Of Tesbih and Testes: First Layer of Disgruntleds

So, about those Turkish men.

A little background:

We first entered the village of Ortahisar on foot in August of 2010, having dripped down a meltingly-soft asphalt road for nearly two kilometers from the main highway. Unable to find a rental in heavily-touristed Göreme, we felt the quiet backwater of Ortahisar held promise. After all, our friend Christina had a friend in Ortahisar, a young buck named Cemal who was attempting to shape a real estate empire for himself from the saddle of his ATV. Christina knew Cemal from her bartending days when he’d worked at the same bar as a bouncer. In 2010, though, Cemal was distinguishing himself as Ortahisar’s up-and-comer, whizzing up and down the main street of the village on four wheels, moving from his newly-built hotel to overseeing workers at a restoration site to stopping by the grocery store to buy the requisite six loaves of bread per day that all Turks use as mealtime filler. While, intellectually, Cemal was a few peppers short of a full kebab, he more than made up for it with focused ambition and an ability to motor up the village’s hills while locked into a standing position. Luckily for us, part of Cemal’s real estate dabbling was a desire to call himself “agent.” Thus, on that steamy day in August, we were heading to meet Cemal and take a gander at a couple of rental houses that he’d lined up.

My first impression of the village was so strong as to be visceral, so profound that it sticks with me still, so counter to my accustomed vision of a public space that my brain reeled. Feeling strangely queasy, on display, and defensive, I took in the village’s main square and street. Both were full of people—mellow, relaxed, playing tavla (backgammon) and Okey (Rummicube), chatting, hugging, smoking, strolling. The tea garden at the center of town was packed. Clearly, Ortahisar didn’t lack for sociability.

The rub, of course, was that every last person I saw was male.

To my left, to my right, over my shoulder, down the avenue, on the bench, coming out of the shops, driving by on scooters, meandering around with tesbih (prayer beads) behind their backs, everywhere were




Certainly, I was there, too, which qualified as an estrogen shout-out. So was Christina. That made two. If we added in 10-year-old Girl, we almost had a quorum. And eventually we became aware of a female tourist over near the tea garden. We tracked her presence by following the trajectory of Male Gazes, all of which—whether discharged by a 20-year-old or a 70-year-old—lasered through wood and glass and air to burn into this young woman. In a short skirt. Wearing cowboy boots. Positioning herself to straddle a motorcycle behind a young man. As she elevated her leg across the bike’s seat, a table of riveted elderly men unconsciously began to beat the palms of their hands onto their table top, tapping out a tattoo of thrumming testosterone.

My reaction to this scene swung between an exasperated “REALLY? Are you all seriously that juvenile?” and a more bemused, dismissive, “Have a nice ride, sweetheart. The village of Ortahisar would, collectively, like to thank you for the show. It would seem they don’t get out much, so the act of you mounting a motorcycle has pretty much constituted, for 98% of today’s ogling population, the wedding night they breathlessly imagined while fisting a tube sock back at age 14.”

The thing about the nubile tourist on a ‘cycle is that she drove away. As it turned out, Cemal delivered on a viable rental (a 400-year-old Greek stone house),

and I stayed.

What I have discovered in the months since last August is that the dominant presence of men is constant. At 4 a.m., at 8 a.m., at noon, at late afternoon, at dinner time, just before we tuck the kids in, several hours later at midnight—no matter the hour, the primary public spaces of Ortahisar are dotted with men sitting next to men who are hemmed in by other men who are flanked by some men who are bookended by a cadre of men.

It’s not that there are shifts of these men, either. They don’t put in eight good hours of sitting and then head home. Nae. Rather, the same faces can be seen all day long, every day, whether it’s midnight or 8 a.m. Each guy has his routine, his posse, his particular store front or wooden stool to monopolize, and he is diligent, loyal, and true. No game of Okey is left unplayed, no glass of tea unsipped, on his watch.

