Turkish weddings: An American witness

As the only foreigner at the wedding of my Turkish friends, Kubilay and Zeynep, I expected to play a minor role as an unrelated guest sitting in the back row during the ceremony.

I was wrong. Kubilay and Zeynep – and Turkey, for that matter – are full of surprises, and this occasion was no exception.

Kubilay and Zeynep were the first friends I made after moving to Turkey. Kubilay was my Airbnb host while I searched for a flat in Istanbul, and Zeynep was the first person who greeted me when I arrived in the city.

Over the course of our friendship, we have had our share of adventures, but since the pandemic transformed our lives, we hadn’t seen each other at all.

As a result, I was overjoyed to find out about their wedding and to be invited to it in Kubilay’s hometown, Elazığ, in Eastern Anatolia.

What I didn’t anticipate is that I would be part of the wedding ceremony. More on that later.

Kubilay’s family included me in all of their activities leading up to the wedding as if I were part of the clan – another example of Turkish hospitality.

After I landed in Elazığ on the same flight as Kubily’s sister, Kubilay’s dad fetched me and several of Kubilay’s relatives from the airport in a rented van and took us to the family’s summer house in a tiny village called Kara Ali in the town of Baskil – at the crossroads of Anatolia and Mesopotamia.

His nieces chatted with me in English and gave me a tour of the gardens, where we gave each other mini-lessons on the names of fruits and vegetables in Turkish and English.

Later in the evening, his family held a dinner on a terrace overlooking a valley. We feasted on grilled kebob, meatballs, roasted peppers, salad, stretchy flatbread and a bowls of colorful grapes and other fruits plucked from the family’s garden.

The next morning on the day of the wedding, I joined Zeynep and the couple’s female relatives at a hair salon to have our hair and makeup done.

Just before the ceremony, a patchy autumn drizzle gently fell on the garden at the Akgün Hotel where Kubilay and Zeynep would pledge to be husband and wife.

Wrapped up in a Turkish peştemal, I was surveying the guests and scouting out somewhere inconspicuous and dry to sit when Kubilay’s sister, Esma, surprised me with the news that I was going to be one of Kubilay’s two witnesses at the wedding.

“Oh, I didn’t know that,” I said, somewhat stunned, and then, deeply touched that Kubilay would bestow such an honor on me – a complete outsider with toddler-level Turkish skills.

“This is how it’s going to go,” Esma said. “The wedding officiant is going to ask you if you witness the marriage, and all you have to do is say ‘evet’ or you can say, ‘yes.’ Then, afterward, you will sign the marriage certificate.”

When Kubilay and Zeynep made their grand entrance in the garden, the rain had cleared and flocks of birds soared over the wedding party as if choreographed to herald the happy news. Kubilay looked as if he was about to explode from pride and joy – the smile on his face seemed to spread a mile … sorry, a kilometer, wide. After the fanfare and the emotional impact of the moment sunk in, Zeynep’s cousin who was serving as one of her witnesses signaled to me to head up with her to the stage where the wedding officiant would conduct the ceremony.

Speaking in Turkish, the wedding officiant announced that there were no legal obstacles to the union and then asked the couple to declare their willingness to marry in front of the witnesses.

Unlike American weddings, Turkish weddings are more to the point. There are no flowery vows with “till death do you part.” It’s a simple question: Do you agree to marry?

“Let’s ask this once in front of the witnesses,” the officiant said. “Mr. Kubilay, do you agree to marry Miss Zeynep?”

The same question was posed to Zeynep to which they both responded with a loud, joyful “Evet,” which means “yes” in Turkish.

Then, the officiant asked the four witnesses to affirm the marriage by saying “Evet.”

I chose to say “evet,” rather than “yes,” no doubt, heavily accented and even mispronounced, for the amusement of the guests.

We then signed the marriage certificate, and the happy couple were presented to the guests from a COVID-19-appropriate distance.

Among the many things that the coronavirus pandemic has altered are Turkish weddings. Once distinct for rowdy “damat halayi” dances (Imagine “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding”) and decorating the bride and groom like a pair of Christmas trees with ornately wrapped chunks of gold or delicately folded banknotes, Kubilay and Zeynep’s ceremony was revised into a much more muted format.

