I was driving through the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming, in the mid-west of the United States, at five o’clock in the morning. The sun was beginning to rise and the glint of its first rays sparkled across the tops of the thick overnight snow, as it weighed down the branches of the ghostly-white spruce trees.
I turned on the rental car’s radio and pressed the search button for a station that might provide a little company on this narrow, winding road. I pressed the button with barely a glance at the radio. My eyes were trying to focus into the deep shadows each side of the road. There were warning signs every few minutes that this was someone else’s home I was driving through, and I should be extremely careful. The signs warned of antelope and mule deer, the natural inhabitants of these beautiful Rocky Mountains.
My mind flashed back to being a child in outback-Australia when – on a dark and arrow-straight road – my father’s two-tone station wagon slammed into a big red kangaroo at over 100 mph. The kangaroo came off worst, but only just. In the days before seat belts and air bags, our faces crashed into the copious chrome enhancements that no car could be without in the 50’s – my father’s into the chromed crescent horn, and mine into the chrome-inlaid glove box. Fifty years later, my nose still bears the scar. I was being very mindful of the fact that I was driving through a wildlife habitat as my eyes squinted through the early morning haze.
The radio found just one station, and the music was pleasant enough – country music, of course, some gentle and well-played guitar. It was, at that moment, kind of perfect driving music. And then a song followed straight after. As I began absorbing the lyric, I realised it was a song by a father to his son. The father was explaining to his son that he had to go off to Iraq to fight for peace, and that he might not come back, but that it was something he had to do for his God and his Country. Asking his son to stay brave, the soldier sang that he would always love him, and he hoped his son would understand.
The jingoistic lyric line gave it all away – with one push of the button I’d managed to find what appeared to be the asserting voice of America’s Bible Belt, and I was listening to the music and the stories of the religious right. Well, at five o’clock in the morning driving through the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming, that’s kind of interesting, isn’t it? A learning experience? In the boring late-night hours in front of television, I’ve often flicked from channel-to-channel, pausing to watch the fervour of American sermons. So I’ve heard the passionate Fire and Brimstone messages before.
But nothing had prepared me for what came next on Bible-Belt Radio. Let me first be clear with you, six years ago, in London, I met a woman who I fell deeply in love with. Soon after, we were married. We have three children. She is Turkish, and a Moslem. I’m English, and I like to think I have some spiritual beliefs, but I’m not religious. We were married twice – once at a registry office to satisfy the law, and once in front of 500 guests on a restaurant balcony overlooking the Turkish countryside to satisfy the relatives. Both occasions were quite blissful.
To be honest, before I met my wife, I had not given much thought to Turkey. In American black and white movies the Turks were essentially portrayed as bootleggers who wore a red Fez with a black tassel and whispered things to Humphrey Bogart. Later, in my consciousness, Turkey was the subject of a television documentary on Britain’s Channel Four, in which someone was asking Britons not to holiday there because their vacation Pound was supporting a despotic regime, and probably helping to suppress women. I took Turkey off my holiday destination list and gave it little further thought, although, occasionally, friends would tell me what a great place it was, and what a fabulous holiday they’d had there.
English-Turkish, Turkish-English dictionaries on our laps, my wife-to-be introduced me to her Turkey. We discussed Anatolian art late into the night; she passionately argued the virtues of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey; she introduced me to the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet; she explained Turkish knot carpet techniques during the time of the Huns, around the 2nd century BC; and she told me there was a fabulous ruin just a few kilometres from her home in Turkey… Sardis, the former capital of the Persian Kingdom of Lydia, and a former seat of a proconsul under the Roman Empire. Interestingly, archaeological expeditions to Sardis have unearthed perhaps the most impressive synagogue in the Western Diaspora yet discovered from antiquity – undeniable evidence for the sustained strength of Jewish communities in the region and their integration into Roman imperial civic life.
Like any new son-in-law-to-be, I was nervous to meet her family. I don’t know how many relatives I met in the first hour, it seemed like a continuous wave of smiling faces and outstretched hands. But all it took was the warm and generous voice of the family matriarch – Baba Anne (Mother of the Father) to give me the seal of approval. To be fair, Baba Anne had been caught up in her own cliché of English people, wondering whether I might be stuck up and superior. As she sat there cross-legged on the sofa, she told me so, and then told me she was glad when I wasn’t. I was glad of her welcome…and her approval.
My wife translated backwards and forwards. It was the first time ever that I wasn’t nervous about putting my foot in my mouth, since my wife seemed to edit almost everything I said to suit the palate of the listeners. The conversations were warm and animated, and endless trays of food and tea moved from room to room.
The next morning we went to the local market, where tomatoes were 50-cents a kilo, age-wizened faces served us, and women in veils shared breakfast together. The light was warm and inviting beneath the market canopy, and I automatically took out my camera and recorded my 100th of a second experiences.
In Amsterdam every second person seems to have become a photographer, empowered by the ever-increasing plethora of high-tech low-price cameras and the joy of snapping the luminous chrome handlebars of the myriad of bicycles leaned against lamp-posts and walls. But in this Turkish town market, I couldn’t help but notice I was the only one taking pictures.
There are places where I’ve taken out my camera only to be warned off by people who clearly weren’t interested in the focus of my attention, but here in the market, I was almost embarrassed by their generosity and warmth. One old lady I photographed told me she was over 100 years old, but she had no idea how old since no-one had made a record of her birth. Some of the market people around us claimed she was 108. She just waved at them and laughed.
In this market, far away from the tourist trail, it was amazing to find any non-Turkish at all, but I did meet a small group of western people wandering through the market who told me they were American Christians, hoping to persuade some of the Moslem population to their beliefs. As you can imagine, they appeared a little out of place – as probably I did too – but the locals seemed to be relaxed about their presence. At that time, I couldn’t imagine what kind of success these wandering Christian missionaries could have in a land where 99.8 per cent of the population is Moslem (CIA Fact book), and, frankly, I thought of them as intruders… not observing and embracing, but rather observing and seeing what they might be able to change.
This brings me back to driving through the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming at five o’clock in the morning, listening to Bible Belt Radio…and the music had been replaced by chat:
“Hi, you’re listening to Bob … and we’re talking to Pastor John who’s just come back from what must have been an amazing trip to Turkey. Tell us John, what’s Turkey like?”
“Well, Bob… it really WAS quite amazing… and kinda scary too. As you know, I’m a Christian, and in a population of over 70-million, there’s just a couple of thousand Christians there… so it’s real scary. I asked the Lord to help me overcome my fear, and he did. But it was a truly amazing thing to stare into the eyes of them Moslem people there and come to the realisation that more than 70-million people are damned to Hell.”
I couldn’t hit the off button fast enough. Through the joy of marriage, I have earned an extended Moslem family. Through mutual respect and understanding I have earned the love of my Moslem friends.
I choose to live with my family in The Netherlands, where 42 per cent of the population say they have no religion at all, 30 per cent are Roman Catholic, Dutch Reformed 11%, Calvinist 6%, other Protestant 3%, Muslim 5.8%, other 2.2% (2006 Census). I work here. We have some very close Dutch friends. We’ve been here almost two years.
The two oldest kids go to school, and already speak getting-by Dutch. When we go to Turkey, they make a transition without pause to Turkish language and culture. When we go to London, the transition to English is just as easy. They are the future, and if I have one prayer, it is that they never stare into the eyes of another person and condemn them to Purgatory.