Of Tesbih and Testes: Scrubbing Away the Next Layer of Disgruntleds

I’m floating in the most pleasant Limbo right now.

(don’t tell the Catholics what a delightful place Neither Here Nor There can be, lest they stop baptizing their newborns and, thusly, put a crimp in economics of the christening gown industry)

We’re back in Minnesota, having wrapped up our Turkish adventure (see www.layingfallow.com/turkeyblog for a final post written in situ), and I’m amazingly calm and breezy. Not yet in our house, which is rented out until August 1st, we’re staying at my aunt and uncle’s retirement compound about half an hour outside Duluth, our luggage stacked in the sewing room. Over the past week, we’ve taken care of errands like applying for utilities, transferring a car title, and returning a rented viola. Other hours have been spent gabbing in the neighborhood—which is only slightly creepy seeing as we’re not technically living there—and catching up with sleepovers and playdates.

And Groom does like him a playdate.

The journey home was long, starting at 3:30 a.m. Turkish time and ending the equivalent of 9 a.m. the following morning, Turkish time (1 a.m. Minnesota time). The highlight of our flight from Istanbul to Chicago was definitely not the seven-hour stretch where the flight attendants and their carts of food and water disappeared entirely but, rather, the two hours when I watched the eerily-accurate movie CEDAR RAPIDS. In balmy Chicago, we and our eleven carry-on bags–weren’t we cagey in slipping that many by the airlines? We got a good 120+ pounds of goods home that way alone–had to retrieve our nine suitcases (total weight in those: 211 kilograms) and, after passing through customs, stand in long lines to recheck and resecuritize, all before sitting, delayed, on the tarmac…which allowed extra time to realize my first culture shock: my seat mate was able to communicate with me. A lot.

I had warned my cousin, who was to pick us up at the Minneapolis airport, that I’d probably burst into tears at the sight of him. But nay. It was simply great. He and my in-laws met us at the baggage claim, they having already retrieved several of our distinctive duffels by the time we got there, after which we sloshed out into the swamp that is July in Minnesota and stood in the airport parking lot, having a giddy tailgate party as we dove into the care package of food sent along by my cousin’s wife. Slamming a Surly beer, eating a bagel with cream cheese, fondling a PEOPLE magazine with Kate Middleton on the cover, I forgot my fatigue.

Of course, during the ensuing three-hour drive home, the fatigue came crashing in, to the point that I found myself cradling both kids’ chins in my palms, in an effort to keep their bobbing heads from giving them whiplash.

And in every day since then, as I’ve pushed back on the jet lag, finished out teaching two online summer classes, met up with friends and family, driven around this lush, green, clean city, I’ve just felt fine. There has been no melancholy; there are no pangs of transition, no sense of being overwhelmed by the significance of what we’ve done. It’s all been good. Just good. Really good. I’m happy to be here; I was happy to be there. I like it here; I liked it there. I was fascinated by what we experienced there; I’m excited to see what we’ll experience here.

Perhaps when we move back into our house, it’ll hit, and I’ll find myself sitting on the floor outside my closet, surrounded by boxes, wailing, “I’d. give. anything. to. hear. the. Call. To. Prayer. right. now.”

Until the day that I wipe my tears with corrugated cardboard, though, I’ll just carry on with the current feelings of “It’s cool. Whatever it is, it’s cool.”

My one regret, in fact, is the fact that I didn’t round out my posts about Turkish men while still in Turkey…because now that I’m Stateside, sitting in a recliner chair, my belly full of pork chop, listening to my uncle play Mexican Train dominoes with my aunt,

I’ve kind of lost touch with my rile.

Fortunately, I had pretty much lost touch with my rile before we even left. Sure, I was annoyed with the gender dynamics I’d observed, but I also felt like I hadn’t fully processed what I’d seen, and I was still trying to untangle the knot of my impressions before I could form a fair opinion.

Here is what I knew:

When I yelled that I was fed up with Turkish men, that impulse was, more accurately, a hard-won acknowledgment of a deep cultural socialization in Turkey (and surrounding countries) that offends my values.

In traditional Turkish village life, the men hang out with their buddies and call it “work,” and the women hang out with their galpals and do genuine work, and pretty much, in that process, neither gender seems to pine for the other.

I’m the one who minds; ergo, the lesson of all this gender analysis might be easier than anticipated: that the most significant thing visiting other cultures does is project our personal values into stark relief. Maybe experiencing another culture isn’t so much, ultimately, about absorbing that culture—maybe it’s more about learning our own borders.