The wedding was planned with the pandemic at the top of mind. The ceremony was held outdoors. Guests wore masks and left their gifts for the couple in envelopes in a socially distanced velvet box, rather than following the tradition of pinning the gifts on the bride and groom’s clothing.

An after-dinner, attended mostly by family members, also was held outdoors on the patio of Ensar Mangal Vadisi in the ancient hilltop town of Harput.

Winding up the mountain to Harput feels like stepping back in time. The city – often referred to as the old Elazığ – takes its name from the Armenians who lived there for several hundreds of years.

Surrounding the patio where we dined with each other were layers of history – the scent of time emanating from the old cobblestone roads and rock fortifications. Most of us tried the restaurant’s specialty, tenderized meat with a special sauce, and a dessert called “dolanger,” a roll of pastry filled with walnuts. It’s Turkey, so the event wouldn’t have been complete without a visit from some stray cats who also feasted with us.

While more subdued than weddings before the pandemic, Kubilay and Zeynep’s ceremony was no less a celebration of love, of family and of friendship that transcends pandemics and countries’ borders.

Turkey in 365 days

One year ago today, I disembarked Turkish Airlines Flight 10 at the then-new Istanbul Airport and set foot in Turkey, with my cat, Cleopatra, to fulfill a longtime dream of living abroad.

My first evening in Istanbul foreshadowed a packed year of changes and discoveries – some I never could have anticipated: I hired one of Istanbul’s beloved “pirate taxi” drivers to take me from the airport to my Airbnb. At the time, I had no inkling of what a “pirate taxi” meant. Had I heard that specific terminology, I might have been more reticent to take one.

Stupefied from a 13-hour flight and an emotional farewell to America, I stared out the window of the driver’s cigarette smoke-scented car at the windmills rising up in vast green fields on the road from the airport, far away from the bustle of the city of some 16 million people.

As we passed through a town, I saw three chestnut-colored horses grazing in a bed of blazing red tulips – a symbol of Istanbul – in the roadway median. That same night, I met Zeynep who would become one of my closest friends in Istanbul. The girlfriend of my Airbnb host, Kubilay – who was traveling in Paris at the time of my arrival, Zeynep met me at the flat to greet me and show me around.

Between then and now, I have lived in three other flats, gone through several roommates, adopted two more cats, from Istanbul, explored seven different Turkish provinces and worked at two different English newspapers in the city.

I have soared over the landscape of Cappadocia’s whimsical “fairy chimney” rock formations in an air balloon, attended a Turkish wedding where I danced the halay and swam in a cave in the Mediterranean. I have sailed on the Aegean and seen an American soldier attired in a turquoise floral Asian textile suit dancing aboard.

I have wept in front of hundreds of people in Istanbul’s Eminonu Square during the course of being lost for three hours in the city. I have sifted through beautifully colored rocks on the shore of the Mediterranean, seen cattle enjoying a beachside stroll along the Black Sea and contemplated the legacy of the Lycians in the ancient city of Olympos while bathing on top of their ancient tablets submerged in a pool of spring water.


I adopted a three-legged street cat named, Benedict Cesur, and temporarily lost him out an unscreened window, launched a neighborhood-wide search party and found him unharmed in a pile of rubble in the basement of our building in Ortaköy.

I have seen more statues of Republic of Turkey founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in town squares than I can reasonably count. I have learned enough Turkish to comfortably get around Istanbul and to feed myself. I have had a conversation with a Turkish rock star. I have crossed from Europe and Asia several times without leaving the city.

I have reveled in the exquisite serenity of the Black Sea highlands and the warm hospitality of its people and eaten nettle soup, fried anchovies and Turkish corn bread.

I have trekked up 300 meters to the Sumela Monastry built on the side of a cliff in Trabzon more than 1,600 years ago and visited a beekeeper and his hives in a remote village in Giresun.

Before the move to Turkey, I had heard erroneous information from another foreigner that wet wipes (islak mendil) are impossible to find, only to have been served hundreds of islak mendil with meals all around Turkey and to learn that Turkey is one of the most hygienic places in Europe.

I have eaten more eggplant and tomato paste than I ever thought possible, experienced Turkish coffee afire, explored cave churches and traveled on every mode of public transportation in Istanbul.

On my first weekend living in Istanbul last year, I strolled through endless beds of multicolored tulips in Emirgan Park during the city’s famed tulip festival. Afterward, I wrote a story about the tulip industry for an American agricultural newspaper and another story for my then-employer Hürriyet Daily News about the rollout of the world’s largest live tulip “carpet” in Sultanahmet Square.

