and asked lots of questions, I felt a bit like I might be beaming but Karagöz was kidding me about my pollyana-ish thinking, “try,” he says, “not to be too earnest-wernest about your adopted culture.”  Maybe my sneak attack on cultural knowledge provision is not a total failure.  “That’s the spirit,” Hacivad remarks, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  Change is a slow process, the prophet once said…”

Tuning out of his historical commentary, I sit down and take time for breakfast of my own, and let the process just be what it is.  Exposure to my husband’s “eastern ways,” as he calls them, has helped me to slow down a bit in this regard, but its been a long journey.  I remember my Granny’s use of the proverb “patience is a virtue,” and I add another sugar cube to my tea in just the right amount of time to tune back in to Hacivad’s impromptu lecture as Karagöz begins his latest round of interrupting to quote the Sufi prophet Rumi:

“Many people don’t think, Those who think, think that they have arrived! They think, you know! There are people who think and go mad! I don’t want to think.  There are people who already thought for us. If we can learn from them, we can live even thinking!”

Karagöz makes sense for once, I realize, in what is masked by his nonsense wording.  “You know, Karagöz, for once you have me.  I am sure that I think I have arrived, figured it all out.  And so does my colleague about the many wives.  All of this thinking does make me go a bit mad.  Maybe it is time to go back to reading.”  Hacivad nods his head, concurring – a very rare occurrence for the two to agree.  Karagöz is agreeing while he is spinning silently on one pointed foot so fast that his cap falls off, revealing his balding head.  His silence makes way for me to focus in on the start of our meeting – the topic of which is “how to think about cultural responsiveness for social work education.”  Well, there it is, the universe working in mysterious ways. Time to read.

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

6 Responses to Stereotypes where you least expect it: Turkish breakfast for colleagues

  1. Sandra Y. Espinoza says:

    Beautifully written, as is most of your writing. I applaud your openness and frankness…but as much, if not more so, I admire your willingness to engage with this (I hate to say “issue” or “topic” because it is so much more than that) matter (“ugly americanness?” )… from a place of wanting to understand, educate, and make the world a bigger place. I felt like I was reading a private journal. I think that Hacivad and Karagöz are such great conduits to (amongst other things) deep honesty and objectivity…

  2. Liz Cameron says:

    Thanks, Sandra. Once I decided to use Hacivad and Karagöz and their entourage to voice the conflicts in my head, it was a wonderful revelation and coping mechanism. It has taken a long time to be able to really get in touch with hearing that entourage and it has helped to make the whole cross-cultural struggle a bit easier – it has many, many joys too. I just feel that it is important to get more dialogue going about cross-cultural relationships in general from as honest a place as possible. I don’t see enough real dialogue about it out there in the social work community or anywhere else…thanks for your support!

  3. Pingback: Of Ataturk, Obama and navigating U.S. politics as a couple post 9-11 | Slowly-by-Slowly

  4. Pingback: On managing stereotypes about Middle Eastern men | Slowly-by-Slowly

  5. intlxpatr says:

    I cringe to think of how ignorant I was when I first went to live in the Middle East, and, after all these years, how much I still have to learn.

    I love this post. As I read, I am thinking, “there is a book here.” In fact, I suspect there are several.

    Is ezme the same as mohammara in Syria, do you know? I have had this, it is mostly ground walnuts (or maybe finely chopped) and the grilled sweet red peppers and pomegranate juice and garlic, but some hot pepper, too, it has a little bite. It sounds SO good, and I love mohammara. 🙂

  6. Yes, I cringe as well when I think of my first trip to Turkey – even as a well-read (some might say obsessively-well-read) and informed visitor. I have embraced the lifelong learner mentality on this front. No question about it. With age comes a knowledge I would not sacrifice.

    Thank you for loving this post. This post really sums up the majority of my experience as an academic in an allegedly “culturally competent” liberal department in a University setting. I have learned to let the shock and disappointment roll over me and to replace that instead with the ability to pose gentle questions of the commentators of the moment, so that they may think a bit more critically about what they are putting out there. It is an ongoing battle.

    And yes, there is a book in here! See my response to your other post 🙂

    On ezme – it is very similar – the only difference I note relates to the Armenian mohammara that I have access to here in the New England area – which has chick pea paste in it as well. I may have to abandon the laptop to head on over to the kitchen to whip up a batch!!!

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