Turkish Family Values

An American(ist) in Turkey
By Jon Pahl, Ph.D.

III. Turkish Family Values

Americans, and Christians, hardly have a corner on “family values.” On two consecutive evenings during my recent visit to Turkey I learned how a few Muslims in Turkey—at least those affiliated with the Gülen movement, both articulate and put into practice love and respect for family as among their highest earthly values.

The first occasion was a dinner with a group of Turkish businessmen and women in Izmir (see the photo of part of the group, attached). As anyone familiar with intercultural dialogue knows, sometimes conversation can lag when people are strangers, especially when translators are necessary. In such situations, I’ve found that family photos can create conversations and affirmations that transcend words—while also focusing them.

I always carry with me photos of my children—Justin (21), Nathan (19), and Rheanne (14). I’ve written about each of them at some length in my previous book (Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces). In Izmir, when conversation over dinner dragged, I passed my photos around the table.

The businessman directly to my right—Osman Gültekin, who builds luxury homes, first commented kindly that I looked too young to have such mature children. Then he quickly pulled out his cell phone. There he had downloaded pictures of his two daughters, aged 4 and 8. We nodded in agreement, and enjoyed the moment.

Later, the businesswoman in our group—who owned and operated a retail-clothing store and whose name I was unable to catch, introduced us to her two teenaged daughters, who had joined us for dessert. She stated, in response to a question about her “life philosophy,” that it involved “commitment to family and children.” She then hastily added: “and my husband,” who sat across the table from her, smiling. We all laughed.

The next night we shared a dinner in the home of an Izmir furniture dealer—Sedat Buzoğlu. Once again, I passed my family photos around the group.

One of the conversations to ensue was with Sedat’s son, a 14 year old also named Sedat. His father had introduced him, proudly, as a member of Turkey’s 15 and under national soccer team. So I asked Sedat why he thought David Beckham had gone to the U.S. “For fame and money,” the youth replied.

Later that night, in a warm gesture, the younger Sedat offered me a gift of a blue soccer ball. He said that he had owned the ball for five years. That was nearly half of his life. I accepted it with gratitude—and carried it with me home on the plane. The gift was more than a token of a mutual bond over sports. I read it as a gift from one son to the father of others—across cultures.

Sedat’s daughter—Fatima, spoke with us about her preparations for the upcoming college entrance exam. This is like the SAT—but is held only once per year. A passing score earns full tuition for four years. A low score keeps one out of college altogether. The exam has been a consistent source of anxiety for Turkish youth—and a source of some recent controversy.

But it was in the obvious care of parents for their children, and vice-versa, that Turkish family values became clearest to me. Over dinner, I asked both Sedat-the-younger and Fatima whether they would be interested in studying at a college in the U.S.. Sedat said “maybe.” His mother, to whom I quickly turned, opened her eyes widely and spoke quickly to express regret over—not condemnation of, that prospect. It would be hard, she intimated, to have her son so far away.

And then Fatima answered my question by saying that her father had already paid for private schooling on her behalf at a Gulen movement high school. “I would not want to burden him further,” she answered.

Such concerns—parental pride in children, concern about letting go, youthful anxiety about exams, and youth’s generosity and willingness to sacrifice, reveal a core of Turkish family values that unite everyday lives across the oceans.

As Gülen—the spiritual inspiration for the movement to which the businesspersons and families belonged, puts it: “In the family, elders should treat those younger with compassion, and the young should show respect for their elders.”(75) Those teachings transcend cultures, and are the preserve of no single faith tradition.

NEXT: Sacred Space in Modern Turkey


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