Sunday, July 6, 2014

Sunday, July 06, 2014 - No comments

“Where are you from?

“Where are you from?”

Having lived outside my “passport country” for nearly half my life, I don’t always know exactly how to answer that question.  I’m from Vancouver, and that will always be “home.”  But eight years in Turkey make me “from” here in a different sort of way.  I’ve got a house, a bank account, a bus pass, favourite foods, a language, and a circle of friends that all make here “home” as well.  I “grew up” in Canada, but I “became an adult” in Turkey.  The first is a part of me by nature, the second by intention, and sometimes it’s hard to say which is stronger.  Double doubles and Turkish coffee, smoked salmon and stuffed peppers, weenie roasts around a campfire and dinners eaten seated cross-legged around a pile of food on the floor - each of them makes my mouth water and my heart come alive in a different way.  Each of them is me.  Each of them speaks of “home.”

The longer I’ve lived in Turkey, the more I’ve come to see just how much weight that word “home” carries.  There’s a word in Turkish for “hometown” or “homeland” - “memleket” - that almost never fails to bring a gleam to the eye of the one who utters it.  Whether you were born there or grew up there or have never even set foot there, it’s where you are from.   It speaks of family, of roots, of belonging.  One’s memleket is something almost sacred - a place to be longed for, a place that takes on a sort of mythical quality the longer one has been away.

It was summer when I first moved to Istanbul eight years ago - the time when everyone who can gets outta Dodge and heads somewhere cooler.  I remember people constantly telling me they were heading to “memleket” for a few weeks, or that so-and-so had just returned from “memleket.”  I kept thinking, “Wow, this Memleket must be quite the vacation destination.  I wonder why I can’t find it on a map?”  And when I finally learned the actual meaning of the word, I understood why everyone was so excited to be heading there:  they were going home.
I am so intrigued by the role of the memleket in Turkish culture, and the way that it so defines people in a way that seems much stronger than in North American society.  I have friends who have spent their entire lives in big cities like İzmir or Ankara, and yet feel inexplicably tied to the hometown of their parents, even if they’ve only ever been there to visit Grandma.  My “Turkish sister” was born and raised in Istanbul, and yet when you ask where she’s from, she’ll tell you she’s from Gaziantep.  That’s where her mom is from.  That’s what’s in her blood.

While jobs and opportunities may have caused many Turks to relocate to somewhere clear across the country, they are often very “clannish”, preferring to stick with people who eat, think, talk and worship they way they do.  It turns out “home” is portable, to a degree, and can be set up somewhere else.  In the big city, it’s common to find entire apartment buildings inhabited exclusively by people from Kayseri, a group of women from Van building a tandır clay oven in an empty lot so they can bake their bread “just like at home”, and a “tea and backgammon” cafe frequented only by men from Erzurum.  In the same way I lug suitcases full of butterscotch chips and Oregon Chai and curry paste and Betty Crocker frosting halfway across the world, my neighbours return from their hometowns with gallons of tomato paste from Batman, sacks full of walnuts from Erzincan and tubs of salty cheese from Antakya because “it’s better where we come from.”  

My fascination with this whole “memleket” concept has inspired me to write a book on the topic.  I’ve recorded hours of fascinating interviews with friends and neighbours telling me what they love and miss about their hometowns, what it’s been like to adjust to living where they live now, what of their habits and thinking has changed since moving to our “westernized, modern city” and which place feels more like home.  My goal is to explore the ties that bind us to where we came from, and to learn more about what makes us belong to a place, and it to us.  

In the process, I’m gaining a deeper understanding of my friends’ hearts as they share memories of their childhoods, both sweet and incredibly painful.  I’m learning more about why people think the way they think as they explain the (often extremely conservative) societal rules and values of the towns they came from.  I love watching their eyes light up when they talk about “taking naps under the cherry tree in Grandma’s orchard” or “the smell of the soil in the town where I was born.”   And I’m seeing so much of myself in them as I ponder the way the sound of the seagulls in Istanbul and the scent of the pine trees in Antalya and the rainy weather of the Black Sea stir up feelings of “home”.

I imagine this project will take several years to finish, but I’m excited to share snippets of my interviews and findings along the way.  I hope you enjoy this "journey home" as much as I am!