For me, such predictability has proven a challenge. The challenge comes mostly from an ache for what I’m not seeing in the square. Women. If the men are all lazing around with their buddies all day every day, where does that leave the women?

The answer to this question is obvious. They’re at home. They’re carrying out all the duties of life that aren’t playing board games and drinking tea. They’re shouldering the work associated with children, food, house, and wifedom. Their public absence creates in me sadness and compassion.

Their public absence feels, to this Westernized liberal, bizarre. Forty-nine weeks after we first trudged into Ortahisar, I’m still not used to it; forty-nine weeks later, I still have to brace myself to walk through the gauntlet of men to get to the grocery store or the Internet cafe; forty-nine weeks later, the segregation of genders undermines my confidence.

On some level, I just can’t get my head around this sensation of alienation and self-consciousness because my reaction plus the reality of the men doesn’t add up. For here’s the thing: the males who wallpaper the town square aren’t lecherous, really. Sure, they stare. It’s what they do. They need something to look at. But they don’t cause me to feel worried about my safety or as though I’m rare sport come to amuse them. On the contrary, they are immensely respectful and welcoming and dear. They have treated me as kindly as I have allowed.

A big part of my reaction stems from my own hang-ups (thank you, Formative Years!). On occasion, I’ve tried to untangle my own internal damage from the benignly observant mien of the village men. Yet even if I weren’t physically on the streets, wading through the guys, even if I were watching them remotely, as beamed from a video camera, I’d still find it off putting. The larger issue isn’t about the overweight girl wishing for a boyfriend who still bunks inside my heart; it’s about a values system—mine–that struggles with the concept of “separate and unequal.”

Admittedly, I chose to live here. I let that darn Cemal and his desire to find the foreigners a good house turn my head. I let the landscape and the hospitality and the jaw-dropping history and the decency of the people convince me that this could feel like home. In small ways, it has. In big ways, it hasn’t. And that’s okay. A certain amount of discomfiture is part of the bargain.

What has surprised, however, is how unable I’ve been to adjust to the deeply-socialized patterns of gender in these traditional areas of Turkey (by no means everywhere; the west coast is distinctly different). Usually, I can look at something, size it up, analyze it pragmatically, and accept it for what it is. This thing, though, this business of the sitting-around men and the women relegated to spaces of home, its nearby environs, market, garden plot, and a small walled-off section of the mosque, well, it erodes my sense of comfort. Put another way: it makes me cursewordingchickpeacrazy.

On one hand, the problem is mine. I’ve looked at the culture and decided I can’t adapt. I’ve done a gut-check and decided I’m willing to see but not to accept. This place has brought out my ornery, which means I was in no small measure delighted last week when our visiting friend Kirsten first walked the main street and noted, “Okay, this is weird. It’s like I just stepped into an episode of The Twilight Zone in which all the women disappear. Yea, weird. I keep thinking that if a situation came up, we’d be outnumbered.”

On the other hand, and this is where my temper gains steam, the problem is theirs. Yes, the women have a responsibility to step up, if their lot ails them. But even more, it behooves those in the seat of lolling-about power to do the right thing. It behooves them to develop a sense of guilt, hoist themselves up off their well-padded behinds, stroll home, and call out, “Hey, Fatma? The sunset tonight is gorgeous. You wanna take a breather and go out for a walk to enjoy it? I’ll watch the kids. Relax: I know how to stir the lentils every ten minutes. What do you think I am, a lousy, selfish, no-show, self-absorbed, emotionally-arrested infant who nevertheless acts like he owns the planet? Ha! Now slap on your slides, fluff up your shalvars, and go have some fun. I brought home a nice little box of your favorite baklava, too, so how’s that for something to look forward to before bed? Now git!”

Thus it is that, whenever Cemal zips past on his Big-Boy Bike, so honestly a man on the move, I silently send him wishes for his ultimate success. That’s right, Cemal. Keep at it. Stand up in the seat. That way, your vision will only graze the heads of your “peers” as they recline in front of their 15th cup of tea of the day. With the added elevation, perhaps you’ll spy a new horizon.




