In my youth and middle years, I would probably have been described as quite a deeply religious person but, as I’ve moved on in years I’ve become less diligent although I do still like to get an occasional tick on God’s register and to remind Him what I look like! Conveniently, we have a church in the village. Well…….not so much a church anymore, more like a wall but I do like to go and say my prayers there from time to time. The church itself was built over a thousand years ago and was Greek Orthodox but I felt sure God didn’t mind the odd Catholic nipping along to say a few Hail Marys, Our Fathers and Glory Bes!
On one cold but bright Autumn morning, I’d finished my statutory coffees and the puzzles in the morning paper and decided on the way home to pop over to say my prayers. Now the old boys in the kahvehane had always been interested in me praying and asked lots of pertinent questions like “Do you have to kneel down? Do you do it in Arabic?” and the somewhat more personal question “So are you circumcised?” You have to appreciate, dear reader, that such personal questions are considered perfectly acceptable opening gambits along with “Where does your pension come from?” and “How much do you get?” Suffice it to say that my answers were….”No”, “No”, “No”, “England” and “Enough”!!!
On hearing my answer to the third question, my mate the farmer chipped in with “That’s OK. I’ve got some shears in my barn, I’ll sort that out for you.” I thanked him for his consideration and politely declined!
Anyway, I paid for my coffees and made my way over to the church. Have you ever had the feeling you’re being watched? You know, that odd sensation at the back of your neck that tells you someone is watching you. Well, I’d got through my first Our Father and a couple of Hail Marys when I just knew someone was watching me. I swiftly turned round to see the heads of 3 old Turkish men peering round the wall. I think they were a bit embarrassed to have been caught out as I waved and turned back to the church!
A few weeks later my friend Zaffer told me that, the day before, his mother had died and the funeral would be after midday prayers in the mosque. In this situation the phrase that is commonly used is “Başın sağ olsun” which literally translates as “Get your head right” but is accepted as your condolences being offered. I told Zaffer that I would come along and went home to get changed. Now I don’t have a black suit here and made do with a dark jacket, pair of light trousers, shirt and black tie. As I made my way down to the mosque a number of the villagers asked where I was going and did I have a special occasion and it was at that point that I realised the men in the village don’t dress specifically for funerals unless they are very immediate family.
I arrived at the mosque a few minutes before prayers were going to start and took my place at the back where there are chairs to sit on. As a retired teacher with Religious Education as one of my specialist areas, I knew the prayer positions by heart and was quite relaxed about being in the mosque as I often used to go with a mate of mine in Kusadasi. However, with slowly stiffening legs and old age creeping on a pace, I can no longer manage the bowing with my forehead on the floor…..I can get down there but then can’t get back up without the assistance of the men on either side of me! So it’s a chair at the back for the yabanci!!!
Slowly the men began filing in and it wasn’t long before someone realised that the Englishman was in the mosque…it was fascinating to see this information being passed along the lines and heads slowly turning to see if it was true. However, with the entrance of the Imam order was restored and the prayers progressed. I have to say, to their credit, not one man after the prayers asked me whether I ought to have been there and I don’t think I’ve ever been hugged by so many men in my life!!!
It’s interesting to live in a Muslim community but not be fully a part of it. I’ve been amazed at the inclusiveness Ive experienced. For example, I am always greeted with “İyi bayramlar” (happy festival) by my friends and acquaintances during the various festivals and I always make a point of posting greetings on Facebook on these special occasions. Most of you will know the major festivals such as Ramadan and The Festival of the Sacrifice but Turkey also celebrated the lesser festivals called Kandil and they really appreciate you greeting them appropriately on these days. Our village mayor makes a point each year to personally invite me to the village iftar meal to mark the end of the day’s fasting. The village council provides a wonderful meal on one evening during Ramadan and, although I don’t fast and am not a Muslim, the mayor always insists that as part of the village I should be there.
It just feels right to celebrate alongside my friends on these occasions and it’s good to know that I’m the totally accepted yabanci in the village!!!!