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Book Review:
Tales from the Expat Harem
Edited by Anastasia M. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gokmen
Publisher: Seal Women's Travel

Tales from the Expat Harem
Foreign Women in Modern Turkey

Anastasia M. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gokmen are presenting
their book "Tales From the Expat Harem" in NYC in May 2006.
Photo Credit: Cansu Ozer, Moon & Stars Project

Book Review and Interview with Jennifer Eaton Gokmen
by Ozgun T

 Each book has a history of its own. When Jennifer Eaton Gokmen, an American writer and a native of Michigan, married a Turk and moved to Turkey’s capital, Ankara and then to Istanbul, she mainly concentrated on learning the language, understanding the culture and earning a living. After six years, she finally woke up to the realization that she had another goal in her mind. She started writing for an expatriate humor magazine called Istanbull…. and then for the cityguide TimeOut Istanbul. In the meantime, Anastasia M. Ashman, another American “gelin” (bride) from the progressive Californian town of Berkeley married a Turk and moved to Istanbul. Holding a degree in Classical Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern archaeology, she was a writer with a lot of experience working with literary agents, media, tv and film. Both of them were looking for a writing workshop to join but there weren’t any. Through an American women’s social group, they finally met. Literature was not the only common interest they shared. Both of them were avid travelers who weren’t strangers to new cultures. And oddly enough, both studied clarinet and judo! They decided to start a writing club together.

“When we started this group it became obvious that the stories that were being workshopped were all about people’s Turkish lives so we decided that that would make a very interesting collection-- and very timely, certainly, with the world media concentrating on Turkey and the changes it’s undergoing, its potential EU membership, etc. So we decided to make some projects in the group: workshop ideas about how you make a book proposal, how you go about organizing your chapter and contents, how you choose your literary metaphor. Anastasia and I had a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm and very particular aims about what we envisioned this project could potentially be. And things fell into place quickly after that.” Jennifer recalls.

Together they prepared one quarter of the essays, the chapter outline and the proposal and they showed it to a publisher, an expatriate American woman, Nancy Ozturk who had lived in Turkey for 30 years. She immediately said she wanted to do the book. But as the project grew she also realized that she didn’t have the resources to make this project as big as Anastasia and Jennifer envisioned it. So they ended their contract with Nancy and contacted Dogan Kitap, Turkey’s strongest publisher and part of the Dogan Media Holding empire of newspapers, magazines, television and radio. The Turkish edition and the English language edition in Turkey were published in September in 2005. The English edition went directly to the best seller list and became #1 in January. Then the collection was published in the USA and Canada by Seal Press in March 2006.

I was sitting with Jennifer in a hotel room in Manhattan which she shared with Anastasia and we were talking about the “book”, on May 25th, only hours before their book tour finale, a presentation at MayFest sponsored by the Moon and Stars Project. The evening would cap a big American book tour which lasted 49 days and covered 22 cities in 10 states. We, two women- one, born in America and moved to Turkey, living there for the last 13 years, the other, born in Turkey and moved to the US and living here for the last 10 years- just had lunch together at a Korean restaurant close to their hotel. As an avid traveler and a literature lover, the book captured my attention right before they came to the US for this tour. I read the book in a couple of nights, longing to continue whenever I had to stop reading it.

