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Turkey today | OPINION
Unless you’ve been there, it’s impossible to come close to envisioning anything about Turkey. Any child’s first contact with Turkey is the edible fowl of the same name. Call someone a turkey and he’s labeled as dumb or unknowing. Turkey-ness means stupidly comic. Gobble-gobble.
I landed in Istanbul on Sept. 25 to find out the truth about a nation that seems immune to the global recession. The reality of Turkey came as something of a shock, even after having studied it from a distance. Some surprising facts:
- With a population of 74 million, Turkey is smaller than Germany and larger than France.
- The world’s fleet of Mercedes trucks and buses is made in Turkey, not Germany.
- Though predominately Muslim, other religions are freely practiced in Turkey.
- Factories for Honda, Hyundai, Ford, Renault, Isuzu plus production of household appliances, tires, aerospace components, technology, machine tools, fabrics and clothing and agricultural commodities fuel a positive balance of trade.
- Europeans flock to Turkey for high-quality low-cost medical procedures.
- The weather is great, the seaside destinations spectacular, the people friendly and the cuisine delicious. All this plus a relatively low crime rate make Turkey the top tourism draw in the Middle East.
- Turkey is home to an expanding wine industry offering reds and whites that compete in quality with wines from Western Europe.
The Turkish language can be a problem in that it isn’t related to other Mediterranean languages. However, adoption of newish words does manage to shed a little light. Take taksi, finans, fotocopi, celfon, teknoloji and turizm for example. For me, too much of the language remained indecipherable so this became my first time ever of joining a tour with a guide.
Our 2,100 mile tour of Western Turkey began and ended in Istanbul. The route touched New Testament sites of Smyrna (now Izmir), Pergamum, Cappadocia and Ephesus where we walked restored streets once trod by members of the early Christian church. Turkey boasts a richer spread of Greek and Roman ruins than may be found in Italy or Greece.
We journeyed up the fertile Meander River valley where diggers have unearthed settlements that reach back six and seven thousand years, marking the area as one of the earliest seats of urban civilization. Mustafa, our guide and walking encyclopedia of world history, spiced his monologues with indelicate speculations about life in ancient times.
Mustafa is a fiftyish clinical psychologist and historian who, thanks to a midlife career change, became a tour guide. He enjoyed comparing historical events with the antics of U.S. politics and celebrities. We found him to be deep into world affairs, Mid-East history, archaeology and anthropology.
Mustafa led us to sites that figured in early Christianity, walked us through caravanserais, those 12th Century castle-like way-points for silk road caravans and showed us the ruins of Troy. We came away believing that Turkey is underrated as an important cradle of civilization.
The modern nation was shaped by Kemal Attaturk, Turkey’s George Washington, who first gained fame in World War 1 by defeating superior Allied Forces at the battle of Gallipoli. He and his wife spurred literacy by inventing a phonetic alphabet that assigns a complete sound to each letter. No combinations like wh, th, ght, or ph were allowed. It resembles our alphabet except for certain letters being decorated with squiggles or dots.
Turkey subsidizes housing projects and offers free medical care to children aged 1-18 and college students plus a universal medial plan for all ages. Disabled citizens enjoy tax-supported personal services, all of the above financed by recently upping the collection of taxes-due from 30 percent to 70 percent. The nation bustles with activity in spite of a top earners’ income tax rate of 65 percent. People are shopping, working, dining out and traveling, thanks to an economy that grows by more than 8 percent per year. Interestingly, wages are discussed only in the real terms of salaries after deductions.
Miscellaneous sidelights: Think of Istanbul as a 65 mile-long city of 13 million inhabitants. Consider that IKEA has three outlets in Turkey but none in the entire Balkan area. With cars taxed according to engine size, A Jeep Cherokee V8 is slapped with 250% of the tax for a subcompact model. Envision almost all rooftops studded, like the chimney pots of Olde London, with solar water heaters
Though Turkey is predominantly Islamic, it’s illegal to give schools religious names and all schools are open to students of all denominations. Candidates are even barred from using religious references when campaigning for office. Turkey has 200 universities and branches where qualified students pay $180 per year tuition as compared with $5,000 to $15,000 in the United States. Turkey leads Europe in female enrollment.
Since the government builds and maintains all mosques and churches and pays preachers, there’s less need for church finance committees or annual fund drives. The government doesn’t run the churches, but out of a conviction that a strong nation needs believing citizens, it simply pays the bills. Worshipping without being hassled about budget shortfalls sounds pretty good to me.
All of which is to say that overseas travel gives proof that we might not have all the answers.
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