I couldn’t have foreseen that the tulip festival – along with countless other events, millions of jobs and large portions of the economy – would shut down due to the emergence of a highly contagious and life-threatening virus, nor that I would be marking my one-year anniversary in Turkey, confined to my home because of a pandemic.

I don’t know how long I will be inside my flat, living in Turkey or what the future holds, but the isolation has afforded me the time to reflect back on the details of this year, colorful details that one-by-one weave themselves together to tell the story of a life, a community, a city, a culture and a country.

The Turks have embellished my life with their hospitality, kindness, sense of humor, compassion and artistic flair. From trees in Avanos tenderly wrapped in the embrace of a colorful crocheted doily (above), to stray dogs who are permitted to ride the ferry every day over the Bosporus and the Muslim congregation in Üsküdar that feeds and shelters a congregation of street cats on their mosque grounds, Turkey is a place I couldn’t have conjured up in my most fanciful daydreams. Despite learning its darker sides and experiencing the daily drudgery that life can entail, the spirit of the Turks and the civilizations that came before them make Turkey a magical and intriguing place to call home.

COVID-19: Thankful to #stayhome in Turkey

Ways to enforce the elder curfew

As an expat in Turkey, I have received many questions from friends and family about what it’s like here during the coronavirus pandemic. You can rest assured: During this health crisis, Turkey is a relatively safe place to be and even has some perks.

Like many other countries around the world, Turkey has advised its residents to stay at home to avoid spreading the virus. For the most part, people have heeded the warnings and taken the risks seriously. My boss sent us home the same day the country announced its first case of COVID-19 early on March 11, and we have been working from remote home offices since then.

We didn’t have time to fetch belongings we might want to have with us for the long haul (like my day planner). That was a smart move: It reduced our risk of exposure and the exposure of others in this city of around 16 million. That is just one of the many reasons I’m grateful to be in Turkey during this time. Here are several other reasons, which I hope you’ll find interesting and entertaining:

Stocked shelves

Fortunately for me and the public at large, Turkey has experienced less of the pandemonium that unfolded in the U.S. There was no stampede on toilet paper and no indication of people hoarding supplies. When I go to the grocery store in my neighborhood in Üsküdar, the shelves are well-stocked.

One reason may be that fewer people in Turkey have vehicles, so hoarding supplies is not possible to the extent that it is in America. I cannot carry more than what my hand cart will hold, and even then, it’s a workout trying to pull that thing up Istanbul’s steep hills.

Another reason I’ve heard from expats who have lived here much longer than me is that Turks are more community-oriented. In times of trouble, they embrace solidarity and collectivism. Hogging toilet paper or chicken deprives others in the community from finding those items when needed. If someone was seen hoarding, they could expect scorn from their fellow shoppers.


There might be another reason for the plentiful toilet paper on store shelves in Turkey. Here, every toilet is equipped with a bidet. Not only does the shooting water leave you feeling cleaner but you don’t need toilet paper or at least, not much. As a result, toilet paper is not the highest priority item for shoppers looking to camp out at home for an indefinite period.

High hand-washing rate

After using the toilet, you can pretty much count on the fact that almost everyone in Turkey washes their hands, one of the main precautions against spreading the virus. Turkey has one of the highest hand-washing rates in Europe, according to a survey from 2015. Some 94% of people in Turkey wash their hands after using the toilet, second only to the tiny European country of Bosnia-Herzegovina.


On top of high hand-washing rates, a traditional element of Turkish culture is the country’s cologne, or “kolonya” in Turkish. Think of a super elegant hand sanitizer that smells like exquisite perfume. People splash the cologne on visitors’ hands when they enter homes, businesses and even taxis. The cologne is made with a high alcohol content, killing those deadly coronavirus germs.

24-hour curfew for most vulnerable

Elderly people in Turkey are quite the handful. They’re used to doing what they want and getting what they want, because Turkish culture demands a great deal of respect, deference and indulgence toward them. So, the Health Ministry’s decision to give them a 24-hour curfew to protect them from the virus did not go over well. Police had to break up gatherings of hyper-social elderly Turks who were gathering on benches in public squares and parks. Police quickly removed the benches to deter gatherings. In one town, an elderly lady hit the mayor with her walking stick because he had the impertinence to tell her to go home.

