This spot on planet Earth has been inhabited for well over two thousand years — as Byzantium, Constantinople, then Istanbul — and was a great cosmopolitan capital city for 1,500 of those. Merchants and scholars from all over the then-known world flocked to it.
I can’t say, however, that it is cosmopolitan any more, certainly not by the standards of London, New York, Paris or Sydney today. Or even Singapore. Istanbul has a cultural homogeneity that our more nostalgic romantics might wish we had.
Not that many of my fellow citizens wishing for homogeneity would want us to be Turkish Muslim, and I take the trouble to say ‘Turkish Muslim’, because there are quite evident differences between them and the Arab Muslims. The Turkish have, for example, been easy about painting portraits and human figures — much like the Persians — whereas the Arabs have been a lot more ascetic about it. They have also embraced Sufism when the Arabs have had a highly conflicted relationship with it.
I think a Muslim Singaporean might usefully reflect on what this means for his own understanding of his faith. Islam came to the Malays via the Arabs, and more recently, Wahhabism has been trying to dominate the Malay-Muslim discourse, with its claims of exclusive correctness. Islam as understood in Singapore may therefore be disproportionately infused with Arab interpretations. An encounter with Turkey’s history and traditions may prove a wonderful mind-opening exercise.
Yet, Istanbul is undeniably a Muslim city. Five times a day, calls to prayer are broadcast from minarets, different lilts by various muezzins blending and clashing as they echo back and forth. From anywhere in the city looking in any direction, you’d almost surely see a mosque, often several. Two in three women wear a hijab — and this is the most westernised corner of Turkey. I’d add though that I didn’t see anyone donning a niqab, unlike in the Arab world. But I will come back to Islam and gender later.
Yet it was easy making my way around, despite my being neither Turkish nor Muslim. I was not at a loss. Buses are boarded via the front door. Traffic lights that are red mean Stop. Green means Go. There is no blue. When the ferry schedule says the boat leaves at 10:42, it means 10:42, not some other flaccid choice of departure time. Food is sold in measures I can understand, like kilograms, as in the case of sweets and cheese. At the fast-food chain Köfteci Yusuf, you order the amount of meat in your main course by 50g increments. The checked-off order slip is placed on your table and you know this means you take the piece of paper to the cashier yourself to pay, while on your way out.
It got me thinking: No, this is not a mono-cultural place. This is a bi-cultural place. Overlaying Turkish-Muslim Istanbul is a second culture, one that I was familiar with — what I’d label ‘secular modern’. It’s as if I too shared the same operating system, enabling me to cross roads safely, find and use bathrooms, and buy recognisable food and toiletries in familiar measures.
Let me give you an example to distinguish this bi-cultural phenomenon: Washing facilities in hamams are culturally Turkish. Many of us would not know what we’re expected to do, how the “system” works. First-timers are anxious about being unfamiliar with etiquette. But the hotel bathroom is not culturally Turkish. It is secular modern and we know how to operate its various fixtures without being told. We even know that turning the tap lever left means hot water, right means cold.
A traditional meal would be culturally Turkish. How many meze is one expected to order? Is there any combination of meze that’s a no-no? Is the bread chargeable or is it free? What about the obligatory cup of tea at the end? When is it permissible to eat with fingers, and when not? How much does one tip? How is the tip to be delivered? By contrast, ordering at Burgerking is culturally secular modern.
‘Secular modern’ might be seen as just a set of conventions, but it is also a real and valid culture, one in which we can “plug and play” instantly, because we too are secular modern.
This insight then calls on us to re-look at ourselves. Our official narrative is that Singapore is a Chinese-Malay-Indian (actually Southern Chinese, Malay and Tamil-Indian) place, but casting it thus is to miss perhaps the most significant cultural element that makes us what we are. In many ways, on a day-to-day basis, secular modern is our primary operating system, with only an underlay of Chinese-Malay-Indian. The failure of many (particularly officialdom) to acknowledge that we are more secular modern than Chinese, Malay or Indian may account for the artificiality of much of Singapore’s cultural representation.
With public transport being a perennial hot potato in Singapore, let me say something about Istanbul’s, though first I should mention contextually that it is a city of about 14 million, and that from what I can see, it has a standard of living rather similar to Singapore.
