Culture and Etiquette in Turkey
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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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
The hamam (Turkish bath) once played a pivotal role in hygiene, social discourse and religious life (they were often part of a mosque complex) in Turkey, but as the standard of living has increased, its importance has diminished. As an exercise in nostalgia, however, it’s well worth visiting one – İstanbul in particular boasts many historic hamams (see The Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı, Çemberlitaş Hamamı, Süleymaniye Hamamı, Cağaloğlu Hamamı) worth experiencing for their architecture alone – and, of course, they make for a very relaxing end to a day of slogging around the sights.
Most Turkish towns have at least one hamam, usually signposted; otherwise look for the distinctive external profile of the roof domes. Ordinary hamams chargeTL10–12 basic admission, the price normally indicated by the front desk; hamams in coastal tourist resorts and İstanbul can be far more expensive (TL15–180), with an optional scrub and/or massage adding to the cost. Baths are either for men or women, or sexually segregated on a schedule, with women usually allotted more restricted hours, usually midweek during the day.
On entering, leave your valuables in a small locking drawer, keeping the key (usually on a wrist thong) with you for the duration. Bring soap and shampoo as it’s not always sold in the foyer. Men are supplied with a peştamal, a thin, wraparound sarong, women generally enter in knickers but not bra; both sexes get takunya, awkward wooden clogs, and later a havlu (towel). Leave your clothes in the changing cubicle (camekan in Turkish).
The hararet or main bath chamber ranges from plain to ornate, though any decent hamam will be marble-clad at least up to chest height. Two or more halvets, semi-private corner rooms with two or three kurnas (basins) each, lead off from the main chamber. The internal temperature varies from tryingly hot to barely lukewarm, depending on how well run the baths are. Unless with a friend, it’s one customer to a set of taps and basin; refrain from making a big soapy mess in the basin, which is meant for mixing pure water to ideal temperature. Use the scoop-dishes provided to sluice yourself. It’s considered good etiquette to clean your marble slab with a few scoopfuls of water before leaving.
At the heart of the hamam is the göbek taşı or “navel stone”, a raised platform positioned over the furnaces that heat the premises. The göbek taşı will be piping hot and covered with prostrate figures absorbing the heat. It’s also the venue for (very) vigorous massages from the tellâk or masseur/masseuse. A kese (abrasive mitt) session from the same person, in which dead skin and grime are scrubbed away, will probably suit more people. Terms for the tellâks’ services should be displayed in the foyer. Few hamams have a masseuse, so female visitors will have to think very carefully before accepting a massage from a masseur – though this is far from unknown. Scrubs and massages are charged extra, so make sure you know what you’ll be paying. Upon return to your cubicle with its reclining couch(es) you’ll be offered tea, soft drinks or mineral water – charged extra as per a posted price placard. Except in heavily touristed establishments, tips apart from the listed fees are not required or expected.
As you stroll around the tourist-thronged sites of İstanbul’s Sultanahmet or the promenade of an Aegean or Mediterranean resort, it can at times be hard to remember that you are in a predominantly Muslim country – though even here the call to prayer echoes out five times daily: sunrise, midday, late afternoon, sunset and after dark.
Many of Turkey’s inhabitants are, however, both conservative and devout. Bear this in mind particularly when visiting a mosque. All those likely to be of interest to a foreign visitor (and many more besides) display some kind of “conduct” notice at the door outlining the entry rules – which are simple:
Especially if you are in a very conservative part of the country (which includes most of inland Anatolia as well as conservative districts within the big cities, like İstanbul’s Fatih) try to avoid your visit coinciding with noon prayers – particularly those on a Friday, the most important prayer session of the week. Once inside the mosque, you’re free to wander around, take photographs and admire the interior – but keep your voice down (there are often people praying or reciting the Koran outside of the five daily prayer times) and don’t take pictures of worshippers unless they give their permission. Although the imam is a state-paid official, upkeep of the building is down to charity, so you may want to put a donation in the collection box.
Acceptable behaviour and roles for women vary widely by class and region. In İstanbul and along the heavily touristed coastline, social freedom approximates that in Western Europe; in more traditional areas females act conservatively, with headscarves in abundance.
Turkish women have long held jobs in the professions and civil service as well as in the tourist sector in hotels and for airlines. There are female police, and an increasing number of women can be found working in restaurants and bars – though only in resorts and some of the more westernized cities such as Antalya, Ankara, İstanbul and İzmir. Recently, fast-food chains and supermarkets have offered more job opportunities. In rural areas, women rarely have access to formal employment and work the land. Literacy rates for girls are also significantly lower in rural areas despite compulsory education up to the age of fifteen.
In villages parents still choose wives for their sons; in cities more Western attitudes prevail and couples even live together unmarried. Despite the current AKP government openly calling for a ban, abortion is still available on demand; contraceptives are readily obtainable; and a baby can be registered to unmarried parents. The average number of children per family is two, though there’s a huge disparity between eastern and western Turkey, with families of up to twelve not uncommon in poorer southeastern (ethnically Kurdish) parts of the country. The law gives men considerable say over their children, though divorce law is fairly equitable.
Sadly Turkey is also known for hundreds of annual “honour” killings, particularly in Kurdish areas. These occur for actual or suspected adultery, pregnancy out of wedlock or dating someone disapproved of by the family. While in the past this crime was carried out by a male relative, lately women have been forced to commit suicide instead.