Tourism in Turkey caters to western phantasms of ‘the Orient’

Ensuring Socio-economic Justice

Yusuf Progler

Sha'ban 27, 1419 1998-12-16

Special Reports

by Yusuf Progler (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 20, Sha'ban, 1419)

Istanbul, once a magnificent city of Islamic civilization, known to Muslims of another age as Jannatu dunya (paradise on earth), is today laid open for inspection by the prying eyes of western tourists. Travel agencies market the experience in Europe, America, Japan, and Israel with promises of ‘voluptuous belly dancers,’ ‘sumptuous feasts,’ and ‘sensuous Turkish baths.’ Some tour promoters cater to Christian visitors by trumpeting ‘Byzantine splendor’ or the ‘ancient churches and vineyards of Cappadocia,’ the latter a required stop for western tourists in Muslim Turkey.

Tourists from the west are fascinated by backsliding Muslims, or by those who seem to be backsliding because of the customer-host dynamics of the tourism industry. Many tourists seem to be snooping around for tawdry tidbits to tell back home. Ismail, a hotel worker in old Istanbul, observes, ‘they are looking for the slightest sign of corruption by Muslims, especially those associated with the Refah and Fazilat Parties.’

Once cornered in this situation, many Muslims may say what the customer wants to hear, catering to western expectations and interests in the name of business. But all the while, everyone seems oblivious to the underlying power dynamic implicit here. Similarly, questions on hijab are rampant, though one will rarely see a tourist asking a Muslim woman who is covered, preferring instead to ask men who speak European languages, thus reinforcing their own expectations of women’s silence and oppression, and men’s volition.

Working in a tourist hotel has its pitfalls for devout Muslims. Adil, a hotel worker in Sultanahmet district, notes that, ‘it is like a banana peel waiting for you to slip on it.’ He recounts an incident when he refused to carry raki, a Turkish alcoholic beverage, prompting the Muslim hotel owner to threaten that he either serve alcohol or he will be fired. Adil chose the latter, reflecting ‘how could I tell my family in Eastern Turkey that I made my living carrying something haram?’ Another hotel worker, Ismail, complained of missionaries who constantly offered to buy him alcoholic drinks, and, in one instance, even offered to arrange for him to date their own daughter!

Alcohol is prominently served in many Turkish hotels, catering to westerners who cannot seem to have a good time unless they are swilling beers and booze. Western beer companies have been quick to capitalize on this, offering to sponsor hotels by providing ‘free’ signs with the hotel name alongside a brewery’s corporate logo. According to some observers, tourist hotels, mostly run by Muslims, have had to begin serving alcohol to achieve a government sponsored and much coveted ‘four star’ rating for the tourist agencies. (Five stars are reserved for European hotels only.)

In Sultanahmet and other regions under former Refah Party control, hotels are supposed to be forbidden from serving alcohol, but enforcement is shaky. So, while proprietors could theoretically lose their licenses for serving alcohol, most are willing to take the chance and cater to customer needs.

Wealthy Saudis flock to the shores of the Bosphorous, especially to places like Tarabaya, where they can doff their chadors and dishdakis and bask in the hot Turkish sun. Tarabaya is known locally for its high class and pricey resorts and retreats that cater to wealthy Arab princes and princesses. On most days, one can see them frolicking in the Bosphorous or sporting about on their speedboats and yachts, loathe to mix with the locals. There is no intercultural Muslim solidarity here, but plenty of good old fashioned fun in the sun for those who can afford it.

But it is western tourism that has altered many traditional aspects of Turkish Muslim culture. For example, the Turkish baths frequented by tourists have changed remarkably from their less frequented counterparts. Tourist baths, sometimes known as ‘historic baths’ to inspire western phantasms of Turkish orientalism, can charge over US$20 for service that would cost less than half that in any other respectable bath. Tourists do not know the difference, and the proprietors rake in the bucks, francs, and marks. A few baths have promoted coed nude bathing, which flies in the face of Turkish Muslim tradition, but appeals to western notions of oriental sensuality.

Many baths still maintain separate facilities and bathing times for men and women, but the tourist presence has altered other features. In one historic bath frequented by western men and women, most Turkish patrons have disappeared, and along with them the Turkish masseuses. The women’s section is entirely patronized by western women, who ignore the signs posted about the facility and run about in the nude. The masseuses are not trained in their craft, and a Muslim woman entering such a facility has to request ‘Muslim service’ to receive a respectable bath.

In the men’s section, Turkish men do not seem to mind mingling with western men, and there are still a number of well-trained Turkish masseuses. But one can frequently hear them joking to each other in Turkish about western patrons who saunter about without towels covering their private parts.

The Sultan Ahmet Jami’, know to tourists as the ‘Blue Mosque,’ was built four centuries ago by the famed Muslim architect Sinan. It is surely one of the marvels of Islamic architecture, but now does double time as a masjid for daily prayers and as a tourist sight for westerners to gawk at. When prayer times are over, tourists flock through the mosque, many ignoring requests to cover their heads and legs with proper attire.

Each evening, between maghrib and isha, there is an orientalist extravaganza at Sultan Ahmet, viewed by hundreds of tourists who sit and watch a light show and listen to a romanticized story of the mosque’s founding, complete with tales of oriental intrigue, piped in via loudspeaker. Mehmet, a guard at the mosque and engineer by training, notes that ‘the government placed loudspeakers all around our mosque for this nightly show, and the high sound volume is shaking loose tiles and masonry, which may cause irreparable damage.’

Tourists love to take photographs. It makes them feel that they’ve taken home a piece of the east. But taking pictures of people on the street can be terribly insulting to unwilling or unwitting local subjects. As Hilal, a student at Istanbul University notes, ‘people are not objects to be photographed like animals in a zoo.’ On any given day, one can see amateur photographers flipping snapshots and filming videos of Muslims in and around their mosques and bazaars.

American junk food burger and soft drink giants have colonized many Turkish cities and towns, especially those frequented by tourists. As elsewhere, junk burger giant McDonalds coopts local food favorites. In Turkey, this means one can buy a ‘McByrek,’ a flabby McDonaldized version of a local stuffed pastry, along side a Big Mac and fries. The local color does not disguise the same old bland food popularized by tourists whose palates seem to know no better. But this description is not limited to tourists only, as many Turkish youths can be seen wolfing down big burgers, indeed a sad sight since Turkish lamb dishes are among the most delectable in the world.

Muslimedia: December 16-31, 1998

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