Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Contrasting Turkey with Qatar

So during Eid I went on vacation to Turkey, a country I typically visit at least once a year. Spent some time in Bodrum before heading to Bursa. It's a lot easier visiting places in Turkey now that Qatar Airways has opened more routes to the country, I think they now fly direct from Doha to seven different places.

The timing of my trip coincided with the Turkish currency crisis, where the lira dropped something like 40% in value. Not great for Turkey but it sure made my trip cheaper. Did a lot of shopping while I was there because my friends and I found that prices were around half of what we would pay in Doha. Some news articles noted that in Istanbul luxury goods shops were packed with tourists taking advantage of the currency to get top-end goods at great prices. I doubt it's like that anymore, the shops would have had to reorder stock from Europe so would have to factor in the currency difference in the retail price. I did note that at the Duty-Free at the airport all of the prices were in Euro, not lira. If the currency crisis does not abate soon I'm betting most tourist places will switch to Euro for pricing.

But what I wanted to discuss was some differences between Turks and Qataris. While Turkey is a secular State the population is still pretty much all Muslim, so it's interesting to see how their lives are different from an Arab living in the Gulf. Some people in the West think that all Muslims live their lives the same way but in truth countries with Muslim populations can be very different from one another. Travelling between Turkey and Qatar it always strikes me how different the two countries can be.

Turk society as a whole is more relaxed about privacy. In Qatar for example homes have walls around them and when designing a home there is always concern around where windows are and whether a neighbour can see your property through a window or see into your house. I've seen homes that put up screens on top of walls specifically to block a neighbour's view of the house. In Turkey cities are more densely populated and most people live in apartment blocks. Qatar-levels of privacy would be simply impractical in Turkey.

I suppose a lot of it stems from how much gender segregation occurs. In Arab society there is more emphasis on gender segregation. Saudi Arabia is always pointed out in Western Media as an extreme of this and while Qatar is not as strict as Saudi there are some similar cultural practices amongst Qataris.

Local schools are gender-segregated (though many foreign-run ones aren't) up until university, in Turkey I saw a number of mixed elementary and high schools.

In Qatar men will usually not approach friends if they see their friend with their wives and family. This is a faux pas in Qatar society. While mixed workplaces are now common the tradition about meeting in a personal setting prevails. This is why a man's majlis is separate from the house, so other men have no need to enter the home. One of my friends commented that he won't enter his own home if his wife has friends over, he'll stay in his majlis until the ladies leave. In Turkey is a lot more similar to the West and you meet couples all the time.

Continuing on this I have mentioned many times how wedding celebrations are separate for men and women. I've never seen a ladies wedding, nor would I ever be invited to one. I have yet to meet or see a picture of any of my friend's wives. I remember one time after a friend got married he was at the office one day with his wedding photo album -- it was all photos of him and his male relatives, there were no pictures of the bride or other ladies. Those photos were in a private photo album that only relatives would see. I have not been to a wedding in Turkey but I've seen pictures of brides and I'm guessing the level of segregation found in Qatar does not occur in Turkey.

In Qatar mixed workplaces are more and more the norm but it can be a surprise to some Qataris. Workplaces will accomodate where possible, keeping ladies together in rooms so that they can keep the door closed and have privacy, but sometimes in a office that isn't feasible. I have worked with ladies who just started in the office and you could tell they were uncomfortable working alongside men. It would take a while but in time they would get used to it. In Turkey men and women are not as segregated so everyone is used to mixed-gender offices.

Clothing is also quite different, with Qatari men wearing a white thobe while ladies wear a black abaya (usually without a veil or 'niqab' though some ladies still wear it). When travelling in places like Europe Qataris will usually wear Western-clothing but ladies will keep their hair covered. In Turkey clothes for men are typical to what you find in the West, although older men tend to dress in suits and collared shirts in cooler weather (I once saw a beggar in Bursa who was dressed more upscale than I was). With Turkish ladies it varied widely, ranging from Western clothing and not covering their hair, to long dresses and covered hair. Turkey is a large country so clothing style can vary based on the region. Outside of Istanbul, Ankara and the coastal cities ladies tend to dress more conservatively, and I was in one village an hour's drive from Ankara where ladies clothing was more similar to an Iranian chador than clothing worn in other places in Turkey. Turkish ladies also wear a lot more colour instead of the all-black of the Qatari abaya.

Attitudes towards alcohol also vary. In Qatar it is much more strict, and alcohol is not as widely available. Many of my Qatari friends will not even go near a bar as they do not want people thinking that they drink. Qataris are more understanding when travelling abroad, there's pretty much no way to avoid restaurants that serve alcohol, but in Qatar they try to distance themselves from it. None of my friends drink. In Turkey alcohol is more available and while it might be frowned upon people openly drink alcohol without much stigma, especially beer or raki (a spirit similar to ouzo or sambuca). It does vary by region, it is much easier to find alcohol in places like Istanbul or the coastal tourist cities than it is in more conservative areas. In the coastal tourist cities drinking might even be encouraged, with party boats and festivals, something that Qatar NEVER does (when the World Cup comes in 2022 it'll probably be the first time a huge event with alcohol is held in the country. Yes, Qatar is well aware that there will need to be areas where World Cup fans can access alcohol, they accepted that when they made the bid.)

Anyway, the takeaway from all of this is that there are a lot of Muslim societies in this world and their cultures vary widely from area to area. One can't take a place like Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, or Morocco and just assume every other Muslim-majority country is like that.