Apparent in Konya
April 12, 2000
It's not generally a good sign when you pull into a town known for its conservatism and the bus driver asks you for a kiss. "Oh God." I said, more to myself than to the driver. To which he responded with an enthusiastic "Insha'Allah" (translated: If God wills). Apparently this conservatism did not stretch to cover the bareheaded foreign woman in bright yellow sunglasses nestled among head-covered ladies and prayer-bead twirling gentlemen.
Did anyone see that? I thought as the driver collected my money and smiled as he pointed to his mouth and smacked his lips. They must have seen that. But they didn't. In fact, they didn't seem to see me at all. Apologizing profusely without any response, I squeezed by two men (who didn't make room for me to pass but bowed as if there was a very strong and sudden wind in the bus that caused them to temporarily part just long enough for me to scrape by). I assumed it was their faith and they, being men, were politely letting a single woman make her way to a seat without a hassle. But when I plunked down next to a mother holding her young son on her lap and said a friendly hello, "Merhaba!" I could have been speaking to the air, for the mother just shook her head like there was a troublesome fly buzzing near her ear. And when the little boy reached out to grab my hand I thought I heard a mumbled "giaour" or "foreigner" as she swatted the tiny hand away. Sheesh, tough crowd, I thought and hunched over to glare at the passing streets.
The hotel wasn't much better. I sat on the front steps until the desk clerk rolled out of his nest behind the reception counter to unlock the door I'd been rapping on for an hour. First I stood using my knuckles, then squatted down tapping with my fingers and finally sat, leaning against the door, methodically thumping the glass with the back of my head.
"I'd like a single room, please."
"Passport." He said then busied himself with frenzied activity as he speed-checked me in and hustled me down a flight of curved stairs, through the breakfast room, through a long dark hallway, up five flights of square stairs, through two closed doors, another hallway, and finally into what must have been the For-Foreign-Single-Women-Only room.
"Check out 10 in morning." And he sprinted away.
That should be enough exercise for the day, I thought, threw down my bags and wondered if there were any other foreign single women lost in the many hallways and staircases we'd climbed.
After a quick nap and a shower, cold of course because you couldn't really expect the system to pump hot water all the way up to the Middle-of-Nowhere, I took to the streets to spend the day touring the many museums the town of Konya has to offer.
In the 13th century one of the world's great philosophers, Celaleddin Rumi (Mevlana, "Our Guide" to his followers), resided in the city of Konya. As a result he helped establish the mystic order called the Whirling Dervishes. Rumi, still heavily followed today, is best known in the west for his great poetic works. Being a fan of Rumi's ruminations I wanted to say thanks to the man in person so I headed there first: the Mevlana Museum.
It was almost magical, for, as I pulled my scarf up over my head and tied it around my neck, I became visible. Waiting in line behind a group of short-wearing Germans a little Turkish man leaned out of the ticket booth, saw me cover my head and waived me in. He smiled.
"Bir bilet istiyorem. I'd like one ticket." I said. His smile grew. And, as he jabbered on in Turkish, I could only say sorry and wish I knew more of the language.
Inside head-covered women were pushing aside short-clad foreigners to get a good view of Rumis sarcophagus. As I stood on my tiptoes in the back, trying to catch a glimpse, I was practically thrown to the floor when a large Turkish woman of the head-covered type grabbed my arm and yanked me through the crowd.
"Mevlana" she pointed and quickly side swiped an elderly tourist with a camera at his eye. She motioned that I take a picture, then motioned that I take several more. When she was satisfied that I'd snapped enough portraits of the stone-bound Rumi she grabbed the camera, bowled over two more tourists as she backed up and took what was supposed to be a picture of me in front of the sarcophagus but what turned out to be a lovely photo of the carpet.
With a grin hidden behind my scarf I exited the Mevlana Museum in search if the elusive tile museum: the Karatay Museum. I ambled down the main street thinking nothing too extraordinary as I slipped my scarf off my head and began to fold it. Just as I was about to slide the fabric into my bag an old bead-twirling gentlemen glided past and when he pulled even with me turned to look me in the face. Tsk, it sounded, as he clicked his tongue in the Turkish fashion meaning no.
Oh, come on. I thought. You try wearing this thing. With a little heavier step I proceeded on, more than aware that I was being consciously not stared at. Part of me felt like doing cartwheels down the middle of the road to see what kind of reaction it would produce but I resigned myself simply to the thought.
By the time I arrived at the Karatay Museum I had worked myself into a terrible mess. I don't believe in covering my head but I also don't believe in unnecessarily upsetting anyone. I was so lost in this inner battle that I had thrown the scarf halfway over myself, a little tail of it lying on top of my head while holding onto the rest, when a Japanese tour bus parked next to me near the sidewalk. I stood in the middle of the path as 20-some Japanese unloaded and headed for the museum. One fellow about 30 years old stopped, looked at me and pulled out his camera to snap a picture of What-God-Only-Knows he must have thought to be.
With this I regained some composure, put my scarf away and entered the museum containing some great examples of tile work from the times of the Ottoman Empire.
When I emerged from the old mosque an hour later I went to go read a bit in the gardens within the museum walls. I opened my book and sat there staring at the pages while rethinking my scarf dilemma. I'll just have to be invisible for a while, I decided and all of a sudden, as if by cue, I was surrounded by four Turks and a large pot of tea. They motioned if it was alright to join me and poured me a glass. I hope they won't get in trouble for this, I thought, and we sipped tea in silence and every so often looked up to exchange a smile.
A little while later a slip of a girl wearing nothing at all on the top of her head whisked through the museum gates. In seconds the silence was filled with five different voices, all speaking Turkish, all fighting for attention. The girl's name was Gulfem and, as it turned out, she spoke English.
"Hello. Welcome to Turkey." We introduced ourselves and after passing on the required information: What country are you? Where are you coming from? How long will you stay? I showed her my scarf.
"It's beautiful. Did you buy it in Istanbul?"
"No. A friend of mine did."
"Did you cover your head in the Mevlana?"
"Yes." I said screwing up my face in concentration as I searched for the right way to phrase my question of visibility. But Gulfem anticipated my question. "You didn't have to do that. She said. "I don't do that. Konya is a modern city."
So, I guess, change must come from the inside and not from the giours. If Gulfem makes a statement then her piers will react. But if I forgo the scarf, no one seems to notice.*
-Sarah Reed Bargren
*I must note that there were many women in Konya without their heads covered. Also, people of all ages were wearing jeans and the up-to-date fashions. A big split in the appearances of the town is extremely apparent but Turkey is a developing country and so it's to be expected.