The extent to which the inequality of genders rattles my cage hit full intensity six weeks ago. Interestingly, the acme of my pique was reached only when I met an American woman–someone well-integrated into expat life in Cappadocia, someone with graduate degrees, someone warm and natural and lovely, someone who teaches at a university, someone with a sharp humor…someone who felt familiar to me before I ever met her. In the way that Facebook can facilitate such things, we were friends before we were ever friends.

My identification with her—and months of “liking” her updates–primed me for a bit of emotional careening around as I observed her and her husband the night I finally met them in person.

Here is what I knew: a Turkish husband, hereafter called H., who lives much of the year in Goreme because he works at his family’s restaurant and wants to live in Turkey; an American wife who lives and teaches most of the year in England, there single parenting their toddler except during the months when H. comes to live with them (he has been avoiding his mandatory military experience in Turkey for a few years and, consequently, must spend at least 6 months each year out of the country). To their surprise, Lovely American Wife has turned up pregnant with their second child, so now she’s eyeing a future wherein she is married but largely single parents two kids and works full time—unless she decides to leave her tenured position and the UK and move to Goreme.

On the night I met them, Lovely American Wife had jetted to Cappadocia with their not-yet-two-year old and significantly pregnant tummy for a three day weekend. At a welcome party for her, Turks and expats congregated; it was a really nice gathering, but as the evening wore on, I got increasingly frustrated as I watched the mothers of toddlers on full-time duty while the fathers of toddlers played guitar and drank wine. I was outright exasperated when the fathers of toddlers took a break in the courtyard to get stoned before occasionally following their kids around on one of the upper terraces. At the end of the evening, pregnant Lovely American Wife, wrestling her rightfully-melting-down child, asked H. repeatedly to finish up his guitar riffing so that they could head home. He agreed to go—but first he had to finish his glass of wine. Ten minutes later, Lovely American Wife again said, “H., we need to go.” Gesturing to his newly-filled wine glass, H. showed her that he couldn’t possibly leave until it was drained.

For me, inside my head, this was the point where a vehement and huffy redhead started stomping around the padded cell where she lives, hollering, “Listen, TURKISH MAN, I know your guitar is fun to play and that you like to drink wine and have a little toke out in the courtyard and all, but howzabout we play by some Grown Up Rules, you know, what with having the wife and kids and all? Howzabout you start acting married to the woman with the belly across the room who’s trying to console your 20-month-old who just flew from England to see you for the first time in months? Howzabout you stop stepping out with your guitar and your pot and step the eff up? How about that?”

It took quite some days for my annoyance to calm into something rational. When that finally happened, I was able to admit that the dynamic between that husband and wife was actually not my business—if the way they function works for them, then that’s all that matters. All I really could take from that evening was that it highlighted my own values in ways I hadn’t considered before.

Specifically, that evening drove home two things that matter intensely to me:

1) If you are the parent in charge of a toddler, and you are hanging out with that toddler on a rooftop terrace that has no railings, don’t be stoned;

2) If you are married and you’d like your spouse to feel that you love her, choose her over your wine and guitar, for coming in third place behind alcohol and strings will never inspire your wife to pump her fists in the air and shout, “Yee-haw! That’s like being a bronze medal, and at least I edged out the Russians!”

All of this values reflection reminds me, too, that my relationship, my life, my expectations are the anomaly. I’m married to a man who’s as near to a woman as I could find but with the equipment I require; he’s been our stay-at-home parent; he’s the one who handles huge chunks of the logistics of our lives; he never so much as pours himself a cup of coffee without checking first to see what I might need. Because of who he is—and because most of the men in our circle of family and friends are similarly thoughtful and participatory—I’ve been able to forget that they aren’t necessarily representative and that our dynamic isn’t the only way of being.

As I muddled through my reactions to that night of wine and toddlers and meeting a new friend I already felt I’d known for ages, we also got busy with wrapping up our time in Turkey, the combination of which, fortunately, kept me from writing my planned diatribe about The Pot Pappies.

Because, you see, letting some time lapse meant that Lovely American Wife not only went back to England, but she also had time to return to Cappadocia (to spend the month of July with her husband and family in Goreme), all before I’d written a word. With her return, I was able to spend more time with her and enjoy increased feelings of comfort with and appreciation of her chosen life. In short, I got to see H. some more, and my second impression was radically different from my first. The second time around, he was quiet and gentle and omni-present; after we all had dinner together, it was he who cleared the table and carried everything into the house; it was he who toted the toddler on his shoulders as he did so. By the time we headed back to Ortahisar that day, I was left feeling sad not only that I wouldn’t have more face-to-face time with Lovely American Wife, but I was equally sad that I wouldn’t have more time to get to know H.