The scenes inevitably materialize as memes on social media. My personal favorite is one showing the authorities digging a deep ditch under an old man’s doorstep to keep him at home. Don’t worry about the elders. The municipalities have teams of employees and volunteers to shop and run errands for them.

Drone-powered crowd dispersal

The country banned barbecues and picnics in the third week of March to prevent gatherings where the virus could be more easily transmitted. Naturally, we had gorgeous weather the following weekend.

Encouraged by the sunshine and warmth, picnickers descended on Istanbul’s shorelines, parks and forests to light up barbecues and socialize.

Responding to the overwhelming onslaught of violations, police in the Sultanbeyli district on Istanbul’s Asian side resorted to sending drones equipped with loudspeakers over Aydos Forest to disperse picnickers.

#stayhome traffic lights

Playing on the #stayhome campaign, Sakarya, a Turkish city on the Black Sea coast, installed traffic lights March 26 to remind people to go home (green) and stay home (red).

The city’s traffic director told German news agency dpa that the lights are meant to serve as a “conscience” for those out and about.

Turkish Weddings: Pin gold on the groom

Ilker and Zeyna dance for the first time as husband and wife

When you’ve never lived in another country, it’s easy to take for granted how things go at a wedding. So when I attended my first Turkish wedding on Friday, Aug. 2, I didn’t know what to expect or how it would be similar or different.

I was thrilled to be invited to a wedding so early in my residence in Turkey (three and a half months). Ilker, a fellow journalist and one of the first people I met in Turkey, invited me to celebrate his marriage to longtime girlfriend Zeyna, who is Jordanian.

While there were some Arabic songs on the wedding playlist, the traditions at the wedding were largely Turkish, according to Ilker and my mutual friend, Seda, who also was in attendance.

In America, a wedding begins in a church, or maybe on a mountain top. Regardless of the setting, there is a priest or some other wedding official to officiate the exchange of vows – the couples promise to stay together through bad times and good, in sickness and health, blah, blah, blah. In many ways, the whole point of the wedding is for the couple, in front of everyone who is dear to them, to “publicly” make this promise to each other.

In Turkey, the marriage ceremony is private. There might be members of the bride and groom’s immediate family, but that’s it.

Instead, the couple’s family and friends gather at what we would call in America a “reception” – the wedding party. Spoiler: There are no funny, or emotional speeches, and the bride and groom don’t feed cake to each other.

The party kicks off – way later than the time printed on the invitation – with the couple’s first dance. Ilker and Zeyna did a few practice runs before performing the dance in front of the 100 or so guests.

After the dance, dinner is served. During this time, Ilker and Zeyna circulated to each table to greet the guests and snap photos with them.

Instead of wedding gifts heaped on a table and purchased through a wedding registry where the couple essentially picks out their own gifts, the guests give the bride and groom pieces of gold or cash as a sort of founding sum to start their new life together.

This is one piece of information I had in advance of the wedding and for which I was prepared. What I didn’t know was how the guests traditionally deliver these monetary gifts. Being American, I did what I and generations before me did since Hallmark was founded in 1910: I bought a greeting card. I couldn’t find any wedding-themed cards in my neighborhood, so I just bought a blank one, wrote a message and enclosed the money inside the card.

You can probably see where this is going. That’s not how it’s done. Instead, the bride and groom are draped with long, wide white ribbons, almost like an Orthodox priest’s epitrachelion.

The guests stand in line, then greet the bride or groom (depending on whose guest he or she is), kiss each cheek and pin crisp banknotes or a piece of gold, wrapped up like a piece of hard candy, onto the long ribbons (for the lack of a better word).

Perhaps out of nervousness that I had to use a sharp object on Ilker in front of a crowd, I blanked on taking a photo.

In any case, I took the cash out of my greeting card, stood in line and approached Ilker, who immediately asked whether I knew what I was doing.

This was a valid question, given that 90 percent of the time in Turkey, I don’t know what I’m doing.

Nevertheless, I pinned the banknote on the epitrachelion thingy without stabbing anyone, then awkwardly placed the greeting card on a table.

Like at American weddings, the photographer paraded the bride and groom around the grounds to snap their photos before the real fun could begin – the dancing.

The dancing is the best part of Turkish weddings. It’s when the interaction warms up and the joy boils over.

