Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Americans are often accused of being Puritanical. We have weird laws about alcohol and sex, we like to heavily tax or over-regulate things we think of as "sins," and bad words are bleeped off network TV. Of course, all countries have their weird laws and regulations and taxes on various sins and vices, but there's something more pervasive about puritanism in America than there seems to be in, say, Britain. One small example I can think of offhand is that British women can get away with showing a lot more cleavage than American women can. I'm sure there are other, more important examples.

As you would expect, Turkey has its whole Puritan thing going on too. But it's quite different than the way I'm used to, and sometimes it's surprising and contradictory. For example, gambling is forbidden but there are state-run whorehouses. Pornography is strictly illegal, and like gambling, it's one of their many excuses for blocking websites. Newspapers always sport a scantily-clad woman on the front and back pages and several months back, Radikal newspaper (which isn't really all that radical) had a fully nude, tits-and-bush photo of Madonna from one of her teenaged photo shoots on the front page. Even LE had the good sense to like that. It gentled him out of a "I don't want to get in the car" tantrum because he still really likes boobs. But the newspaper thing is weird when I think that I once got yelled at by some covered girls at my old job for changing my gym clothes in the women's locker room instead of waiting my turn to go into a private cabin. Or when I think that my MIL gets mad at me for wearing tank tops in front of FIL.

Until recently, swearing was allowed on Turkish TV. Not the *really* bad words, but worse words than Americans are allowed to use. American regulation of swearing is funny actually. When I was a kid, you couldn't even say "butt" on TV. I think now you can "shit," "ass," and "bitch." Also "asshole" and maybe "dick," but only in reference to people. And only after certain times a day, like you can't say "ass" until after 6pm and no "bitch" until after 9. Of course, anything goes on cable. But it's still weird. And in the US it's the FCC that voluntarily regulates TV while in Turkey it's the state and cable TV isn't exempted.

With the recent smoking ban in public places, the Turkish government in all its wisdom has also decided to ban smoking on TV. This means that whenever someone is smoking, the hand holding the cigarette, pipe, or cigar is blurred out. It look ridiculous and actually draws more attention to the fact that someone is smoking. I wonder what it's supposed to accomplish. Is it so kids don't think smoking is cool? Here's a conversation I thought of that might happen in a Turkish sitting room, translated into English.

Child: "Mommy, what's that man doing and why is his face all blurry and why is there smoke coming from his hand?"
Mother: "It's nothing, sweetheart." (puff puff) "Don't give it another thought."


Last night, we tuned into the middle of a film called "Powder Blue." It had this stripper scene in it:

No need to watch more than the first 30 seconds unless you want to see a pretty good strip scene. There's a part where she goes down the pole reeeeallly slooowly, upside down and grinding. Anyway.

Anyway, you'll notice that in the beginning of the scene she's smoking. In Turkey, presumably for the safety and moral protection of children, the cigarette was blurred out. Granted there was that thing she did with the pole, and then later in the scene after she's got the bra off she starts pouring hot wax all over her body and breasts, with lots of hot wax and breasty close-ups. But for the love of God, don't let anyone see she's smoking.

Actually, I imagined watching this movie with LE a few years in the future (okay, so I haven't decided when and what kind of TV to censor because I'm just not into that kind of thing unless it's something scary that gives him nightmares, like Spiderman), and the blurred-out cigarette could in fact save me from this loaded and challenging conversation:

LE: "Mommy, why is that lady dancing naked and putting hot wax on her boobs?"
Me: "Because it's her job?"
LE: "Why is it her job?
Me: "Ummmm... Hey guess what! It's bedtime!"

..and instead we can have this conversation:

LE: "Mommy, why is that naked lady's hand all blurry with smoke coming out of it?"
Me: "Because she's smoking a cigarette."
LE: "Why?"
Me: "Because she's naughty. Now be quiet and let mommy watch."

Aren't contradictions grand?


Nomad said...

My first year in Turkey I was kind of dismayed to see so much nudity- or rather near-nudity in the newspapers. I recall looking at one page as a friend of mine was busy doing something and I said,"Geez, I never would have expected to see this sort of thing in a Muslim country."
"Naked ladies all over the newspaper."
"Evet, berbat."
I looked at him and then back at the picture. I said,"Well, it's a lot more than her butt that's bare."

One theory of mine that has worked its way into almost every observation about Turkey. The things you see here may leave you speechless or furious, but in fact, the only difference between here and America is that things are merely more obvious. It's like reading a vaguely familiar novel in LARGE PRINT.

Stranger said...

Very astute, Nomad. It's a whole new way of framing my corruption rant.

seamus said...

The cleavage thing seems to be a fashion or meme in the UK. Women in Turkey can get away with wearing the tightest of clothes without any comment. Also dyeing their hair or wearing contacts that are outrageously fake seem to pass comment free. They can also get away with wearing a party dress to their receptionist job oh and of course work for years in DHL or Aras Kargo and not know that the UAE or Oman exist and whats more not see the absurdity of not having a map on the wall or consulting one.

Stranger said...