So how, then, to frame my impressions our first meeting, when I sat down to write about it? As I contemplated the interesting assignment of how to compose a skewering that ends with redemption, I was simultaneously emailing with Lovely American Wife, and she was sharing with me all the writing she’d done over the seven years that she’s been connected to Turkey, and suddenly the whole thing felt weirdly disingenuous. Deciding to come clean, I admitted to Lovely that I’d been trying to write about her and her husband—out of a place of frustration. From there, the floodgates opened, and we wrote back and forth, with her passing on her insights and me forwarding my blog address. By the end of the exchanges, I was ready to ditch Groom, bop H. on the head, and marry Lovely myself.

What she did for me, as we emailed back and forth and then talked in person, was lend my half-baked observations some sense. What I could only begin to observe and process in a year, she had been wrangling with for much longer and in much more intimate ways.

In her completely Lovely fashion, she gave me permission to share her words about gender and division of labor and Turkey:

“I have spent the past 7 years wrestling with all of this, and like you, I like to try to process the world through other people’s experiences so I’ve collected a LOT of data on the whole Gender in Turkey Thing. It’s kind of been my obsession, in fact, as a Western Liberal Feminist Female, to get to the bottom of this whole alien culture we see around us and most importantly, to decide how I feel about it. Your posts reminded me of all the thinking and hand-wringing I’ve done and still do on a weekly basis! I’ve gone through I don’t know how many stages of Anger, Grief, Denial, Blah Blah Blah and all I can say all these years later is: Everything Is More Complicated Than It Looks; and also, the dimension you often need to think about is time, not space. My current theory is this: what you see around you has nothing to do with Turkey or Islam. It’s the way big chunks of the entire world used to be until remarkably recently. For example, your first impressions of Ortahisar were EXACTLY the same as my first impressions of Italy when I backpacked alone there in 1988; except the men really were awful and lecherous and took every opportunity to hiss, catcall and shout obscenities at every woman who passed by. But basically it was identical: all the men sitting in the main square of the village publicly doing nothing, and all the women at home doing housework. I’m told that Italy has completely changed now, and so has Spain; Turkey is just some ways behind. I’m sure Western Turkey was the same as Ortahisar, too, til 10-15 years ago.

Anyway. The other thing I’ve finally figured out there’s a whole generational dimension too, that takes longer to notice. Yes, the men sit around doing nothing all day; but think about it, most of the guys you see sitting around in the tea house have businesses to run, a pension, a carpet shop, citrus storage plant, whatever. Who is running the business? Not the women; they’re at home, like you point out, doing the laundry. It’s the TEENAGE BOYS! Look out for them around the village, doing errands on the scooters, minding the shop, delivering the glasses of tea, carrying huge bundles of stuff up and down the road. They get pulled out of school at 12 or 14 and put to work, and they bust their butts during all those “carefree” teenaged years, dreaming of the day when they can put their feet up and get someone else to bring them the tea. H. tells me than when his family rebuilt the restaurant, his father made him do it, stone by stone. And think again about those “old ladies” sitting on the back streets of Ortahisar; they’re often not that old, only in their 40s and 50s, and I can tell you, a lot of them don’t spend more than 2-3 hours a day doing housework, and some of them don’t do any; they get their daughters-in-law (gelins) to do all of it. Again, it’s the young women and teenaged girls who are doing most of the actual work, and they can’t wait to have children who are old enough to take over so they can put their feet up. So, yes, the gender segregation thing is totally real (and still drives me crazy too), but I’ve come to the conclusion that the distribution of labor is more complicated than it looks and often has more to do with age than sex.