17 responses to “Of Tesbih and Testes: First Layer of Disgruntleds”

  1. Jenn @ Juggling Life Avatar

    I am sure I would feel just as you do.

    Lately I’ve been quite frustrated on my MIL’s behalf–there is so much she wants to see and do, but doesn’t because she is of the generation that stays by her husband’s side–and he knows this and won’t just say, “Go–I’ll be fine.”

  2. Lil Avatar

    I would feel exactly like you. I can’t even fathom a world where women are relegated to the sidelines. And yet, that is precisely a great majority of the world.

  3. Deborah Avatar

    I’m so glad you wrote this while still in situ – the edge in your voice might not have been so sharp once you were back in your comfort zone.
    I would have a very hard time with the whole thing, too and imagine that your frustration has led you to fantasize about firing up a kind of trade-union, women’s-rights organization that would topple the male-heavy hierarchy in a Turkish, gender-specific Arab Spring.

    When cultural differences involve what we consider to be basic freedoms and rights, they are extremely hard to accept. Were you ever able to have a conversation with some of these women about their lot? I’d be curious to know if their attitude is one of ‘we don’t miss what we don’t know’. It could be that for the older ones, talk of equality and division of labour would simply be incomprehensible.

    As always, you are even-handed in your observations and criticism, acknowledging what is positive. I like that a lot about you.

  4. lime Avatar

    wow, that’s quite a radical shift culturally. i didn’t realize village life was so segregated in turkey. i’d have expected that of other islamic nations moreso. the observed division of labor is also surprising. i can see why it was crazy making but it also raises more questions for me regarding the culture. more than ever i wish we could sit down and have a long debriefing chat when you get back to the US.

  5. geewits Avatar

    I was curious that in your imaginary scene, the guy takes the house and the woman goes for her own walk. I’d like a scenario like this: “Hey Fatma, grab the little ones and lets all go for a nice walk.” Or “Hey Fatma, have Zafer watch the younger ones while you and I go for a nice walk and watch the sun go down.” Or “Hey Fatma, ask the neighbors if they will join us for a couples game of okey.” I think it’s bizarre that the husbands and wives don’t do things with their spouses. Yeah, as you can see, I would have a hard time with the whole thing.

    1. Jocelyn Avatar

      This is so funny, Geewits: I feel the same way and was observing that out loud while in the car with a long-time expat (she’s in a 12-year relationship with a Turkish man). As we drove through the village, I was observing that all the sitting-around men should go be with their families, and she noted “If you were that guy’s wife, would you really want to have him around all day? When you look at him, do you really think you just want to spend more time with that guy? Nope? And not that guy, either, right? Or that guy? Or that one? I’m not seeing any that I’d want to have a lot more time with.” Hmmmmmm.

      1. Jocelyn Avatar

        Oh, and also: I hoped that the husband staying at home might do some laundry or make dinner while Fatima was out walking. That way he might start to get an inkling of what her days are like…

  6. Vicky Avatar

    As always, a lovely piece of writing. You have to explain though that Ortahisar is as village as it gets even for Cappadocia! Even in our village men and women would be working in the fields side by side, even if the household tasks are only done by women and girls which means essentially that they have 2 jobs like many women in other societies. It is also fun when you hear the women’s angle on it when you get into those women-only activities!

    1. Jocelyn Avatar

      Absolutely, Vicky! The women are definitely equal partners when it comes to working in the fields. Men and women side-by-side…or, as in the photo of the two women in the field, just women helping women drag the plow around. Heehee.

      As we traveled around the country this year it was interesting to see how every mid-sized village had this dynamic–and how different the larger cities were. It’s like there are two Turkeys, for sure.