Some modern songs were thrown into the mix before the traditional songs and dances commenced.

Just when I was about to depart, nervous that I wouldn’t find a bus back to my neighborhood if I waited longer, the traditional groom’s dance began.

I filmed a portion of the dance, called the “damat halayi” but cut off the footage prematurely, unaware that there was a prize at the end – the prize being a fast stomp and series of claps that follow some side steps and kicks all while holding your neighboring dancers’ hands and forming the shape of a circle. With each step, the dancers move around the circle like a merry-go-round. I have included a YouTube clip to demonstrate the entire dance – though the dancers are assembled in a line instead of circle. If you want, please, follow along.

I eventually joined this circle of dancing but didn’t master the routine during the length of the song, so this morning, I watched the YouTube video and practiced it in my bedroom to the fascination of my cats.

You take one step to the side, cross your foot over the other, take another step to the side and then do a cross kick. Afterwards, you do four cross kicks and at the end of the final kick, you tap your foot while your leg is still crossed, tap again in front of you and then tap back to home (i.e. the natural position of your foot when you’re standing). There, you do a quick, kind of closed-leg bow and clap your hands multiple times. It was very uplifting, as if we were all applauding each other.

The cadence of the music, and in turn, the dance steps, speeds up as it progresses. In that sense it could be seen as a musical metaphor for a Turkish wedding.

Menengiç: Coffee that breaks the rules

Monday marked my third month living in Turkey. The anniversary prompted me to reflect on how things have changed, from feeling utterly lost in my new environment to feeling a sense of confidence and acceptance.

When I say “acceptance,” I mean I have finally accepted that my life in Turkey is different from in the United States in both positive and negative ways.

One of the small things I had trouble accepting in Turkey was Turks’ patent refusal to add milk to Turkish coffee – something I tried in the United Arab Emirates and really enjoyed.

On a discouraging Saturday afternoon during my first month in Turkey, I stopped inside a small coffee shop by Istanbul’s Eminönü ferry terminal. I had been lost for almost two hours, having missed a couple of bus connections and wandered around looking for another bus that was supposed to take me to the Ortaköy neighborhood where I had an appointment to look at a flat, which eventually would become my home.

I ordered a Turkish coffee and asked the barista to add milk. In Turkey, that’s like adding vinegar to baking soda: It erupts.

“Turkish coffee, no milk!” he yelled.

“Can I just have some? I like it that way,” I pleaded.

“Turkish coffee, no milk,” he insisted.


For a while after that, I tried to convince baristas that Turkish coffee with milk is delicious and that they should keep an open mind. But after consistent backlash, I ultimately gave up and largely stopped drinking Turkish coffee.

The marvelous ending to this story is that acceptance eventually opened the door to my desire.

The door led to a spectacular vista in Cappadocia’s Ihlara Valley in Central Turkey.

During a guided group tour of the valley in May, our tour guide, Aysel Sivri of Woop Woop Travel Agency, pointed out some wild pistachio trees, growing on a ridge over the valley.

The wild pistachio seeds are used to make a very delicious “coffee,” she said in passing.

As we hiked through the valley, I asked her to repeat the name of the coffee and jotted it down.

Her next words stunned me: “It is like Turkish coffee, but it’s made with milk.”

Once back in Istanbul, I was on a part-time mission to find the coffee, which is called “menengiç” coffee. It is also called “terebinth” or “turpentine” in English. I found some shops that sold the grounds, but having never tried it and not knowing how to make it, I held out for a coffee shop that served it.

A coworker gave me the name of a coffee shop in Istanbul’s Kadikoy neighborhood – Okkalı Kahve – that offers menengiç on its menu, so I added that to my list of places to try.

Before I had a chance to visit, I was unexpectedly served the coffee during a meal with my friend, Zeynep, at Ciğeristan, a homestyle kabob restaurant in Istanbul’s Fatih district.

The restaurant serves the coffee on fire. They ignite a flammable salt-like substance on the saucer to cook the coffee in its cup. Beyond its thrilling presentation, the coffee is the most delicious coffee I’ve tried. It has a nutty – and more importantly to me, a milky – sweet flavor.

