Dance in a trance

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Turkish Mother

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. ( Anthony and Cleopatra 2.2.244)

An-ne, the Mother, is a veritable institution in Turkey. Turks are glued to their mobile phones not least because at some moment in the day An-ne will call and the obedient son or daughter (mostly the latter) must be standing to attention. If it is already late in the afternoon, the message will be, “But why haven’t you called me? Is something wrong? Didn’t you remember I went to the doctor today?” Anywhere – in a shopping mall, a bookstore, a cafe, comes the inevitable whine of the needy child. “An-ne! Where are you?” The whole world dotes on these angels who can do no wrong. Their every whim must be indulged. Christmas isn’t anything to Muslims of course but the city is full of brightly lit trees, effigies of the silly old man in red hat and presents. Whole floors of istanbul’s magnificent shopping malls are devoted solely to delighting the little people. The shops are stuffed with goodies and people pack into them as if there were no tomorrow. It’s only the social outcasts who go in for online shopping here: everyone else regards it as a jolly family ritual.

You might get the impression that Turkey with its background of military coups, nationalism and repression was a patriarchal society. Wrong. Men just look as if they have power: in reality they exist only to serve their women. Even modern young working people for the most part wait patiently until they have found their marriage partners before leaving home. Naturally, double standards exist here as men have freer rein and must sew their oats. But they do it discreetly with god-knows-whom. Meanwhile they live at home where they are waited upon hand and foot – food is cooked, washing and ironing done for them and every comfort seen to. Duygu, a healthy woman in her thirties complains that her mother won’t even let her carry anything. Ilgin has just turned 40 and works 7 days a week to make enough money for holidays. She wouldn’t dream of going without her mother. They live together as do so many Turkish families, mother and daughter, bound like Prometheus. You don’t even ask about father. When Ilgin is feeling frisky she goes with her mother to one of the many clubs in downtown Beyoglu, the centre of Istanbul’s nightlife. There they listen together to live music and Ilgin takes pictures of them both on her mobile phone. Can it be satisfying? Ilgin is no fool. “I make all the decisions,” she says, gleefully. I can see who wears the pants. Why leave this comfort for some unknown territory where you may have to be the maid, cook and bottle-washer for some uncertain reward?

Age cannot wither An-ne because whole armies of hairdressers, beauticians, manicurists and cosmetologists exist merely to preserve her long-lost youth. Only near death will a woman let the world see her grey hair: the rest choose any colour of the rainbow though garish pinks and greens are still only for the outlandish or those who have just discovered punk . Mostly it is blonde, and on special occasions like New Years Eve, the hair will be pulled and teased into girlish sausage curls of a corn-bright yellow. The effect is that elderly men always have young-looking things of indeterminate age in tow. (Is that his daughter, mother or wife? You can’t tell.) And what was once a Mediterranean land of dark-haired, olive-skinned women has now become a kind of Disneyland of Barbie dolls.

Daddy provides. Sinem lives in a fine apartment paid for by her father and works when she isn’t having the vapours. She is travelling the next day and An-ne keeps phoning. “Why don’t you take the smaller suitcase darling? You might be overweight if you take the big one?” Such tender loving care. But Sinem doesn’t think so. “My sisters and I have been trying to get them to divorce for years!” she says, sighing. “They do nothing but argue and can’t stand each other.” But of course there are the beloved children. How could they inflict such pain on them? Sinem is beautiful, intelligent cultivated and at 38, alas, still not married. Her lover is a dashing colonel in the army, married with children. “When he comes it is paradise! He brings flowers, chocolates and treats me like a princess.” The stress of it all stops her from working. But she has the kind of job that can deal with this on-and-off commitment because there is a hard-working male who does all the donkey work. Life has fashioned things in such a way that she must remain a princess in a tower waiting for the frog prince to release her.  So custom doesn’t stale her infinite variety; she is free to go to any one of Istanbul’s delectable coffee houses, galleries or museums. She has the leisure to read and reflect. And time still before motherhood looms or the signs of old age must submit to the wiles of the magician.

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