Anastasia M. Ashman
Photo Credit: Cansu Ozer, Moon & Stars Project

The American print of “Tales from the Expat Harem” is a collection of essays written by 29 women, including the editors, all from different backgrounds. When Jennifer and Anastasia announced the project via internet and magazines and asked for essays, more than 100 women in 14 different countries in six different continents responded. The criterion was that they had to have lived in Turkey at least for a year. When I asked about the very first story of the book, Jennifer said that the book proposal started with Anastasia’s story about meeting her Turkish mother in law, a tale that was eventually replaced by Anastasia’s story about her modern Ottoman wedding. Maria Orhon’s story, “A Mother’s Charms” was the first submission after they had made the call for the stories. This story went into the “Charms and Soothsayers” chapter. The other chapters are, “Kervansaray”, “Last Stop on the Orient Express”, “Hamam”, “Henna’d Hands”, “Darbuka Drumbeat”, “Kin, Cauldron and Kismet”, “Peddler in the Bazaar” and “Homespun Hospitality.” Starting from the name and the bookcover (at least for the American print) and the names of the chapters, the reader gets the hint that she will read a book on the culture of the Orient. The writers mostly being from the Occident (except Mahira Afridi-Perese, a native of Pakistan; mostly from the USA except some Europeans), wrote about their experience with the Turkish culture. Even though this apparent Orient-Occident dichotomy cautions the reader against prejudices, overgeneralizations and so forth, actually after a point it becomes the strength of the book. Because even though a story may start with prejudices, misperceptions and overgeneralizations or simply “unawareness” in the writers’ minds, which see things through the lenses of the “culture of the Occident”, things change at the end of the story. For me, if I could summarize this book with one word, I would say, “change”. These writers, from different backgrounds, but highly educated and intensely traveled women in general, were amazing in the sense of “openness” and “positivism”. Even if they had to struggle with themselves, they were open to new experiences and to a different culture than their own. They try to understand and they try new ways to find a solution for what the problem required. One example I remember is Eveline Zoutendijk’s “The Painter or the Boy”. In the story, the hotel owner Eveline Zoutendijk hangs a reproduction of an Osman Hamdi painting on one of the lobby walls. One of the staff, Halim gets very offended because he thinks that the painting is against Islam. He demanded that the painting should be taken away. Instead of firing him or taking the painting right away, Eveline tries to understand and is willing to negotiate. She goes through an intensive research on the painting. She talks to experts, the shop owner who sold the reproduction to her and Halim many times till she makes a decision that she initially doesn’t foresee. In “Failed Missionary”, Rhonda Vander Sluis, a Christian evangelist from Iowa comes to Turkey to convert Muslims-”unreached peoples”. She stays with a Turkish family, a modest elderly couple, Mustafa and Gulsum. After a while, especially after Ms. Vander Sluis learns Turkish enough to converse with them, they have many chances to talk about everything including religious issues. However instead of converting Mustafa and Gulsum, the writer’s own understanding of spirituality is radically transformed due to the bond of mutual love and respect she formed with her Turkish family.

This positive approach to the new culture dominates the whole book. I was curious whether they received any negative stories and how they chose the ones for the book. Jennifer said that out of 100 submissions, about four of them were negative.

“We didn’t tell the writers that they had to give us a positive story about Turkey, but if they wanted to tell us about a negative event that happened to them, then they had to be able to show the context and they had to show the both sides of the story because when you are in a different environment, the way people react towards you is certainly based on their cultural background, not your cultural background. And these are two very different things. Then you have to understand why they’re acting the way they are. Maybe they understand your actions in a very different way. Simple gestures can mean very different things in different cultures; it’s very easy to be misunderstood and to misunderstand the people around you. So what we asked for from our writers was to be able to put that event into context, to be able to understand from the other person’s point of view, as well. If the people were able to show that, then that was OK with us… but if the people didn’t want to be a participant in their story, if they wanted to be an absent narrator pointing fingers and placing blame, or acting like a victim, we didn’t think that was good story telling or even an accurate representation of the issue. Things happen for very identifiable reasons and it takes a little bit of self analysis and understanding of the culture to find out what the real meaning of that experience is. For those people who were able to show us that real meaning, that was fine. There are stories in the book that aren’t very positive in terms of what happened to the people. For instance, Amanda’s story about traveling in the Southeastern Turkey, maybe Trici’s story... But those stories are done with a lot of humor and grace. For that reason they make good stories.”

The editors make it very clear that this was not a propaganda project. This is a very positive book because Turkey does happen to have a very positive effect on a lot of people who have been there. As a travel company owner and a professional tour guide, this has been my experience with the foreigners whom I had a chance to work with in Turkey, as well. However, the information you can find on Turkey, either academic, political or economic, shows mostly the bad sides of Turkey and there are only few resources that show the positive sides. With the positive feeling that it conveys, both Jennifer and Anastasia hope that their anthology will bring a better balance to what information is out there for people about Turkey.

Among the positive qualities of the Turkish culture which were told by the book, the greatest importance is given to the famous Turkish hospitality. Jennifer thinks that it is not reserved for the foreigners only, but that the Turks are hospitable to each other, as well:

“I think the social structure is such that people look out for each other. I think that the area has historically been not an easy place to survive and people have had to share to support each other in order to survive. The social structure is very interdependent; people are very used to relying on each other for assistance. On the one hand that might be something that holds Turkey back in terms of capitalist advancements you see in other countries, but on the other hand it has something that other countries don’t-- a genuine and very deep humanistic side to the culture that still exists today. Despite industrialism and capitalism that are opposite to this kind of closeness and support, there is a very innate gentility and nobility to the culture. For example, people with cigarettes, candy, or gum will always offer it to every single person around them before they take something themselves. That’s the very smallest example I can give but it’s indicative of their code of conduct for life, that they share and make sure other people are taken care of. It does not matter if you are a foreigner or Turk. That’s been pretty much my experience for the 12 years I’ve been there.”

