Turkey is and always has been a cultural center at the crossroads between Europe, Asia and North Africa. Its heritage includes historical and modern influences from the Mongolians, Greeks, Ottomans, Central Asians, South Asians, the Islamic nations and the West, among others.
I spent 2000-2001 teaching in Istanbul, living and working on the Asian side of the Bosporus. Because the language school I worked at offered classes 7 days a week, half of the teachers worked weekends, but got Mondays and Tuesdays off. We decided to call them “History Tuesdays” and used the days to explore museums, palaces, markets, churches, mosques and other sites of interest around the city. My favorite part was crossing the Bosporus itself by ferry and making sure to order a freshly grilled fish sandwich from the people on the boats near the shores. I also enjoyed my frequent visits to the Princes’ Islands, so named because apparently the sultans would imprison brothers and unwanted sons there to prevent having their throne usurped.
Literature and film
One of the most beloved characters in Turkish folklore is the wise fool Nasruddin. You can find some of the witty tales about him online or on YouTube.
Indeed, most of the classic Hollywood and Disney-style ideas of the exotic Middle East such as genies, flying carpets, snake charmers and such were originally inspired by Turkish folktales, which in turn are a medley of tales from Arabian, Indian and North African cultures. Therefore, it would be acceptable if you were to watch Aladdin, though technically the story takes place in an unnamed Arab country as per the 1001 Arabian Nights tale form which it originated.
Belly-dancing is an excellent exercise for toning the tummy, and is reputed to provide benefits for the female reproductive system, particularly the muscles of the uterus involved in childbearing and menstruation.
Though it could be argued that the outfits and the dance itself are overly sexualised for a child, I thought it was fun to do in our living room, just us with no-one else watching. It brought back fond memories of Tarkan, who was famous in Turkey at around the same time as Ricky Martin, and for the same sort of snake-hipped dance tunes as well, which just goes to show how much Latin American and Middle Eastern music have in common. Shakira was the most famous to exploit both her Lebanese and Colombian ancestry, as you can see in this video for “Ojos Asi” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xor_g2emHMo)
To be clear, Turkish music does not, for the most part have these rhythms, and has a different “sound” altogether, as different as American country music might be from rock and roll in the west. However, on buses and in general in public restaurants and bars, you’re far more likely to hear Arab-style music than traditional Turkish.
Note: Tarkan’s greatest hit, if you’re interested was called “Simarik” which translates to “Kiss kiss” and you can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xor_g2emHMo
Math and art
Turkish carpets and kilim (small rugs for prayer or decoration) are world famous for their exquisite design and delicate weaving. Weaving itself is a difficult art form to master for small hands. You can buy weaving kits, but I just taped several lengths of yarn across the top and sides of a piece of wood and taught my daughter the simplest in-and-out style.
Islamic religion forbids the use of the human face and body in art, so rather than portrait or narrative paintings in the European style, Islamic cultures created lovely mosaics out of geometric shapes and patterns. Additionally, certain texts such as the Koran are traditionally decorated with what is known as “illumination art” which are decorative geometric shapes around a text. These two aspects of Turkish art can be used to teach children about shapes, and particularly tessellations, which is the way certain shapes or combinations of shapes can fit together: squares, triangles and hexagons tesselate, for instance (as you can most likely see on tiles surfaces such as bathroom walls or tiled floors) whereas circles do not.
Backgammon is an old Turkish game and not difficult for a child to learn. It can help with basic addition practice as well as strategic thinking.
Shawarma is always good, though Turkish cuisine extends far beyond that. Look up recipes, and have fun exploring. Don’t forget to finish it off with a nice Turkish coffee (for the grownups!)
The Nasruddin stories were pleasantly silly and we enjoyed the tricks he played. You can find some cartoon versions on YouTube as well as written versions online. One involved Naruddin selling his house to a rich man with the proviso that he could maintain ownership of a hook on the living room wall. The next day, he walked into the house and hung his coat on the hook, and over subsequent days, he took ever more advantage of the ridiculous situation until eventually, when he tied his cow on a leash to the hook, the rich man agreed to pay Nasruddin to take the house back.
The film “Aladdin” is, of course, a general favorite in our family; specifically the cartoon version starring the master of comedic monologue, Robin Williams.
Unsurprisingly, Child adored belly dancing, and even managed to tie her t-shirt up to her waist to expose her midriff. As I say, at home, that’s fine. Nowhere else. And, if you’re curious, yes, I have explained to her in no uncertain terms that bad men hurt little girls if they go out dressed as grownup ladies. This isn’t victim-blaming, to my mind, it’s fact.
The art projects were surprisingly interesting. Child doesn’t enjoy art much, but she likes manipulating paper as we did to weave the placemats, and she liked cutting out and gluing on the geometric shapes. She enjoyed spotting examples of tessellation over the next few days as well.
She liked backgammon and we still play it frequently.
She still doesn’t like Middle Eastern food, and shawarma was no exception.