This summer, I received a scholarship from the U.S. government to study in Turkey for seven weeks. My parents reacted with nothing but whoops of excitement and proud smiles as they told their friends; everyone else, however, was impressed, but immediately concerned for my safety. According to them, I had three things working against me: I was American, I was Christian, and I was Greek. Going to Turkey would be dangerous, they thought. I could see the visions of the film Midnight Express and the memory of 9/11 running through their brains as I told them that I would be living in a country that was 99.9 percent Muslim. I took my cross off from around my neck at JFK airport and packed floor-length skirts and shawls, ready, but somewhat nervous, to embark on my adventure.
I went to Bursa, the city I was to reside in, with 14 other American students, none of whom had any knowledge of Turkish, which was the language we aimed to learn over the summer. Our first few days in Bursa, I noticed the stares I got on the metro, even in the knee-length shorts that I had bought especially for the trip and with my blonde hair tied back in a braid. I stood out everywhere I went.
My host family, however, accepted me immediately; On the first day I met him, my host dad put my cell number into his phone under "My dear daughter." My host mom asked, in admiration, about the Christian prayer bracelets I wore around my wrist and proudly told her acquaintances that my family is from Greece. I learned that my host father's ancestors were also born in Greece, debunking the myths that all Turks hate Greeks and vice versa. My host family gave me a map of their neighborhood, and even circled a church, offering to bring me on Sundays if I wanted to pray. I came to learn that Turks are some of the most hospitable and loving people in this world.
When Ramadan began about three weeks into my trip, my host family was surprised and delighted to learn that I planned to attempt fasting. They taught me the history of the important holiday. I had by this point already become accustomed to the call to prayer that resonated throughout the city five times a day, sometimes even waking me up in the middle of the night. Though I only lasted for one day of the fast, they bragged to all of their friends, telling them how I rose at 3 a.m. for the morning meal and patiently waited until Ifthar to break the fast with three dates, something they didn't even have to teach me.
Every day, I discovered something new about the Islamic religion. I learned how to tie a headscarf. One night my family and I spent Ifthar with relatives; my host mom was the only one in her family who didn't wear a headscarf. At 10 o'clock, when the men went to the mosque for their nightly prayer, the women immediately began to teach me an energectic Turkish dance, and in the process, took off their scarves and shook out their hair. With my group, I toured mosques and even attended a religious Whirling Dervish ceremony. We learned how to pray for Islam, with our palms turned up towards the ceiling, so as to open our hands to God.
In addition to becoming immersed in the religion, I decided to focus my individual culminating project on women's rights, and I interviewed Turkish locals on this subject. Most people expect Turkish women to be subordinate to men, and even I was surprised to learn that this is not the case. More than 50 percent of women in Turkey, including the majority of our host moms, work, and in many cities, more women than men go to university.
My summer in Turkey expanded my worldview immensely. Upon returning to my New Jersey suburb, where I had previously known zero Muslims, I feel joy and recognition when I see the occasional woman in a headscarf or hear the mention of Ramadan. I still catch myself slipping Turkish phrases into regular conversation, as well as craving baklava and kebab. When Ramadan ended, less than a week after I returned home, I noted the date on my calendar and immediately messaged my host sister on Facebook, congratulating her on making it through the fast. We are still in contact almost every day, and she has an open invitation to stay with my family next summer.
When people tell me of their relief to see me home safely, I aim to minimize the stereotypes of Turks and Muslims. Reflecting on our pre-departure orientation, I remember representatives from the U.S. government telling us that one of the aims of the trip is to come back and teach our family and friends about the culture we became immersed in. That is exactly what I intend to do.