Calling it coffee could be a misnomer because menengiç coffee has no caffeine, but then again neither does decaffeinated. In that respect, it’s a good alternative to caffeinated coffee in the evening. Menengiç has digestive benefits and is packed with vitamins, including A, B1, B2, B6, C and E. It also contains protein, fiber, fat, phosphorus, calcium, iron and potassium, according to the Turkish food website, Harbi Yiyorum (which means “I am really eating”).

The coffee – which originated in Iran and is served there, is cooked in the same way as Turkish coffee, in a Turkish coffeepot and on a heavy fire, the website says. To make it, add two teaspoons of menengiç grounds to one cup of milk, as well as sugar to taste. Boil the ingredients while continuously stirring. It’s traditionally served with nuts and water. In Turkey, the beverage is most associated with southwestern Turkey, especially Gaziantep, where wild pistachio trees flourish in the region’s dry, soft soil.

An unwitting intro to Turkish pop music

Two Turkish pop music stars. One night. Two separate locations. It might seem unlikely, but it just goes to show that anything can happen in Istanbul. The Queen of Cities has been leaving visitors awestruck for more than a millennium.

Apart from hearing Turkish rap blasting from vehicles on the motorways, I have been somewhat inattentive to investigating Turkey’s music scene.

Just as the discovery of Turkish rap was inadvertent, so too was my unwitting introduction to Turkish pop music on Monday night, June 17, 2019.

As you may remember from my last blog post, my friends, Kubilay and Zeynep, took me to a whirling dervish ceremony on Monday at a dergah (house of worship) in the Fatih district of Istanbul. Before entering the mosque, a bald man with expressive eyebrows started talking to us. When he learned that I was American, he zoomed in on me. He had a lot to say about Americans and U.S. President Donald Trump, specifically.

He started out by expressing his hope that Trump will follow through on his plan to visit Turkey in July, as first reported by Middle East Eye last month.

Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are already scheduled to meet at the G-20 summit June 28-29 in Osaka, Japan, where, according to Turkish media reports, Erdoğan hopes to dissuade U.S. officials from imposing sanctions over Turkey’s decision to purchase S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems from Russia.

I had no idea who this man was.

“He’s a famous Turkish singer,” Zeynep whispered to me, before we took a group photo together.

Later, I found out his name. Mazhar Alanson is a Turkish pop music singer and guitarist who represents the “M” in the famous Turkish pop music band, MFÖ (Mazhar, Fuat and Özcan).

Alanson explained that Americans have major misconceptions about Turkey. A visit from Trump could shed more light on this secular country that sits strategically where the East meets the West.

“They think Turks are Arabs who carry guns around everywhere,” Alanson said.

That sounds more like America, I thought, considering all of the mass shootings at schools, malls and other public places.

“Americans are very pure-hearted,” Alanson continued.

The problem between Turkey and America is between the governments, he said.

“People are people everywhere in the world,” he said.

As if that weren’t enough for one evening, Zeynep, Kubilay and I had another chance encounter with Turkish pop stardom while stuck in a traffic jam in Beşiktaş, on the way to my home in the Ortakoy neighborhood.

Eurovison star Can Bonomo and his wife were sitting in a shiny black car directly next to us. A Syrian beggar was badgering them to buy a bouquet of wilted roses. Bonomo handed the man a 10-Turkish lira note but didn’t want the roses, so the man pulled off the petals and scattered them over the couple’s car. People in neighboring cars were hanging out of windows to snap photos of the musical celebrity.

I had never heard of Bonomo either, but my impeccable luck for running into Turkish pop stars did prompt me to look them both up on YouTube.

Alanson sounds a bit like American singer-songwriter Tom Waits. Here is MFO’s song, Yandim, which means “I have a burn.”

Bonomo’s music is really catchy. Here is one of his songs called Bardak Tasiyor, which I believe is an idiom that means, “That tears it!”

I have yet to learn what that means.

The moral of this story is I never would have known whom I had met if it hadn’t been for my Turkish friends, Zeynep and Kubilay. I think that speaks volumes about how important it is for foreigners to befriend the natives in the country where they live. It’s more comfortable sometimes to cling to those whose cultures are most similar to ours, but we miss out on so much that way. For instance, I would have never been at that mosque that night if it hadn’t been for Kubilay’s inside knowledge, and I might never have known that I had encountered Alanson and Bonomo if I had been out with non-Turkish friends, who like me, probably wouldn’t have recognized them.