      (great to see you the other day, btw)

  7. secret agent woman Avatar

    I saved this because I wanted to read it carefully. I vividly remember the first time I stayed in Saudi Arabia. Seeing the women in their burkas, hidden within so much cloth, just made me achingly sad and angry. The men in power don’t feel a need to step up – they think the unequal system is best for them.

  8. Jeni Hill Ertmer Avatar

    I’ve always admired your ability to turn a phrase -and I’m sure I’ve said that before to you too (or words similar to that anyway) but today, I really loved the “a few peppers short of a full kebab!” It’s definitely going to find a place in my repertoire for sure!
    The division of powers though that you talk about here, makes me sad for those women but also serves as a bit of a reminder that quite often in this little village where I live, stuff like that still exists. Actually, as long as women in this country earn less than men, it will always be there, won’t it? Women’s work is still undervalued regardless of what it is -paid employment or the background stuff we do at home still takes a back seat to men and their hobbies and/or pleasures much of the time. Oh, there are a few here and there that are the exception to that rule, but overall, we’re still not as good because we were made from a man’s rib I think is much of that controlling factor. Still kind of a can’t win situation but it’s not as bad as it was.

    1. Jocelyn Avatar

      Oh, thank you, Jeni. I like the “few peppers short of a full kebab,” too! Must admit I turned to Groom for help on that one, speaking of shared labor.

      Your point here is one I’m getting to, as well: it all feels so different here, but is it really? I mean, it is in my life, but is are the genders really so equal in the U.S.? Same problem, different pants.

  9. Green Girl in Wisconsin Avatar
    Green Girl in Wisconsin

    This reminds me of a radio program I heard years ago–an American-raised nephew of Karzai who returned to Afghanistan. He spoke about what an effect the absence of women had on the collective psyche–and this coming from a teenaged BOY! So I can only imagine the way it must be perceived by another WOMAN!

  10. Choochoo Avatar

    I don’t think I could get used to living like that. I need the freedom to at the very least take a walk when I need one. I’d lose my mind if I was going to live that way. Then again, I can see how these women wouldn’t miss what they’ve never had. Some of those men might enjoy doing things like cooking if they tried it, but it might not even occur to the to make changes to their life. Sometimes tradition can be weird.

  11. kmkat Avatar

    Such a thoughtfully written essay. I too love your even-handedness and honesty. We may not have full equality here in the US, but we have a lot more of it, plus freedom of action, than in most countries of the world. Thank FSM. It would make me spitting mad to have to live like that. (I cannot even watch the tv series Mad Men, no matter how much people rave about how good it is. I lived through some of those years, when women were the ones who made the coffee and took the notes and never, ever got to make the decisions, and I absolutely cannot stomach seeing it on tv.)

  12. chlost Avatar

    This is such a thought-provoking post. My husband has always pointed out to me that many men don’t want to lose the special privileges that they have in societies….why would they want to do work when they have someone to do it for them……….but that they are missing so much as well in not having an equal partner in their lives. As to your friend’s comments as to who would really want to spend more time with these guys-are many of the marriages arranged? Is there generally love in a marriage within this culture?
    How are things within the cities of Turkey? I would imagine that things will change in the small villages after they have changed in the cities. Is this seen as westernization or anti-Islamic for the cultural changes, and that is slowing acceptance of changes?
    I don’t believe that everyone has to be like us, but it is so hard to see women treated in such a way. I am curious as to their ideas on their roles of society, especially the young women.

  13. Pearl Avatar

    Well, well, look who has finally enough time to belly up to a post! 🙂 That’s me, in case you were wondering…

    Have never been to Turkey, but sounds suspiciously like a local restaurant — a buffet — men sitting outside, and inside, and in their cars, and stationed about the parking lot… They’ve never been anything but kind and yet I wonder, every time: where are the women? And why aren’t they with them? What are they doing, all day, that they have time to sit here, drinking tea and playing chess?

    I admire you greatly, Joce. The trip, the writing, the humor.


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