Many Turks, even in remote areas, have lived and worked abroad (mainly in Germany) or at tourist resorts in Turkey, and are used to foreign ways. But traditional customs matter, and although you’re unlikely to cause offence through a social gaffe, it’s best to be aware of prevailing customs. Also, many Turks are devout (or at least conservative) Muslims, so you should adhere to local dress codes – particularly away from resorts and when visiting mosques.
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Invitations and meals
Hospitality (misafirperverlik) is a pillar of rural Turkish culture, so you’re unlikely to leave the country without at least one invitation to drink tea, either in a çayhane (teahouse) or someone’s home. If you really can’t spare the time, mime “thanks” by placing one hand on your chest and pointing with the other to your watch and then in the direction you’re headed. If you do stop, remember that drinking only one glass may be interpreted as casting aspersions on their tea. If offered a full meal, decline the first offer – if it’s sincere it will be repeated at least twice and custom demands that you accept the third offer.
Being invited for a meal at a Turkish home is both an honour and an obligation. Always remove your shoes at the door. In urban, middle-class homes you’ll sit at a table and eat with cutlery. In village houses, however, the meal is usually served at a low table with cushions on the floor; hide your feet under the table or a dropcloth provided for the purpose. (Feet, shod or not, are considered unclean and should never be pointed at anyone.) When scooping food with bread sections from a communal bowl, use your right hand – the left is reserved for bodily hygiene. If you use toothpicks provided at restaurants, cover your mouth while doing so.
Dress and body language
What is acceptable dress-wise depends very much on which part of the country – or even which part of a city – you are visiting. Overall, though, Turkey is conservative concerning dress. Beachwear should be confined to the beach, while strolling shirtless around resort streets is offensive (though plenty of foreign men do it). Revealing clothing like miniskirts and skimpy shorts should be avoided away from heavily touristed areas. Nude sunbathing is not acceptable anywhere, though at any major Mediterranean/Aegean resort discreet topless sunning takes place.
If you venture much off the tourist track, accept that being stared at is part of the experience and not considered rude. In some parts of the southeast, you may be mobbed by small children wishing to guide you around the local ruins and/or begging for pens, sweets or money.
Turks employ a variety of not immediately obvious body language. Clicking the tongue against the roof of the mouth and simultaneously raising the eyebrows and chin means “no” or “there isn’t any”; those economical of movement will rely on their eyebrows alone. By contrast, wagging the head rapidly from side to side means “Explain, I don’t understand”, while a single, obliquely inclined nod means “yes”.
Black and Asian travellers
In remoter areas, black and Asian people may find themselves something of a curiosity, and may receive unsolicited comments – ranging from Arap! (a Black!) to the notionally more appreciative çok güzel (very pretty!). Turkey is in fact one of the least racist countries around the Mediterranean. Many black footballers from Africa and South America play in Turkish teams and you may also notice the country’s black minority group, termed “Afro Turks”, particularly around İzmir.
While many female travellers encounter little more than some flirtatious banter while travelling in Turkey, a minority experience unwanted attention and more serious harassment in both resorts and rural areas. The key to avoiding trouble is to be aware of your surroundings, dress and behaviour and how it might be interpreted. If travelling alone, it’s best to stick to mid-range hotels (particularly in the interior) and schedule transport to arrive during daylight hours. That said, the backstreets of most Turkish towns are a lot safer at night than those of many Western cities. This is partly due to a heavy police presence; do not hesitate to ask them for help. Away from the main resorts, unaccompanied women are a rare sight at night; when heading out for an evening, try to go as part of a group, preferably mixed-sex, otherwise as an all-female group, which may, however, get some unwelcome attention. In restaurants, unaccompanied women may be directed to the aile salonu (family parlour), usually upstairs, rather than be served with other diners. While public drunkenness is unacceptable for both genders, this is especially true for women.
Turkish women have over the years devised successful tactics to protect themselves from harassment – specifically, avoiding eye contact with men and looking as confident and purposeful as possible. When all else fails, the best way to neutralize harassment is to make a public scene. The words Ayıp (“Shame!”) or Beni rahatsız ediyorsun (“You’re disturbing me”), spoken very loudly, generally have the desired effect – passers-by or fellow passengers will deal with the situation for you. Defol (“Piss off!”) and Bırak beni (“Leave me alone”) are stronger retorts. In general, Turkish men back down when confronted, and cases of violent sexual harassment are very rare.
Prostitution is thriving in Turkey, both in legal, state-controlled brothels and, illegally, on the streets and in certain bars and dubious hotels. Many prostitutes who work illegally come from Russia and former Soviet-bloc countries such as Moldova or Ukraine, and are known locally as “Natashas”. Female travellers may be mistaken for prostitutes by local men assuming that any foreign woman out unaccompanied at night must be on the game. If you wander through seedy districts such as Aksaray in İstanbul, or stumble across known pick-up points on major highways, expect to be followed by kerb-crawlers; it’s usually enough to explain that you’re not a natasha. This Guide doesn’t recommend hotels used for prostitution, but management and clientele can change, so keep your antennae primed.
Gay and lesbian travellers
Turkish society has always been deeply ambivalent about male homosexuality, since the days of a rampantly bisexual Ottoman culture, when transvestite dancers and entertainers were the norm. That said, public attitudes are generally intolerant or closeted. The only place with a recognized gay scene is İstanbul, though the more liberal towns of Antalya and İzmir and the resorts of Bodrum, Marmaris and Alanya are considered gay-friendly.
Homosexual acts between adults over 18 are legal, but existing laws against “spreading homosexual information” in print – ie advocating the lifestyle – are sporadically enforced, “Gay Pride” festivals have been forcibly cancelled and cruising is an offence. Advocating a gay lifestyle remains an offence, though on a more positive note in 2011 a major Gay Pride Week march down İstiklal Caddesi in İstanbul attracted over ten thousand participants and passed without incident.
Lambda (wlambdaistanbul.org) is a domestic gay activist group, as is Kaos (wkaosgl.com), but both websites are Turkish only and frequently inaccessible. More reliable and useful to visitors for information on İstanbul’s gay scene are wistanbulgay.com and wabsolutesultans.com.
With over forty percent of the adult population (around 25 million) indulging in the nicotine habit, the old saying “smokes like a Turk” is a fairly accurate assessment. Yet things have changed dramatically in recent years. Smoking was banned on public transport and in airports, bus terminals and train stations back in 1997, and then further prohibited in 2009 in all public buildings, and all enclosed public spaces including bars, cafés, restaurants and clubs – including nargile (hookah) cafés. There was of course a major outcry, largely from the owners of kahvehanes (the basic, invariably all-male, tea-and-coffee dens) and bars and restaurants. The ban is widely flouted despite the steep fines for proprietors, many of whom have muddied the waters by erecting tent-like awnings at the front or rear of their establishment, warmed in winter by outdoor heaters.
Western-style toilets are now common in many hotels, restaurants, cafés and bars. The only difference you’re likely to notice is a small pipe fitted at the rear rim of the basin – which serves the same purpose as a bidet. The tap to turn it on is usually located on the wall behind the loo. The waste bins provided are for used toilet paper – blockages are not uncommon.
In rural areas (and less touristed parts of major cities), however, traditional squat toilets are still the norm, especially those attached to service stations, basic eateries and mosques. Mosque loos are often the only “public” toilet you’ll be able to find in remote parts of big cities or in smaller towns. There’s always a tap and plastic jug next to the toilet for washing the unmentionables, but few provide paper, so carry some around with you. An attendant at the entrance will divest you of a lira or so on your way out and, in return, give you a tissue and splash of cologne on your hands.