The first complication any transport planner faces is that because the city is (beautifully) situated around large bodies of water — the Bosphorus Strait, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara — it means that public transport must be a mix of land and sea transport. Building metro lines involves the costly and difficult engineering task of tunnelling under the seabed. At present, only one line crosses the Bosphorus.
Secondly, the terrain is hilly. Mass transit railways cannot efficiently cope with significant gradients. For the steeper slopes, Istanbul has stand-alone funicular railways, but that means that commuters have to change frequently between different modes: metro, funicular, tram, bus, minibus (called ‘dolmuş’), and ferry.
As much as we complain about the inadequacies of Singapore’s system, Istanbul’s (like so many other cities’) really shows us that Singapore’s is not bad at all. Albeit that I have not exhaustively tested Istanbul’s, it appears that coverage and connectivity is better in Singapore. For starters, in Istanbul, you cannot change metro lines on the same fare; you have to tap your fare card out from one line and then tap it again to enter another line, even at the same interchange. Moreover, the fare system is not distance-based; it’s a flat fare regardless of distance. I figure that to travel from one mid-distant suburb to somewhere central, the typical Istanbul resident may need to take three different modes. Based on my average of about 2.15 lira (about S$1.30) per leg of journey, a typical journey downtown for a resident would cost about $3.90.
That is significantly more than a Singaporean would pay for a public transport journey to work. This example calls for a more realistic appreciation of the engineering and economics behind Singapore’s system.
Is it crowded? Generally yes. The metro and tram was almost always crowded, any time of the day. At peak hours, you have a simple choice: be sardine-packed or wait for the next train (to be sardine-packed again). On the other hand, buses, ferries and dolmuşes had more variable loading.
A glance at the metro-lines map left me with the impression that for a city of 14 million, it is under-served. That being the case, I thought that public transport should be even more crowded than I observed, or else roads should be gridlocked. But they weren’t, though traffic was often heavy. I cannot explain why, especially as the city has no road pricing scheme at the moment. I can only speculate that people travel less than in Singapore, putting less demand on infrastructure.
At this point, I need to modulate the term ‘downtown’ which I used a few paragraphs above. Unlike our mental picture of downtown with skyscrapers and canyons between glass facades, Istanbul has rather few tall buildings. Most of its central commercial area — which is large, spreading out 5 – 8 km in all directions — consists of six- or seven-storey buildings. It must surely have a lower density than downtown Singapore. Consequently, to accommodate 14 million, the metropolis is much more spread out. People may be travelling more within their own part of the city rather than going cross-city regularly (as many Singaporeans do).
In Singapore, spreading out is a luxury we can’t afford. We face acute limitations on space; we have to pack ourselves in more densely, both downtown as well as in our residential suburbs. Even so, it raises the question: did we exacerbate the situation by planning a single downtown filled with skyscrapers, forcing lots of people to converge in a tight locality at similar hours? Did we want a Manhattan-like cityscape for prestige reasons? Could we not have, through zoning policies, spread work locations more evenly throughout the island?
Invariably, I cringe when a foreigner, on learning that I come from Singapore, respond with the cliché of a clean city. Come off it. I’ve seen many cities where municipal hygiene compares very well. As any Singaporean knows, we’re only what we are because we employ an army of cleaners. Istanbul reminds me very much of home in this respect. Everywhere I went, including to suburbs tourists hardly ever walk into, I saw cleaners. And scavengers. The result: a clean city. But like Singapore, the superficial does not say much about civic responsibility.
A better indicator was what I saw in self-service places like Burgerking and Starbucks. “Oh, they’re just like Singaporeans,” I said to myself. Nobody clears his own tray.
As for queuing to get onto public transport? Forget it! They won’t even wait to let disembarking passengers off the train before pushing in. So maybe we’re a little better than the Turkish.
They do stand on one side of escalators though.
I was particularly amused by another cultural meme I saw: choping seats with little items. ‘To chope’ is Singlish to mean marking a seat out for oneself. The Turkish don’t do it with packs of tissue paper like we do, but I’ve seen people use a glove or scarf or a textbook to reserve a spot in McDonald’s and Starbucks and even on minibuses while they go off to buy something before the vehicle departs.
We are not unique in this respect. Not queuing, pushing into trains before allowing other passengers out, choping seats — they are universal responses to resource scarcity whenever civic graciousness is not well developed. We should be embarrassed, but we are not. Neither are the Istanbulis.