When you live in a culture that you were born into and have not interacted with other cultures much and someday a foreigner comes and writes about your culture from her/his own perspective, how do you react to it? The book might have served as a mirror to many of Turks. For instance, in “Rescued by Village Intelligence”, Claire Uhr gets very sick in the Cappadocian town of Goreme. Her neighbors come to her rescue after a couple of days when they do not get to see her and think that there is something possibly wrong with her. Jennifer says that for Turks this is probably not a big deal as that’s such a routine thing for them. Neighbors care for each other.

“But it’s a big deal..” says Jennifer, “…In our culture you could be dead and rotting in your house for days before anyone even realizes because there isn’t that kind of close connection between people. Even people who live in the same apartment building, even people who have been neighbors for twenty years might not even know each other’s first name. The most touching things about Turkish culture are the things Turks might think are small and everyday, that are very big and significant to us.”

Even though I used to work with English speaking tourists for quite sometime before moving to the USA some ten years ago, getting used to a new culture was a tough work in its own right. It took me a while to figure out that simple “How are you?” didn’t mean more than a “hi!”. While I was finding it perplexing, as I didn’t feel “Great!” at all times that I was asked, a German friend of mine found it very offending, “What is it to my doorman how I was? That’s such a personal thing to ask!” On the other hand, a French friend found it very polite and very pleasing. “Oh, everyone seems to care about you!” she said. In Turkey “How are you?” is a question with a lot of potential. It’s the opening of a conversation. When you visit your relatives or friends, you always open with that question.

However, recently, when I go back to Turkey on vacations, I hear “N’aber? (What’s the news?)” and the usual reply “N’olsun? or Iyidir” (What can it be? or OK) has started to take over at least in big cities and at least among young people.

After twelve years of living in Turkey, I wonder how Jennifer feels about the American culture by and large and if she sees any changes.

“I do see more kindness between strangers than I’d realized before. Not to the Turkish extent certainly. But there are other things as well, such as pettiness about money and belongings. It’s very difficult to be in a Turkish environment, getting used to people really not caring much about things. One of the biggest lessons I learned in Turkey is to let go of pettiness about possessions and realize that in any situation people are more important than things. That’s something that I’m still trying to learn. But it’s difficult to be in a situation when everyone around you feels that and thinks that, then come to visit America where you realize people are very possessive about things that they own, they are not as willing to share, you split every single restaurant bill, you know, everyone keeping tabs somehow. That’s a little bit uncomfortable. There was an advertisement we saw in the Village Voice-- a woman who was advertising for a roommate for an apartment. On the bottom part there was a little asterisk saying “willing to share milk and toilet paper”. And for me that was really telling because I guess she thinks that’s a very generous gesture. For me, it’s unbelievable that people will count things to such a petty extent that you actually have to list those very minute things that you are willing to share with each other. That is very telling about what they are not planning to share with each other. Not just in material terms but in life terms. But I don’t think that’s specific to that girl, it’s specific to the culture. It’s really sad if people are willing to share a home, yet they have to divide everything to that minute detail. But on the other hand that’s the way people are brought up here, that’s what they know and that’s what normal and comfortable for them. It was initially an adjustment for me to come into a Turkish environment where you no longer have the right over your possessions because you are expected to be able to part with anything if someone else needs it more.”

Almost eight hundred people attended the readings and events of the Expat Harem during their book tour. Among them there were Turks, Armenians, non-Turks who are married to Turks and live in the US, travelers from any background, university scholars (by the way Professor Gottfried Hagen has been using the book at her course in Modern Turkey at the University of Michigan and the University of British Columbia in Canada is now using it in a literature course), ex expats and some people who had no clue. They met some people who thought “harem” was some sort of a metaphor for a sexual group. Along the way the Turks kept sharing with them of what it was like them to be in the American culture, how they see the mirror opposite of some of the things they wrote about. They wrote about the overwhelming hospitality. And some of the Turks mentioned how difficult it was to start relationships with Americans because there isn’t that kind of emotional commitment to relationships and there isn’t that sort of outgoing hospitality.

Towards the end, Anastasia comes back from her appointment. They have to get ready for their last tour appearance. They are ready to go home, and their home is now in Turkey. I thank them and leave only to see them again at the event. While I am walking in the streets of Manhattan aimlessly, I find myself feeling very homesick and thinking..
....that if there is going to be peace on earth, it’s not going to happen if people do not understand other cultures and it certainly will not happen if they are not willing to re-evaluate their own values and change their own perceptions. It’s true for the cultures of different countries and it’s true for the cultures of different ethnic groups in one country. Apart from being very well written and being a great travel book, I welcome this book, its editors and writers because they are introducing a country, in this case, Turkey, to us in such a positive, warm and humorous way that reading it becomes a journey in its own right. It loosens us up. It lets us be aware of our own perceptions getting in the way of our own relationships with the “foreign”. It tells us to leave our fears at home, go out, explore and interact!

Summer 2006
Issue# 18
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