“We want you to be live in two hours, is that okay?”
My friend working for ABC had asked me, once she had discovered I’d intended on going to the Anzac Day commemorations in Gallipoli. This was the day after the Australian Government had publicly announced they had “received information” that terrorists may seek to target the particular site on the date of commemorations.
“Are you afraid?” The news presenter had asked me, while ironically I attempted to hide the fact I was defecating myself on live television. No, honestly I wasn’t. Turkey isn’t the most stable country in the world, but media sensation and Western influence had stigmatised it as an ‘Islamic-ally’ oppressed nation dodging constant terrorist attacks intertwined with a hostile and unsavoury people. Luckily one of my favourite parts about travelling is what English writer Aldous Huxley once said: “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries”.
“Thanks for that Sam, you were great, goodbye.”
I pulled the headphones out of my ear and exhaled. I’d finished my first ever live television interview, which as a journalism graduate you’d think I’d be decent at. Debatable. I’d been truthful when answering I didn’t fear about going to Turkey, specifically for the Anzac Day service. Of course I would be naive to presume that there couldn’t potentially be any form of threat, given the recent climate. Coups, terrorist attacks and political instability were an unfortunate presence in the past years and Turkey had their fair share. But after visiting many a country that were deemed ‘dangerous’ or that I should ‘reconsider my need to travel’ by the Australian Government, I’d decided to follow my gut, show my respects for my forefathers and take the trip into Turkey. What a fantastic decision that was.
Turkey is nothing like the media has portrayed it. It’s a beautiful, rich country that reeks of history (as my mother would put it). The food is mouth-wateringly incredible, the people warm and welcoming and there is natural beauty everywhere in the vast and luscious landscape. Irrespective of the Islamic majority in religion, the country has no outlandish or conservative rulings for the general public. Even at the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the government has arranged for coverings of the head and legs for men and women who don’t bring adequate clothing free of charge. The Ottoman Empire (who ruled in the lands of Turkey and much further for hundreds of years) was one of the only empires to successfully and peacefully integrate Islam, Christianity and Judaism in their armies and society and this is reflected today.
“Oh Anzac! Welcome to my country!”
Many times I was told this when an enthusiastic and curious Turk has asked me where I was from. There were perplexed that someone would travel so far to see their country. They were happy to speak English and loved to practice. One group of Turkish lads I met in Ephesus wanted a photo together, gleefully offered their cigarettes and wouldn’t stop chanting “Harry Kewell!”
The government influence is truly not an issue either. There aren’t military patrolling the streets and the police presence is similar to Australia. The current president does have ties to conservative Islam but has always actively encouraged secularism in the political structure. There was an attempt to make adultery illegal (which failed) and he did pass an alcohol selling ban between 10pm-6am in some cities - but this ban is already prominent in progressive countries such as Sweden. There are some questionable laws passed such as the banning of Wikipedia and some television programs, but for the most part there are no flow on effects to everyday life. I suppose time will tell in regards to the true nature of the amended governmental structure, but right now the country runs like a well-oiled machine and an economic powerhouse.
The tourism industry is suffering a lot here and Western influence on the severity of problems here doesn't help. It's mind-boggling to think how tourism is still worsening however- there's just so much to see. Turkey is home to some of the most pristine and diverse natural wonders in the world, from the azure coastline in the south to the unfathomable all white terraces of Pamukkale and the jaw-dropping rock formations of Cappadocia. But, it's not just pretty nature stuff - there's history emanating from every city. The lands comprising of modern day Turkey have been ruled by some of the biggest and most powerful empires in the world including the Greeks, Romans and Ottomans. They each left their historical footprint on the country. The old Byzantine city of Constantinople (nowadays known as Istanbul) is almost overwhelming with it's conglomerate history of the East and West. The most iconic structure in Istanbul is the Hagia Sophia - the largest church in the world converted into a mosque when the Ottomans conquered the city. Selcuk in the south proudly neighbours the 2500 year old ancient city of Ephesus, second only to Rome in size and importance during its heyday. This gigantic country truly has it all.
Safety is barely a concern. Of course common sense goes a long way but I've personally always felt safe in Turkey, especially walking around late at night. Europe, by comparison is not considered terribly safe at night and has been victim to many more terrorist attacks in recent times, such as the events in Paris and London. I feel as if I'm walking around my home town (if not safer).
I’ve been in a lot of countries where foreigners are seen as a tiresome nuisance (and in some places, for good reasoning). But in multiple occasions in which I’ve been sitting in a teahouse and it is unveiled that I’m foreign (the brown skin usually is an active camouflage) people are curious to find out where I’m from and why I’m here. As I write this I am sitting next to some Turkish men whom I have now met for the past two days in the betting shop down the road from me. I’ve become somewhat of a superstar here – being the only foreign person who frequents this establishment. Even though they don’t speak English and I don’t speak Turkish we try to work through a sort of international language of facial expressions and hand gestures. They will offer me cigarettes, tea (and strangely once socks) and in turn they insist on copying my betting slips (at this point to no mutual success).
One part that hit me really hard about visiting Turkey was during the dawn service at Gallipoli on Anzac Day. It was at the point where the Master of Ceremonies announced the Turkish delegate would now lay a wreath at the memorial. Let me put that into perspective: the Turkish representative was laying a wreath to the fallen soldiers of Australia and New Zealand - that had come to invade their country purely out of military strategy. Their casualties outweighed the Australians by almost ten times, and here we were in their country mourning our losses and they were showing their respects to us? I was emotionally bankrupt. I couldn’t believe what an incredible gesture it was.
Experiences like this is why I love Turkey and will continue to travel throughout here, not just because of the natural beauty, incredible food and comfortable culture. The sights are only half of the experience to me, it’s the people you meet, the unquantifiable times you share and the ability to tell your friends and family – with all due respect – how damn wrong they were about this beautiful place.