And one more thing: at least three times, I saw a young man give up his seat to an elderly person on the train and bus. On all three occasions, the elderly person just took the seat without thanking the giver. I think — I hope — we do better than that in Singapore.
Islam and gender
I retreated in near-panic. How could I make the mistake — in a majority-Muslim country too — of entering a women’s restroom? Oh, what a faux-pas!
Once out, I was confused. The doorway through which I had entered was clearly marked with a symbol for male. The opposite (which I hadn’t entered) was unequivocably marked female. I had entered the correct one. So what made me react instinctively as if it was the women’s section?
Because the one I entered did not have any urinal. It only had stalls. It had the layout of a women’s restroom. In other words, I had read my secular modern expectations onto a non-modern situation. It was misunderstanding borne of cultural mismatch.
This is where the Turkish are not as secular modern as they may appear to be. Even to pee, Turkish men strongly prefer to use the stalls. That said, most public restrooms (at least in the newer places) have a row of urinals, but they are underutilised.
Since I did not have the opportunity to observe what really goes on inside the stalls, I can only speculate that the Islamic injunction to wash one’s private parts made it very difficult to do so at the urinal. This would be particularly since, unlike East Asian cultures which are quite
blasé about nudity, Middle-eastern cultures frown strongly on pubic exposure even in an all-male environment.
On one occasion, wanting to use a public facility, I came up against a queue of men, a queue stretching about four persons out of the restroom. Naturally I joined the line and very slowly shuffled forward with it. It was only when I reached the doorway to the restroom that I could see it had a row of four or five urinals, completely unused. The men in the queue were waiting to use the three stalls. It had been quite unnecessary for me to queue!
More seriously, about 90 percent of shops and restaurants had exclusively male staff. The few that had female servers tended to be places that were cultural implants, e.g. fastfood restaurants or tourist shops, or government-linked establishments, e.g. museums. Yet even my hotel, geared to serving tourists, had all-male frontline staff. The reception, the bellboys, the breakfast room and its supporting pantry — they were male domains. At the long-distance bus terminal, I must have walked past ticket counters of twenty bus companies. Every single one of them had a male clerk serving customers.
That said, if one looked hard enough, you could spot women in employment. However, they tended to fill the backroom jobs. For example, the chambermaids in my hotel were women. They were meant to do work but not be seen. At a restaurant on the outskirts of Istanbul that surely catered to locals — from the fact that no one there spoke a word of English — I managed to spy a young lady in the office behind the cashier. She was probably doing up the accounts. But she was outnumbered by the 12 – 15 men running the open kitchen and the front of house. Again, she was not meant to be seen.
Having come from Jordan, I noticed the same pattern too. In fact, there, the gender divide was even more rigid. My hotel room was cleaned by a guy.
The explanation I would reach for is that of gender roles prescribed by Muslim or Middle-eastern tradition. It is not the done thing for women to speak freely to strangers, making it difficult to place women in frontline positions where they have to interact with all and sundry who walk into the shop, restaurant or hotel.
That said, it is no hard and fast rule. Museum guichets were often staffed by women. McDonald’s, Burgerking, even the home-grown Köfteci Yusuf chain, had as many female employees as male. But go into the souk, eat at any döner kebab diner or just glance at the neighbourhood convenience store and it’s men, men, men, everywhere.
I have two other possibilities for this situation. One is that there is hiring discrimination. If businesses are male-owned and, related to Islamic culture, bosses find it hard to interview and hire women, the result will be the same imbalance in outcome. Another is that education for girls lags behind that for boys thus limiting their employability — but I strongly doubt if this is the case in Istanbul.
Singapore women should count themselves lucky. Our main traditional source culture (the Chinese) did not have such a strong bias against women in the public square, and what bias there was was demolished when the stridently egalitarian ethos of communism swept through Chinese culture. Even our Malays inherited a culture that was traditionally far less strict about gender divides, with it being quite acceptable to see women selling things in the market.
Additionally, business culture in Singapore may be a greater degree more secular modern than in Istanbul, allowing greater equality of opportunity to women.
The point we may want to remember is this: tradition and religion, nostalgic as we may sometimes be for them, are not always positive things. They can be very confining. Secular modernity for all its shortcomings (e.g. materialism and consumerism) is liberating, and we should be thankful for that.