Yesterday I was having lunch in a pastane and EVERY WOMAN in there had platinum hair with long black roots. My friend asked if it feels weird to have real blond hair in a room like that. What's weird though is real blond hair and platinum-with-roots have nothing to do with each other.

I laughed at my neighbors in the snow and ice, tottering around to catch the bus in impossibly thin high heels

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Nomad is right. It works in the other direction too. The daily life is probably fundamentally different in some ways as are the kinds of work performed and the approach to such work but in other ways things do look somewhat disturbingly similar.

I had the same experience in some regards when I moved to the US. It seemed like the many of the things I knew and complained about in Turkey existed there but they were done subtly and more skilfully and the visible/vocal intellectual classes either whined less or were more successful and united in covering things up. (I'd just arrived when the Iran-Contra hearings were happening. I was told by some proud Americans that this was due process and open government at work. I, in turn, told them it seemed like people indeed were saying the right things in extremely forceful and eloquent ways and the press was covering it carefully but there was no indication that the underlying corruption/non-transparency would be fixed or that the really powerful people would be exposed and punished. Guess who was right. It turns out growing up in Turkey is itself an education in social/political science. Or perhaps an education in cynicism. Dunno.)

On the other hand, while the differences might indeed be seen as ones of degree rather than kind, that observation itself becomes meaningless when the difference is wide enough. It can sometimes be like saying we still die and all modernity did for us was to double the life expectancy.

pisipati said...

Hello Stranger,most of Turkish people despise and make fun of the girls that you've mentioned in your comment,we call them tiki.Society sees them lazy people who only know spending their rich fathers' money on shopping and eating in luxurious restaurants.Most of the Turkish guys hate them too.I'm a Turkish girl myself and if a girl wants to dye her hair or wear fake contacts,this is her freedom.But that's how they are seen by the large chunks of society.

Stranger said...

I don't think women like that are too popular in the US either, pisipati. They might as well be wearing signs that say "I'm very vain and spoiled."

Bülent, we have the same thing going on in the US now with Guantanamo and torture and Abu Ghraib-like incidents that seem to disappear from the public radar. The only place I hear these things publicly spoken of frankly and close to truthfully is in comedy.

It's kind of like each culture has an understanding of the kind of behaviour someone has to show in order to get away with something. People of that culture accept the behavior while the foreigners are going, "Eh? Do they seriously believe this?" Americans do as you say-- say all the right things forcefully or eloquently in a certain way and everyone goes "Okay, then." Turks have their way of doing it too, though I'm less sure of how they do it except that maybe the talking gets wordier, more circular, with that poetic intonation and lots of atasöz and Atatürkisms thrown in.

My husband (and lots of people for that matter) does a version of this when he's bullshitting. I get mad and call him on it, which ruins the whole charade, and he accuses me of not understanding, which is true in a way. But when he does it to his parents I can see they know he's bullshitting, but since he's talking that way they let him get away with it.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Stranger, I don't really understand how Turks do it either. As far as the press and the visible intellectuals are concerned, I have noticed that I've started using 'firildak' and 'serefsiz' a lot more since I came back here and started paying attention to the press and the politicians.

One thing that does seem different is that people here just make up facts or revise history on the fly and others let such things slip if they like their conclusions. Pointing out material falsehoods usually works OK with the ordinary people in the US, whereas here, all the premises can be false, the deductive process can be flawed, but if the conclusion is popular it still somehow stands even when you show people they cannot possibly conclude that.

A good way to deal with such things seems to be to try to figure out why people need that particular conclusion to the point where they are willing to corrupt/break their rational faculties to get at it. Again, in the political realm, things like fear seem to be a huge factor in this. (It can be a religious kind of fear too though it doesn't need to concern the supernatural. I forgot where I read this, but somebody was joking that in the local version of Islam people believe that they'll be taken to account not by God but by their friends and neighbours after they die. Meaning, of course, that piety/faith is socially enforced and non-conformity has immediate consequences that don't involve any kind of diety or life after death.)

Nomad said...

What a splendid conversation! I love to see intelligent people discussing things without it all boiling down to insults and name-calling. It make the internet seem so civilized.:)

Stranger said...

Isn't it nice Nomad?

Bülent, there are a lot of Americans who seem perfectly happy to accept all-out lies too. Like Sarah Palin's death panels. Or claims about Obama's religious beliefs. Granted these folks aren't the brightest bulbs in the box (did you see any footage of the Tea Party demonstrations? Hilarious, tragic, scary...) How many people believed Saddam's troops were slaughtering Kuwaiti babies in incubators long after that was proven untrue? Or the WMDs?

Even huge gaps in logic seem okay for a lot of American folks. Our press talks about "insurgents" in Iraq and kind of lets everyone happily believe they're all holdout Saddam supporters, when in fact most of them are people who didn't like Saddam, but they're rightfully sick of having Americans prowling around their country too.

And Americans and Turks seem to be almost equally guilty in accepting the validity of Creationism...

But, as you say, people need to believe a lot of the things they believe, and the mental gymnastics are more about who they are than what the facts might be.

If I were Turkish, I'd fear eternal judgment from my neighbors more than God too! :)