Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sunday, May 09, 2010 - No comments

(Insert Bride's Name Here)

Marriage proposals are kind of a regular part of my life here. (Hear culture, not vanity there!) We're always talking about how we should keep track of how many random guys (or, more often, how many potential mothers-in-law) pinch my cheek and ask for my hand. The neighbours joke about how many cows they're gonna get for me, and my Turkish family always says that they're holding out for a guy who will buy them a new house. (A foreign daughter is a pretty useful commodity, I've discovered!) Living in a modern city in western Turkey, you see far fewer arranged marriages or swapping of girls between families than you do out east, but the process from first glance to "I do" still involves a whole lot of family involvement. (Definitely not a bad plan, either. I think our chick-flick informed version of the road to happily-ever-after could definitely afford to take some cues from the way things are done in this corner of the world.)

The tradition of the "isteme" is when older members of the man's family pay a much anticipated visit to the girl's home where her relatives will be waiting with pastries and pressed clothes and hopes of a successful match. (This pretty much happens whether the couple have been "dating" for months or are just meeting for the first time.) The girl's job is to look pretty, to show interest (but without looking flirty, cuz that would indicate bad character) and to serve Turkish coffee to the guests. As the story goes, if she has no desire whatsoever to marry the man, she'll toss a little salt into the coffee and hope that they take the hint.

As a single girl here, having a "guardian" allows me to hold a place of respect in society and not look like a hussy. :) My Teyze ("auntie") that I live with has become quite adept at warding off unwanted suitors. (Lucky for me, negotiations fall to her, so I don't have to deal with the unpleasantness...most of the time...) Some dear friends of ours were once quite set on securing me for their son and after much polite declining from my Teyze, they were still not convinced that they didn't want to come see what sort of Turkish coffee I'd make. Finally she had to tell them that, much as we try to live the Turkish life here, when it all comes down to it, according to our culture, I'm not hers to give away. (We're not even really relatives!) Where we come from, I have a choice in the matter. After a solid (but, of course, terribly polite) "No" from me, it seemed that, while disappointed, they accepted my answer. Still, every once in awhile when they're over, I half-consider dropping a little salt in their tea, just to be sure we are still on the same page. :)

A recent visit to another neighbour family brought out a new aspect of the culture we'd not encountered before. Our friend was telling us excitedly about how they were going to take a trip back to their hometown this summer because her brother is getting married. He'd finished his military service, scored himself a good job (as a nightclub piano player..."good" being a relative term) and was now ready to settle down. The family had started to make preparations for the wedding, and our friends were looking forward to a week of fun and feasting with everyone they knew.

"Congratulations," we said. "What's the girl like?"

"Oh, we haven't found her yet."

(Confused silence.)

"How can you have a wedding without a bride?"

She went on to explain that he'd decided there were no suitable girls for him in the big city, and he'd much rather have one from "back home," so he assigned his older sisters the task of finding him a wife. Talk about trust! They'd scout out a girl, coffee would be poured, a dress bought, hands hennaed, a childhood home farewelled, and viola! A wedding!

Much as this whole thing of a fill-in-the-bride wedding seemed a first glance, I can see where the idea makes sense. Those who know you well and know what makes a good wife find you one from within their circle, and half the work is done already! You like her, she likes you, and the rest you sort out when the ring is on your finger. In this culture, the bride belongs to the whole family in a much deeper way than she does in western culture, and her getting along with her mother-in-law and her husband's sisters is hugely important, especially if the couple will be living in his family's home. (Which won't be the case for Ankara night-club-boy, as far as I can tell.) A marriage is the merging of two families, a blending of communities, and you want to make sure that all parties involved like the ingredients being added into the mix, cuz they'll all be eating this cake til death do them part.

Our friend started to list off the qualities they were looking for in a bride. I could see where this was heading, and sure enough....

"Hey, what about you? You'd make a great wife for him! You're sweet, kind, cultured, you can cook and clean. We love those ginger cookies you make. Can we give him your number?"

Enter Teyze and the well-practiced, face-saving turn-downs...