Saturday, April 16, 2011

Living in a Turkey less travelled

Ph.D. student Bridget Purcell has a unique expat experience living in Turkey’s Southeast. Here to research modern pilgrimage and faith tourism, Purcell talks about her expectations about Turkey before coming here and life in Urfa

Even though she wouldn’t describe herself as adventurous, Bridget Purcell, a 26-year-old Ph.D. student from the US, is as intrepid as they come. Turkey wasn’t her original destination, however, and she tells us about how she’s come to research modern pilgrimage in Şanlıurfa and also shares her experiences of living in the Southeast of Turkey as a foreign woman.

A roundabout route here

Bridget was living in Damascus when she first discovered Turkey. “That was in the summer of 2008, and I’d been planning to do fieldwork in Syria,” she tells us. “One weekend I crossed the Hatay border with a couple of friends and was instantly drawn to that region, with its mosaic of sociolinguistic and religious communities. I decided pretty quickly to learn Turkish and move my research site here.

“I first chose Antakya; that was a pragmatic choice because I could speak Arabic while learning Turkish. There, I stayed at an interfaith guesthouse for pilgrims run by a German nun called Barbara. My conversations with her and with pilgrims passing through -- many were on the way to Jerusalem -- inspired me to study pilgrimage in Turkey. Because I was more interested in Islam than Christianity, I came east to Urfa [Şanlıurfa] to study its Abrahamic holy sites. At that point I noticed the rapid rise of faith tourism as a development strategy.”

Before coming to Turkey, she had few strong or well-defined expectations. “In general I think Americans don’t really know what to think of Turkey,” she points out. “For them it’s part of the ‘Middle East,’ but -- unlike Syria or Egypt -- it seems to partly escape our media-constructed image of the region. For instance, nobody back home asks me about ‘terrorism,’ which was a constant refrain when I was in Syria. Most of the expectations and stereotypes I’ve encountered have been regional stereotypes within Turkey.”

But isn’t it difficult dividing time between the US and Turkey?

“Yes, partly because I’m just not very intrepid as a traveler,” she admits, adding, “In fact, part of what drew me to the topic of travel and pilgrimage was a desire to know how these solitary ‘gezginler’ do it.”

Ins and outs of researching modern pilgrimage

Urfa, as we all know, is famous for being the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham. What we may not realize, however, is that its holy sites -- mosques, gravesites and sacred carp pools -- are as popular today among pilgrims as they have ever been. For her Ph.D. in anthropology at Princeton, Bridget is studying how pilgrimage is being taken up and reframed in contemporary Urfa as “faith tourism,” as part of a state-backed cultural development initiative in the region.

“I’m focusing largely on emerging tourism schemes in Urfa that bring together various interests, such as state representatives, local religious figures and international participants, and asking how they mobilize Urfa’s history and material environment,” Bridget points out, and continues: “The tourism sector in Urfa is really developing: mosques and traditional houses are being restored, there are inter-faith and inter-cultural festivals, and there’s also a burgeoning infrastructure for faith tourism. Yet while there’s a steady stream of tourists, Urfa seems to be expecting a flood: two new hotels -- a Hilton and a Sheraton -- are going up now. Perhaps the philosophy is: If you build it, they will come.”

But what does her research actually consist of? “I do a lot of walking and talking,” she explains. “My project is about Urfa’s physical space -- its history, social life, decay and development -- and I explore that by doing ‘interviews’ on the move. I walk through Urfa with locals as well as visiting pilgrims and tourists, trying to get as wide a cross-section of perspectives as possible. I also volunteer with a home stay tourism project by being an intermediary figure -- doing everything from helping with administrative tasks to developing walking routes with visitors or helping train local teenagers. I get a close-up view of the dynamics of these projects.”

If you wanted to be an anthropologist, it wouldn’t do to be shy, but how does Bridget go about interviewing total strangers in a foreign language in a different culture? For many of us, language would be an issue, but Bridget studied Turkish for a little over a year before going to Urfa, and it’s improved a lot since then. But isn’t her Arabic an advantage? “Although it used to be very good, it’s now utterly submerged by Turkish,” she notes. “My modern standard Arabic also helps me very little with the dialect of Arabic spoken in Urfa. As for ‘interviewing’ people, that might be a little misleading to describe what I do. Lots of social science consists of entering a social field, guns blazing with ready-made questions and surveys. But anthropology is more protracted and perhaps more passive; I try to first learn what’s important to people and allow my questions to emerge from that.

“In general, people are incredibly cooperative and patient with my never-ending, poorly formulated questions. One might expect some sort of wariness on the part of my interlocutors, but I almost never approach total strangers, and if someone appears uncomfortable with my questions or project, I generally beat it. I also find that as I incorporate people into my research project, they’re simultaneously incorporating me into their own projects and goals, and I can be helpful in ways such as teaching or translating English or helping a researcher access articles through Princeton databases.”

A few myths dispelled

If you haven’t yet visited Urfa and are unfamiliar with what being in the Southeast may be like for a Westerner, Bridget’s experiences of living there are enlightening.

The question on the tip of all our tongues is, of course, about what it’s like to be a Western woman based there. “It’s not particularly harrowing, but nor is it an easy or obvious fit,” she explains, noting, “Whilst learning the ropes I’ve made countless errors, such as sitting in the wrong part of the restaurant or the wrong place on the bus or even gulping water from a plastic bottle in public, which I’ve been told is unseemly.”

And does she feel safe there? “That’s an important question, as I do,” she tells us. “In fact, I’ve experienced almost zero harassment or unwanted attention. I have become interested in the local conception of Urfa as a ‘safe’ place, a zone of public decorum and the social relationships and norms that sustain that conception. Partly it’s that ‘everyone knows everyone,’ and thus, one is never really alone in Urfa. Whether one experiences this as an attentive community or an oppressive paternalism depends upon one’s perspective, and these perspectives vary widely at the local level.

“For instance, one evening, on my way home, I started jogging because I simply felt like it. I immediately got two phone calls, saying: ‘We saw you running! Are you OK?’ I could give you 12 stories like this off the top of my head. Whether or not one welcomes this sort of social vigilance depends on the individual and to some extent on factors like gender, generation and one’s place in the social structure.”

Doesn’t she feel isolated as a foreigner? “I know one other Westerner who’s not just passing through: Alison Tanık, a British woman who lives out in Yuvacalı village, 60 kilometers northeast of Urfa. She’s married with children and runs the home stay project -- Nomad Tours -- that I’m volunteering with. She’s super helpful and has been a source of advice, humor and sanity. I’ve also made many more Turkish friends in Urfa than I did while living in İstanbul, partly because there I was ensconced in the Boğaziçi University expat world. Here all of my friends are ‘locals’ -- farmers, doctors, librarians and students. Halil and Pero, with whom I stay in Hilvan when volunteering on the home stay project, and their three children, are perhaps more than friends: It’s there that I really feel sort of at home and looked after. Socializing here is so different from home: the activities, venues and numbers, but I guess the human function of friendship is the same,” according to Purcell.

So what does the future hold for her? “I’ll be here until September, and after that I’ll go home and have to step back, rearrange, and figure out how my fieldwork all fits together,” Bridget explains. “I imagine I’ll then go on the US academic job market.”


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