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Turkish Hospitality

What exactly are the stereotypes of Turks in the rest of the world?

I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what I have seen.

In a foreign country, especially when there is a language gap, you’re going to find yourself in situations where it is easy and natural to assume the other person is being an obstructionist jerk. But for every thousand instances in which you’re growing frustrated at your inability to accomplish something, convey something, resolve some issue, find some place, had you a porthole to view the scene from objectivestan, you’d see that both people are being relatively or entirely reasonable, or indeed that you, in fact, are being far more antagonist than your obstructionist — a victim of your own myopia.

I know this because I have been in these situations thousands of times. It often connects by tangent in my mind with how anglophones can be extraordinarily tough on English second language speakers. It is particularly parochial because the anglophone is almost always monolingual — they are usually the unworldly ignorant of the two parties.

By comparison, Turks have an extraordinary measure of patience with foreigners. You can butcher and butcher and butcher the Turkish language and despite the fact that they don’t enjoy it (it hurts their ears) — they will continue to refill your çay with a halfsmile. This hospitality and level of service separates Turkey from certain places. I deleted a rant. The sum of which: the level of service I receive in the West very often depends on the state of my shoes divided by how well the waiter’s week has gone so far.

You won’t encounter this in Turkey. If you go to a restaurant and ask for two lira çay and sit there and get ten refills and occupy a table of four by yourself, and ask to be moved to another table, and ask for a lemon to be cut up and served to you in eighths, they’ll do it. You’re going to get the same level of service no matter how well or badly you’re dressed or whether you’re in a mood for parsimony or gluttony. I’ve experimented all the combinations. Turks will keep a restaurant open for an uncomfortably long time just for you. Across this country I’ve had barbers massage my face and shampoo my hair and gel it and blowdry it and give me tea and straight blade my cheeks and micromanage my nose hair for 5 Tl. And I’ve never had someone at an otherwise empty establishment in a far flung place at a far flung hour decline to put some tea on just for me.

I was meeting with a Syrian family in Gaziantep in a particularly bad situation in August when there was a knock at the door. The Turkish restaurant their dwelling crouches behind delivered them a full pot of hot beyran. The family knew the waiter at their door at the end of his shift. I wondered how often such deliveries were arriving. Understand that the restaurant owners and staff do not speak Arabic and this family doesn’t speak Turkish. They know this family’s situation because the family had been living in the same improvised housing in the lot out back for years.

Meanwhile this weekend Turks were pulling dogs in from the cold. In Sultanahmet there were strays sleeping snowy and I watched locals wade into the banks with emergency blankets. I went to a new favourite restaurant yesterday and a pooch was there to greet me, the only customer, and get some love. I got the impression the staff had just met the big lug. A waiter the other day gave me a cloth serviette to get the snow out of my hair while he hova’ed my shoulders.

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People were pushing strangers’ cars spinning wheels, businesses were serving çay to randoms on public transport stuck in traffic. Hot meals and indoor cots were provided for the city’s needy.

Turks are so serious about their hospitality and their çay that they will fill your glass anew if you’ve drank 10% of it but for some reason, maybe you ran into a friend, maybe you went to the bathroom, it’s become lukewarm. This happens all the time.

The Syrians and many foreigners laugh at how quick waiters are to whisk unfinished çay off the table. It is instinctual to see it as something one paid for but was not finished with. But the waiters are actually showing their customers due attention — they don’t want anyone to sit in their cafe with either cold çay or no çay.

We react — “No, I’m not done with that” — afraid of not getting our money’s worth. But in Turkey I’ve learned to relax, another glass of the good stuff is on its way.

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