And if you’re just a traveler, there are ways to befriend natives in the country you’re visiting. An app called Couch Surfers allows you to stay with people who live in the country, but if you’re not comfortable doing that, you can just meet someone for coffee or a meal. It’s a good way to learn the inside scoop on the country for which you have probably paid a lot of money to visit, and you might make a lifelong friend.

Why you should see whirling dervishes in Turkey

Watching a performance of whirling dervishes – who worship God by twirling into a mesmerizing spiritual frenzy – are a hallmark of any visit to Turkey.

As a souvenir, you can buy figurines depicting the mystical dancers, and if you go on a tour, such as an evening Bosporus Tour, you might see a performance as part of the packaged tour price.

I recently joined an American friend on an evening Bosporus tour, where a whirling dervish performer decked out in a black sequined robe delighted us with a dizzying performance set to soothing instrumental music – the kind of music you might listen to while sailing.

But if you would prefer to see a more authentic rendition of whirling dervishes, you might consider visiting a dergah (house of worship).

My friends and former Airbnb hosts, Kubilay and Zeynep took me out Monday night, June 17, for an authentic evening of whirling dervishes. By authentic, I mean that we went to an actual Sufi worship service, not a whirling dervish performance arranged for the pleasure of tourists.

Every Monday night, Nurettin Efendi Dergahı – an authentic Sufi order in the Fatih district of Istanbul – holds a “sumi,” the name for the worship service. It’s usually held around 9 p.m., but in the summer, they begin as late as 11 p.m.

And unlike professional performances for tourists, seeing these whirling dervishes is free of cost.

Zeynep and I were required to cover our hair for the sumi. Women ordinarily are required to worship up in a latticed loft above the ceremony hall, but Zeynep managed to convince the lady in charge to allow us to sit away from the men in the main ceremony hall, where we could see the action.

As a side note, the mosque has a dresser full of scarves, so if you arrive with an exposed head of hair, the mosque is equipped to cover you. With typical Turkish charm, the ladies searched their cache of scarves for scarf colors that flattered our complexions.

Before I continue, for those of you who are new to the subject, whirling dervishes are part of Sufism, a mystical style of worship within mainstream Sunni Islam, the origins of which remain in dispute even among Sufi scholars.

The followers of world-famous poet Rumi (Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi to be exact) founded the Mevlevi order of Sufism shortly after his death, and the Mevlevi order gave the world whirling dervishes, according to tour guide and blogger Burak Sansal.

Rumi, who was born to Persian-speaking parents in present-day Afghanistan and lived most of his life in Konya, Turkey; is wildly popular in the United States and worldwide. In 2014, he was America’s best-selling poet, more than 700 years after his death, according to the BBC.

The rituals established within the Mevlevi order focus on spiritual introspection and closeness to God through poetry, chants, music and you guessed it, dancing.

And that’s where the whirling dervishes come in.

The best place to see whirling dervishes is in Konya, where Rumi lived and died, but if you can’t make it to Konya, Istanbul has some alternatives that are just as authentic.

Inside Nurettin Efendi Dergahı, the dervishes, dressed entirely in white, began with slow turns and gradually worked themselves into a state of transcendence through whirling and reverberating chants and music performed by worshippers.

As the worshippers chanted and swayed in a swirling motion with their upper bodies, I felt myself involuntarily swaying along with them.

As they prayed – a ceremony called the “zikr” – they held their palms up. As a yoga practitioner, it reminded me of yoga meditation: Upward open palms position the mind and body to be open and receptive.

We couldn’t see the whirling dervishes that well because on that particular night, they were in an adjacent room. We just saw their reflections in the glass. Occasionally, the corner of a whirling white robe whipped out of the door frame into view.

Typically, whirling dervishes perform their worshipful, meditative twirling in the main part of the mosque (the equivalent of a church sanctuary). On Monday night, however, the dervishes were trainees and were not yet ready for their public debut, Kubilay said, after speaking to someone at the dergah. (Update: To see the whirling dervishes performing in the main part of the mosque in September 2019, click on this video.)

Apart from the experience of seeing this moving form of worship, going to a suma can be informative to a visitor to Turkey, because whirling dervishes played a pivotal role in the evolution of Ottoman culture. They obviously influenced the visual arts, but they, additionally, shaped music, classical poetry and calligraphy, according to Sansal.

