Thursday, August 19, 2010

What should the West do? Beats me...

As the First General Law of Travel tells us, every nation is its stereotype.
Americans are indeed fat and overbearing, Mexicans lazy and pilfering, Germans disciplined and perverted. The Turks, as everyone knows, are insane and deceitful. I say this affectionately. I live in Turkey. On good days, I love Turkey. But I have long since learned that its people are apt to go berserk on you for no reason whatsoever, and you just can’t trust a word they say. As one Turkish friend put it (a man who has spent many years in America, and thus grasps the depth of the cultural chasm), “It’s not that they’re bad. They don’t even know they’re lying.”
My friend is right, and his comment suggests a point about Turkish culture that I doubt many Westerners grasp. People here—and, I would guess, throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean, though Turkey is the only country I know well—see “truth” as something plastic, connected more to emotions than to facts or logic. If it feels true, it is true. What’s more, feelings here tend to change very quickly—and with them, the truth.
Take, for instance, my former landlord. Last year, my apartment was burgled. Under Turkish law, if your apartment is burgled, you have the right to insist that your landlord install bars on your windows. When I put this to my landlord, he objected, screaming violently, as so often people here do for no reason any American would accept as legitimate. First, my landlord screamed, there was no risk of burglary: there had never before been a burglary in our neighborhood. (Actually, our neighborhood was notorious for it.) Second, he screamed, to install bars would create a hazard: burglars would use them to climb up to the second floor. He offered both arguments in the same sentence. He was unperturbed by the obvious problem with his line of reasoning.
Later, when I discussed the matter with Turkish friends, they explained to me that I had made a critical negotiating mistake: I had insulted his honor by telling him I would have bars installed rather than asking him. The argument, they explained, had nothing to do with the real risk of burglary, and certainly nothing to do with my rights under Turkish rental law. It was about my failure to show the man the proper respect.
I’m not sure my Turkish friends were right about that, though. They are, after all, Turkish, so they pretty much say whatever sounds good to them at the time. They tend to explain these situations ex post facto with appeals to the subtleties of Turkish culture, but the story never stays the same. I’ve been in similar situations in which these same Turkish friends have explained that my mistake was asking, rather than telling. Asking, they have assured me, is a sign of weakness, so no wonder my adversaries sought to take advantage.
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