And also I laughed at your fantasy conversation between Ortahisar Village Man and his wife, telling her to sit down and relax while he stirs the lentils. I’ve waited for years for H. to say these things to me and guess what, I’m still waiting…but it stopped bothering me when I realized that this kind of overt caring and sensitive behavior almost doesn’t exist in Turkey (although it happens sometimes between women). As you might have noticed when waiting for a dolmus or trying to get served at a busy market stall, the rule of law here is Every Man for Himself, and people mostly just do what they want for themselves. If someone is walking over you, it’s your own responsibility to fight your own corner. Neanderthal, yes, but that just seems to be the way it is here. My experience with H. is that Turkish men are capable of immense kindness and generosity, but it happens randomly, without any flagging up or fanfare, and if I want him to treat me extra nice for some reason, then I have to ask for it. But then, most men are like that, aren’t they ;)”

Later, Lovely American Wife added more:

“After I sent you that last message, I thought again and realized that I sounded like an apologist for rampant sexism, like I’m trying to let some of these sexist pigs off the hook. I just want to reiterate that YES, a lot of this stuff is just plain old-fashioned gender stereotyping about “man’s work” and “women’s work” and women in Turkey often get a raw deal and are abused and treated like chattel. And every time I get off the plane from the US or the UK I spend a few days fuming about it. And yes, having a husband who was raised in this environment does bring up a lot of challenges that most American or British women wouldn’t have to face. But honestly, it’s been such an interesting experience because it’s made me really examine my own ideas about gender and equality and work and to ask questions that I never needed to ask before. For example:

– Why is it than even at Western parties, men and women often migrate into separate groups?
– When I see a bunch of guys sitting at a tea house playing backgammon, it makes me furious, but how much of that is just the Protestant/Jewish work ethic thing I was raised with? Why is it so important to be seen working all the time? Why not just do as little as you can get away with? (My Victorian Literature specialist friend says this has a name, as a type of status symbol: Conspicuous Leisure).
– Yes, many women here are beaten and constantly reminded of their lower status by their husbands; but then many men here working for other men experience exactly the same thing, and so do sons by their fathers. Isn’t the issue here really a deeper one about Human Rights, one that needs to be addressed across society as a whole?
– Why do so many of my American and British women friends complain that even though they work full time, they STILL end up doing most of the housework and childcare while their husband plays tennis or watches tv? Isn’t that even less fair than living in a society with clear and unambiguous gender roles? At least no-one’s pretending.

And so on. Oh, and if you want to try to address the issue of The Appeal of the Turkish Man (worthy of a whole ‘nother series of articles) aside from the obvious draw of the romantic and melodramatic that a lot of women fall for, here’s why I actually married H.. Because he was totally 100% committed. For the 2 years before we got married, I noticed how he took care of me and his whole extended family without a minute’s hesitation. If it was 3 in the morning during a snowstorm and I woke up with a pain and said I needed to go to the hospital, then boom, we’d be in the car in 2 seconds. If my mother or friend needed help getting a pension, he’d spend an hour going around town negotiating to find her a room. If I wanted to invite 12 people over for a barbecue, then boom, he’d be all around town buying food and making the fire and making it all happen. There was never any discussion of what the boundaries were or what his role was or whether or not he had “commitment issues”- he’d just always be there for me (or anyone close to me), without hesitation. Being with him makes me feel like part of this big web of people taking care of each other, and as an American from the suburbs where we didn’t know most of our neighbors’ names and half of my family wasn’t speaking to the other half, it feels good. So that was the appeal for me. In a (functioning) Turkish family, if someone needs you to help them, then you just put down what you’re doing and do it. No discussion, no debate. To me this is the upside of being with a Turkish man, and it was a feeling I never got from any of my Western partners (all 4 of them). I’m not saying all Turkish men are like H., but that kind of solidity made putting up with all the other stuff worth it. Ok, maybe it’s my “job” to make tea in the morning, but it’s his “job” to take me to the hospital at 3am, or my mother, or my friend, or our neighbor. It’s not exactly the same as “security”- I know I can always earn my own living and do fine on my own- it’s more a part of feeling embedded in a deep, interconnected social/family network with my husband at the center, making it all work. I guess for me that’s the whole appeal of Turkey, too, and I think you’ve had a few tastes of what I’m talking about!”

Thus, as I sit here, back in the United States, floating blissfully in Limbo, one thing is abundantly clear:

thanks to the topic of Turkish men,

I fell into Big Like

with someone who loves one.







14 responses to “Of Tesbih and Testes: Scrubbing Away the Next Layer of Disgruntleds”

  1. Friko Avatar


    firstly, congratulations on being back in the States in one piece and fully functioning.

    Hm, interesting, yes, all of it. And yes, realistic and factual.

    Then: I was once married to a Cypriot, with whom I lived in England and Germany; Your American friend lives in Turkey, when she lives with her husband, where she and her husband follow Turkish habits and rules. Women are adaptable, men less so. A Turkish/Cypriot man transplanted to a Western country is less likely to adapt. Without extended family and neighbours of his own to take care of, he will soon abandon his wife and leave her in her traditional role as wife and mother, as he sees it, and find fellow expats with whom to spend the sort of life to which he feels entitled.