Look for Kubilay and Zeynep among Airbnb’s selection of Istanbul experiences. They regularly hold Airbnb events to showcase the best of Istanbul’s whirling dervishes.

Turks warm-hearted, cold-blooded

Aboard the shuttle to the office, I turned back toward Yusif – the only other fluent English speaker on the bus – and smiled conspiratorially.

“Yusif, look, I have my own air conditioner,” I said.

I unfurled the black and turquoise wings of the bamboo accordion fan in my hand – a treasure I acquired from a streetside vendor in the Aegean city of Izmir.

“I just hope I don’t hit anyone with it, because it’s quite large,” I said, as I fanned up a breeze amid the heavy, humid air inside the bus.

He laughed.

I have lived in Istanbul  for six weeks now, and there’s one thing I just can’t get used to – the subtropical temperatures at which Turks like to keep the thermostats in their offices, homes, vehicles and public transportation.

Turks are among the warmest-hearted and most hospitable people I’ve met, and they’re remarkably sensitive to cold.

Some women in my office wear turtleneck and cowl-neck sweaters in mid-May.

Before I bought my fan, I often jury-rigged whatever was in my possession into a fan, be it a book, piece of paper or wallet. Sometimes, the sight of me dramatically fanning myself would prompt a bus driver to switch on the air conditioning. As soon as the air started blowing, I would see a wave of hands shoot up to close their vents.

On a bus ride to the airport on Friday, the temperature felt unusually comfortable.

Around the time I was thinking this, a Turkish woman sitting beside me asked whether I felt cold.

“Uhhhhh, no. No way.”

Then, she kept fiddling with the vents to see if she could close off more air.

I have yet to discover why Turks are so cold-blooded, butI recently gained some insight from reading a list of Turkish proverbs and sayings. 

A Turkish-American, Sevil Delin, compiled the list in a post in December 2016 on the Matador Network travel website.

“Turks have a congenital fear of catching a chill, which can strike any part of your body,” Delin wrote.

The Turkish saying, “Kafayı üşüttü” literally means: “They’ve caught a cold in their head.”

“If you’ve caught a cold in your head, it means you’ve gone crazy,” Delin said.

Why would a journalist move to Turkey?

The Neo-Baroque-style Ortakoy Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey

Since moving to Istanbul one month ago, a common question I hear from Turks is, “Why would you move to Turkey? All of us are trying to move to America.”

Undoubtedly, Turkey is in an economic crisis. Inflation has, in fact, bloated consumer prices to a painful degree. I feel that discomfort almost as keenly as Turks because in my new position as an English copyeditor I earn Turkish liras.

For instance, I pay the equivalent of $25 for one bottle of shampoo. A small bag of kibble for my American feline companion, Cleopatra, costs what would amount to $80 in the United States. Thank 

My penny-pinching lifestyle contrasts with my vacation here in November 2018. Then fortified with U.S. dollars, Turkey seemed an inexpensive and exotic shopping wonderland. Due to the dramatic gap between the value of the U.S. and Turkish currencies, everything I bought with U.S. dollars was effectively 80-percent off. Since November, the gap between the two currencies has only widened.

Perhaps more perplexing to my American friends was why as a journalist, I would want to go to a country that holds the worldwide distinction of jailing the most journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

While I weighed those factors in my decision, I was more concerned with how the experience of living in Turkey would fit in with the overall arc of my life. My longtime goal has been to live abroad. What kind of experiences could I have here that were outside my reach in other places? On that basis, Turkey fulfilled most of my desires.

If I live in only one country outside the United States, Turkey seems to offer the most varied experiences in one place. Where else than Istanbul can I within 10 minutes visit both Europe and Asia without leaving the city? Turkey is one of the few places where I can experience European and Middle Eastern culture at the same time.

Around every corner, the land offers spectacular views of nature and geographic wonders – such as the whimsical cone-shaped rock formations in Cappadocia in central Turkey and the stunningly white, travertine-encrusted terraces and hot springs in Pamukkale.

Meanwhile, the historical and archaeological finds are so numerous and rich that even the locals have a hard time keeping up.

The Turks have made me feel incredibly welcome here – a fact that contrasts with the impression many Westerners have about whether Turkey is a safe destination. Complete strangers have helped me for no reason other than to be kind.

As a colleague remarked upon hearing my reason for moving here: “Turkey is the perfect synthesis of Europe and the Middle East” and of nature and civilization.