The East wind
Several times a day, a passer-by would greet me with ‘nihao’. And I really mean a passer-by, not someone trying to sell me something or scheming to scam me. It could be a guy (always a guy, the gender thing again) on his way to class, or just stepping out of a bakery with a loaf under his arm, or a sweatsuited chap walking his dog — someone who would have no reason to speak to me except that he wanted the thrill of testing his ‘nihao’ on a serendipitous East Asian face.
Years ago, it used to be ‘konnichiwa’ exclusively. In Istanbul, I was still greeted with this Japanese greeting about once or twice a day, but overall, it’s three- or four-to-one in nihao’s favour. I also have the sense that the fortyish guy was more likely to say ‘konnichiwa’, but the guy in this twenties or thirties would say ‘nihao’.
This nihao phenomenon is not confined to Istanbul. I first noticed it in Albania two years ago. Albania! Which hardly sees any tourists at all. Then I encountered it in Jordan. Now Turkey.
Something has changed this twenty-first century.
My very rough estimate is that about a fifth or maybe even a quarter of tourists I see around me have East Asian faces. A quarter is a lot. Consider this: Europeans must surely make up at least half of visitors to Istanbul, from proximity of their countries alone. If half of the balance half (i.e. a quarter of the total) are coming from East Asia, that’s a substantial number.
From eavesdropping on their languages I’d say they were roughly an equal mix of Japanese, Koreans and Chinese. Some were in tour groups, but almost as many were independent travellers. I even saw a Chinese couple flashing credit cards to buy, not one, but two expensive carpets.
I never quite figured out how ‘nihao’ has caught on. What is it that the younger men in Istanbul, Albania and Jordan are exposed to on the internet or airwaves that lead them to pick up ‘nihao’?
But here’s the question: Do Singaporeans have any analogous spontaneity? Do we know enough greetings in foreign languages to pleasantly surprise our visitors? Or are we seen as aloof and tongue-tied?
In Istanbul, I tried to return the favour. On New Year’s Day, I was rambling around a residential part of Üsküdar when I came upon a local coffee joint. I stopped to consider whether I wanted to sit and rest with a cup when I heard two women chattering as they approached from behind me. I just knew they were talking about me, something along the lines of “Oh look, how interesting, here’s a foreigner in our neighbourhood.”
I turned around to give them a smile, and sure enough they were already looking at me, shopping baskets in hand. Their chatter was frozen for a moment, their mouths slightly agape, caught in the act of talking about me behind my back.
Then I said to the both, “Mutlu Yillar” (Happy New Year), which they found to be such an unexpected surprise, they became as excited as little girls in a barbie-doll store. There followed much bowing and recitation of complex felicitations in return, none of which I understood of course, but I think I made their day.
Naturally, one is there in Istanbul for the sights. They have two thousand years’ worth of them; they’re as real as they come, layer after layer of inspiration and suffering, glory and tragedy. There is no way Singapore can compare. But equally there is no way New York or Sydney can compare either, yet they’re doing fine in attracting not just visitors, but repeat visitors.
There’s a lesson in there somewhere. We go to New York or Sydney not to ogle at old stones but really for experiences, which no two visits provide the same. More importantly, these experiences are authentic, be they browsing in neighbourhood flea markets (which are mostly patronised by locals, not set up just for tourists), hiking along the ocean front, pausing to be amused by street artists or immersing oneself in an evening at the theatre. In other words, the experiences offered to visitors are not those specially created for tourists but those that locals partake of themselves. Anything else would come across as tacky and contrived.
Are we any good at that? Or is our famed ability to build hardware and conversely our hopelessness in creating cultural buzz equipping us with the wrong skill sets? Is that why we have mega trees made of glass and steel, and zero handicraft industry?
Is that why our street buskers suck?
Is our work ethic making us a surly, self-absorbed people? We complain all the time, although that in itself is not unusual; in every country, people have cause for dissatisfaction. But do we complain with panache?
One day, I was in a small town outside Istanbul. Just about every street was badly potholed and rutted. There was mud and dirty water everywhere. As I stepped carefully from dry stone to dry stone down the town’s main street, a shop-owner sitting outside his shopfront said hello to me.
“You like Turkey?” he asked in unusually good English.
“Absolutely,” I said.
“Yes, what’s there not to like,” he said with a weary air. “After all,” he continued, with a sweep of his arm to indicate the fifty potholes within the next fifty metres of road, “we have all the wonders of the world!”
That’s flair for you.