Category Archives: Turkey

Best of Luck

One of the most fascinating parts of living overseas is learning about cultural norms that are different from your own. In fact, you don’t need to live overseas — just having contact with people from another culture can teach you about this — but when you live in the middle of it, you see so much more. When I lived in Ukraine, I was exposed to people living by superstition and the Zodiac to an extent I didn’t expect so far west in the Northern Hemisphere. Give odd numbers of flowers in bouquets, don’t pass money over a doorway, eat your bus ticket for its lucky number, follow your daily horoscope.

An old postcard, with the omnipresent Nazars

Here in Turkey, I am finding something similar: ideas of luck are everywhere. The most common symbol I have found here in Turkey is the Nazar, the “Evil Eye,” which is, confusingly, meant to ward off evil. It is usually in the form of a cobalt blue glass amulet, and its purpose is to protect you from someone else giving you the evil eye, especially a look of intense envy that can bring misfortune. This is a very old idea, an idea found in all shapes and sizes around the world, that good also brings bad. If you are very successful, you will also receive envy from others, which brings misfortune. There is an interesting article on the evil eye that you can read here: It is a seriously popular image here. But it certainly doesn’t stop there. I have a lovely office mate, Ilknur, who has been teaching me about Turkish culture, and has also passed along many instructions from her doctor on how to be healthy. (It turns out, for example, that I am poisoning myself by putting honey in my tea before my tea cools down. She is unhappy with me doing this. I have, indeed, stopped doing it, at least in her presence, because who wants an unhappy Ilknur? Not me.) She is very kind and gives me plenty of compliments, but she is always quick to follow it with “Mashallah,” an Arabic term meaning “God willed it,” so that I avoid anything bad happening to me on account of her pointing out something good. Kind of the “knock on wood” idea. Ilknur accompanied me to the old bazaar here in Izmir a few weeks ago, and was revealing to me the symbolism of things we saw, things I had not even realized held meaning. All of the meaning, however, was the same: good luck. “This design is for good luck!” “Oh yes, and you buy that for your wedding, for good luck.” “And here, this kind of stone is special, for”…yeah, I got it. At one shop we went to, I was buying a necklace for my niece and there was some fast talk and nodding between the proprietor and Ilknur as I stood ready to pay. Ilknur then said, “She says you are the first customer today. You need to throw your money down.” Uh, what? I looked at her with uncertainty. “You throw your money to the ground. It is for good luck.” Ah, of course. I wasn’t very practiced in ceremonial money-throwing, but I gave my bills a half-hearted fling and watched them waft to the floor. The woman, pleased, picked them up and gave me my change, thankfully choosing to hand it to me. This was my first time at the bazaar with a native, and I thought about how much I must be missing all around me.

As a professor and an academic who has lived in a good many countries, my father has seen diverse educational systems, and he talks about the difference between those countries that went through the Enlightenment as opposed to those that did not. In the U.S., we stand on science, proof, and reason. Can you show the series of steps in your proof? Can it hold up in a court of law? What research backs that up, and did the studies meet the validity and reliability criteria? I saw a greeting card years ago that said, “When you don’t understand physics, the world is full of magic.” I think of life before the Enlightenment, and how people accepted what they saw, or devised explanations for the way of things. Yet those ideas still hold in many parts of the world to differing degrees, caring very little whether they can be proven or not. In truth, those ideas settle in pockets in all of our lives, despite our enlightened training.

And those ideas permeate a culture. A student asked me a couple of days ago (in the class’ desperate attempt to ask me lots of questions and distract me from the lesson), “Teacher, do you believe in magic?” I told him I did not. He was genuinely shocked. “But magic of Christmas and Santa! Spirit of Christmas season!” Ah, I assured him, I was all for the spirit of the Christmas season, but to me, that had nothing to do with magic. “Yes!” he protested. “For being happy! Good things from Santa! You need magic for happiness, for good life!” Wow, I thought, either there is a major cultural divide here, or he is just really trying to stall me from teaching. Then last night, on New Year’s Eve, I was admiring the lit-up display at the top of the twin towers downtown. The LED lights were wishing everyone a “Mutlu Yıllar” (Happy New Year), and then displaying a New Year’s tree, and then a New Year’s Santa, waving his wand. Hmm.

So, where do you place your hopes for happiness in the New Year? Do you base it on “şans” (chance, luck), as the banner over the bowl of corn flakes in the dining hall wished me at breakfast this morning? Or on nature and science trundling along their prescribed course? For many, life is about hoping for luck. For me, my beliefs and hopes come from my Christian faith, and science as the grand system God put in place. For all of you, I wish you a year full of the richness of life, in all of its mystery!

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like New Year's

All around the city of İzmir, decorations began to appear about a month ago — for those places getting a jump on the season — and have reached a peak in the past week or so: trees with ornaments and lights, Santas, snowmen, and most of the other symbols we associate with this time of year. You might think that this would be odd in a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim. Well, yes, I suppose it would be, if these were Christmas decorations. But no, no, these aren’t for Christmas! Do you see anything, anywhere, that says “Merry Christmas,” “Xmas,” “Noel,” or “Noeller” (the Turkish word for Christmas)? Since you’re not here, I’ll look around for you. Let’s see…..nope. I do, however, see some things that say “Mutlu Yıllar” (Happy New Year). That’s right: malls and shops are sporting New Year’s trees, and Santa, when he is done delivering gifts to the Western world, has only a few days to rest up before he delivers gifts here for New Year’s. (Apparently, though, many Turks have been taught that the Christmas holiday is celebrated on New Year’s in the rest of the world as well, so they may be unaware that they are calling poor Santa into action just when he should be resting.)

I saw this same phenomenon in Ukraine, where, back in Soviet times, the Soviet regime wanted to take away any observances of the Christian faith but didn’t want their children to be deprived of all the fun that came with Christmas. They quietly slid everything except the nativity scenes and the Christmas songs down one calendar line, from the 25th to the 1st. And what was there to stop them? Does wearing a jingle-bell necklace, or coloring everything red and green, or setting up a huge Santa in a courtyard, say anything about your belief in who Jesus was? It may be true that most of our Christmas symbols have some sort of historical connections to the Christian faith, but those connections are so blurred by time and transformation that most of us are unaware of the stories of Martin Luther and a tree, or stockings and a saint.

And so it is that I am surrounded by shiny ornaments and snowflake symbols, but we have classes as usual on Christmas Day this week. There’s nothing like experiencing life in another country to make you see things differently! At a Christmas fair at my church a couple weeks ago, I got some great Christmas art postcards done by a recent transplant from the U.S. to İzmir. In my favorite one, she depicts a Christmas tree with images of simit, a very popular pretzel/bagel ring covered in sesame seeds, and a cup of Turkish tea. So then, is it a Christmas tree, or a New Year’s tree, or simply a Turkish simit-tea tree? Who’s to say? (You can find more of her work at

In any case, Christmas still holds its true meaning no matter what the decorations, or how they are designated. And these decorations may say “Mutlu Yıllar” to all the Turks walking by them, but to me, they are whispering, “Merry Christmas!”