    This is my experience and the experience of quite a number of other Western European women, nearly all of whom have divorced their husbands. Those who stayed have more or less taken the metaphorical veil.

  2. lime Avatar

    i am so glad she gave permission for you to share her insights. i really appreciate what she has to say about the ups and downs of a cross-cultural marriage. really rather fascinating and a lot to chew on and think about there between the two of you.

    and i am glad you’re floating along happily. just get fat on the foods you missed and the love of the folks you missed 🙂

  3. Monica Avatar

    well, if I was a US citizen I’d say welcome back !

    sounds like you have experienced what one often does when meeting other cultures; observed, making your opinion, observed some more, and getting a new opinion. And that is what it is all about.

    So what happened in the Mean Mehmet case?

  4. Jazz Avatar

    I’m glad LAW let you publish her thoughts. So interesting to see her point of view.

  5. secret agent woman Avatar

    First, I had to come to grips with the idea of a retirement compound outside of Duluth. But I’ve shaken that off, and was intrigued by your friends perspective and acceptance. And yet… the research shows very plainly that when a culture begins to educate its women you see, along with the equalization of power, a subsequent stabilization of population growth, increased commitment to environmental issues and peace, and economic development. So I cannot be comfortable thinking, well, that’s just the way it is in Turkish society. I really do think you can’t go entirely with cultural relativism (and I’m not suggesting that your friend is) – sometimes outrage is not just appropriate but necessary.

  6. Jenn @ Juggling Life Avatar

    This is so very interesting–the part that resonates with me so much is when you point out that the cultural differences throw your belief system into stark highlight–this is the exact experience I had with our exchange student from Brazil. Also? Protestant work ethic observation–YES!

  7. Green Girl in Wisconsin Avatar
    Green Girl in Wisconsin

    Welcome back!
    I bet you’re in the throes of culture shock–I know what only 3 months in Egypt did to me.
    This was interesting to read–and one of my reactions was “and there’s the substance abuse issues.” Married to an alcoholic, I was that woman with the toddler at the party whose husband didn’t want to leave. It wasn’t only gender differences, addiction carried significant weight in how we lived out our lives and our familial responsibilities. (Better now, he quit drinking years ago–but it took a BIG event to trigger even an awareness that he had a problem)
    Are you starting a new dissertation? So much ground to cover here!

  8. Julie Sucha Anderson Avatar

    “if someone needs you to help them, then you just put down what you’re doing and do it.”

    Sounds good to me. Reminds me of how we’re supposed to treat others. Interesting discussion and please thank your friend for sharing her thoughts. And welcome home. Seems like yesterday we were packing up your house. When you get back in there, you’ll have lots of new stuff, but just think of all the clearing out you did. Plenty of room.

    Fascinating year for you and because of who you are, such insight you have brought to me as I followed along. Wished I’d been better at the family blog. Enjoy settling in. Glad you got that pork chop.

  9. Michelle Grant Avatar

    OMG, you’re back! I need to return this afternoon to read this whole post as I am dashing out the door now, but I was thrilled to get your comment on my blog and see that you ARE BACK!!!!! I’ve missed your hilarity and insight, ma dear!


  10. cathy Avatar

    Welcome home.

  11. Rebecca Cazares Avatar
    Rebecca Cazares

    Wow. So glad you posted this. Having a cross-cultural marriage myself – albeit considerably different from the Turkish culture – there was a lot of insight expressed by your friend that I need to mull over and take in. I like to think of myself as very open to other cultures, having spent two formative years in France in my twenties. However some of the things she expressed gave me a mirror to look into and see some attitudes I need to change in myself. Very cool. And welcome home!

  12. ds Avatar

    Welcome home! How quickly your year passed; I’ve so enjoyed all of your insights & observations (and pictures). And this, this is an object lesson in coming to terms with different cultural mores, as well as our own “boundaries” as you put it. Many thanks to your friend for sharing her thoughts, too.
    Am now pondering my own boundaries & whether they are worth having…

    How good was that bagel, eh?

  13. Choochoo Avatar

    Yay for being back home again! Weee and Woooot and all that stuff.

  14. geewits Avatar

    I’m such a dummy. Every time I checked this site I only read the first three words in the title and thought I had already read it. I kept thinking “Surely they are back by now!” I just now realized it was a different post. And a great one at that! Now I have quite a bit to think about. Thanks for stirring up my brain.
    And welcome home.

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