Can you eat pork? The reality of living in a Muslim country
Recently, a local film director asked if I had ever noticed how western films typically depict women in Istanbul, how they were always shown to be covered from head to toe in black burqas.
He made me realise how Turkey is often wrongly perceived and misrepresented. It seems that because people associate Turkey with being a Muslim country the misconception exists that it must be similar to Iran, Saudi Arabia or other Arabian countries and that consequently women dress accordingly. However, Turkey is, in fact, officially a secular country, founded in 1923 very much in the image of France and laicism, or secularism, by the great Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Officially, over 99% of the population is considered to be Muslim but anyone who has filled in any official Turkish document will understand how these statistics can be misleading. On every document I've seen there is a 'tick' box for Christians, Muslims or Jews but that is it. There's no such thing as 'other' in Turkey and apparently atheists do not exist at all. Even the tick box for 'Muslim' does not tell the complete story – the majority of Muslims in Turkey are Sunni but there is also a sizeable minority (15% or more) of Alevis in Turkey who do not even believe in going to the mosque.
While the sight of the towering minarets of the mosque and the sound of the Ezan (the Muslim call to prayer) serves as a visual and acoustic reminder that I live in a predominantly Islamic culture, most of the time, I go about my daily business not giving it a moment’s thought. These are a few questions I’m asked by my fellow compatriots about day-to-day life in a Muslim country.
Does the call to prayer wake you up at all hours?
I laughed when my local mosque was built shortly after I moved in to my Bodrum villa; I wondered whether it had been built specifically for me and my dog given the relatively few people wintering here in Gumusluk back then. Sadly, I can only hear the Ezan (the Muslim call to prayer) if there is a prevailing southerly wind but one of my dogs clearly has an ear for the mosque so that even if it is out of my earshot, she howls along with the Imam with a passion as great as someone bellowing out 'My Way' at some dreadful out-of-tune karaoke party. Suffice it to say, the mosque has never woken me up, but my ‘singalong’ dog has, acting as a spare minaret downstairs as I lay asleep upstairs.
Many people appear to enjoy hearing the mosque – it seems to give affirmation of being in a very different, somewhat exotic, far away place. Although I believe the volume has been turned up significantly in latter years, it always surprises me that no one stops to listen, nor appears to notice, the call to prayers. Rarely does music in bars get turned down as the Ezan starts up and I often wonder whether the Hoca (Imam) resents being seemingly ignored, particularly as it appears to require such a huge effort on his part five times a day, seven days a week!
However, Friday prayers at 1pm is a different proposition, when the roads nearby can barely cope with the huge influx of cars parked, redolent of a huge weekend car boot sale in the UK. These days alcohol licences are not granted to establishments within 100 metres of a mosque so it is something to be mindful of if visiting a restaurant with one nearby.
Do you have to dress a certain way?
People in Bodrum, and in all the western coastal areas, dress much as they would anywhere in the west. No one would bat an eye at casual summer wear in restaurants, bars or shops. Bodrum is famously informal and a man in a well cut suit would attract more secondary glances than a woman wearing shorts and a t-shirt or a low cut dress.
However, Turks generally, and not unreasonably, expect beachwear to be worn exclusively for where it was designed. I have seen young women walking through vegetable markets and shopping centres in bikinis; maybe they mistook the looks of disdain being cast in their direction for ones of admiration. If something might be considered unacceptable in Brighton there's a fair chance that Bodrum will be no different.
When I first came to Turkey, I was shocked to discover that women were banned from wearing a religious style headscarf in public institutions such as universities or government offices, precluding them from either studying or working in such places. That seemed at odds with my liberal cosmopolitan upbringing and yet my questioning of it was often met by indignant Turkish responses such as, “Yes, but your country does not share a border with Syria or Iraq!”.
However, within the last decade things have changed: the pendulum has swung away from the secularists and headscarved women no longer have to move abroad to pursue their studies and, although they now are a more common sight they are still only worn by a minority in Bodrum. It will depend entirely on your own personal perspective whether this represents an emergence of religious conservatism or an expression of religious freedom.
Is alcohol freely available?
We tend to associate Muslim societies with intolerance towards alcohol.
However, virtually every Turk I know enjoys a tipple, and I was startled to read a statistic that 82% of all Turks do not drink alcohol! It is another indicator of how the western coastal and tourist areas such as Bodrum differ from other more religiously conservative areas where consuming alcohol is likely to be frowned upon, particularly in Central Anatolia and the South East.
Alcohol is freely available and drank across the Bodrum peninsula and western coastal areas, and the purchase of alcohol is not really regulated any more strictly than in most European countries other than there is now a ban on advertising it, and licences are not issued to establishments wishing to sell within 100m of a mosque or school.
Can you eat pork?
As with Jews, Muslims do not traditionally eat pork. However, the majority of Turks I know, although perhaps somewhat unfamiliar with pork, will not shy away from eating it. In fact, many I know have developed a keen taste for bacon and ham in particular.
Pork and bacon are available but can be poor quality and expensive. Luckily we have Metro (Makro) Cash and Carry here in Bodrum that stocks bacon and frozen pork and there is also The English Shop in Turgutreis selling the same, run by a delightful Turkish couple one half of which is partial to eating some of his own produce. His ‘other half’ is vegetarian!
If all else fails, there's always the option of taking ferry between Turkey and Greece: the Greek island of Kos is only a half hour's ferry ride from Turgutreis. With Europe and a Lidl supermarket on our doorstep food shopping is fun when combined with a boat trip to get there and back. In Bodrum, you can wear virtually what you like, drink whatever you want and if you find yourself pining for pork you can always order a full English breakfast complete with pork sausage and bacon from most establishments serving breakfast.
If it wasn’t for the regular reminder from the mosque nearby, you could be forgiven for thinking you were still in Europe.
Read more: Turkish culture and traditions in the home