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Turkey - Culture

Turkey Culture

Ottoman literature and court music were mostly religious, and both sound pompous and lugubrious to Western ears. Visual arts were curtailed by the Muslim dictum that forbids representation of any being 'with an immortal soul', so Islamic artists tended to the non-representative arts. Turkish museums are full of delicate coloured tiles, graceful glass vases, carved wooden mosque doors, glittering illuminated Korans, intricate jewellery and sumptuous costumes. Atatürk changed Turkey's cultural picture overnight, encouraging representative painting, sculpture, literature, western music (he loved opera), dance and drama. The introduction of a new Latin-based Turkish alphabet brought literacy within reach of many more citizens and Ottoman courtly prose gave way to use of the vernacular. Several Turkish writers, including Nazim Hikmet, Yashar Kemal and Orhan Pamuk have met with critical and popular acclaim in Turkey and further afield. Recently, Ottoman arts such as paper marbling and shadow-puppet plays have been enjoying a resurgence. Carpet-weaving is still a Turkish passion.

Folk music was (and still is) sprightly. Türkü music, of which you'll hear lots on the radio, is traditional folk music with a modern urban slant. The 1000-year-old tradition of Turkish troubadours has been wiped out by TV and cassettes, but the songs of the great troubadours are still popular and often performed and recorded. The Turkish film industry began early, was fiesty through the 1920s, expanded rapidly after WWII and delved into social and political issues through the 1960s and 70s. Turkish cinema is characterised by honesty, naturalism and dry humour. Directors to look out for include the fiery Yilmaz Güney, Tunç, Basaran, Zülfü and Ömer Kavur.

Although Turkish is an elegantly simple language, the rules of word order and verb formation are very different from Indo-European languages, making it somewhat difficult to learn. Verbs can be so complex that they constitute whole sentences in themselves - try this one on for size: Afyonkarahisarlilastiramadiklarimizdanmisiniz? ('Aren't you one of those people whom we tried - unsuccessfully - to make resemble the citizens of Afyonkarahisar?') It's a lot easier to ask where the toilets are!

Turkey is 99% Muslim, predominantly Sunni with some Shiites and Alevis in the east and southeast. Many Turkish customs and practices are derived from Islamic practices. Etiquette demands that you wear modest clothing and remove shoes when visiting mosques. In areas not frequented by tourists (or anywhere you feel that conservative Islamic vibe) women should have head, arms and shoulders covered, and wear modest dresses or skirts, preferably reaching to the knees. Avoid visiting mosques at prayer time or on Friday, the Muslim holy day. Other Turkish customs are generally to do with little politenesses - even Turks complain how one can't even get out the door without 5 minutes of formulaic civilities - but attempts to join in with these vestiges of courtly customs will delight your Turkish hosts.

Many women complain about verbal and physical harrassment in Turkey. Although it's not necessary to be paranoid and let stupid hassles ruin your trip, it's as well to take a few precautions. At the very least, keep your torso, legs and upper arms covered, especially as you travel farther east. You might also consider wearing a wedding ring. When walking, look purposeful, ignore catcalls and steer clear of lonely streets after dark. When eating out alone, ask for the aile salonu (family dining room). Going out drinking by yourself is basically stupid.

Bring your belly to Turkey - it will thank you. Shish kebab (skewer-grilled lamb) is a Turkish invention and you'll find kebapçis everywhere. Lamb and fish (which can be expensive) dishes are the restaurant staples. If you're scrimping, the best cheap and tasty meal is Turkish pizza. Eggplant is the number one vegetable: look out for imam bayildi ('the priest fainted'), a delicious stuffed eggplant dish. Desserts are sweet (often honey-soaked) and tend to incorporate fruit, nuts and pastry in tempting combinations. Vegetarians aren't much catered for, but you'll never starve - making an entire meal from magnificent meze (hors d'oeuvres) is easy. The national drink is çay (tea). Beer is served almost everywhere and Turkish wines are cheap and surprisingly good. Raki, an aniseed-flavoured grape brandy, is the knockout tipple of choice.

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