Date posted: September 29, 2011
Charley Honey | The Grand Rapids Press | Saturday, July 30, 2011
The meal was incredible: savory lentil soup, two kinds of bread and salad, stuffed peppers, a scrumptious chicken casserole and a tasty pudding called muhallebi, followed by black tea in dainty glass cups. When you eat like this, you know you’re in Turkey.
We were in the home of Alpay and Rabia Akdeniz as the first guests at their cozy apartment in Istanbul. On a weeklong interfaith trip to Turkey, this young Muslim couple showed us the power of hospitality to transcend borders of culture, geography and faith.
While Rabia laid on the sumptuous feast for her 11 guests, Alpay talked of the 13th-century Turkish poet Rumi’s saying that all should be welcomed into a home, and none should leave with hearts unchanged.
We did not — especially after Rabia gave us scarves she had embroidered.
“The religion’s not important,” said Alpay, a mechanical engineer. “We are humans, and we have limited time. … You have to be friendly to your neighbor.”
The friendliness we encountered in Turkey lent weight to his words. Last week, our group witnessed the ancient wonders and living delights of this dynamic, predominantly Muslim nation. We traveled to four cities and talked with educators, journalists and health officials about life in Turkey, a country of 70 million that bridges Europe and Asia with a cultural feast of East and West.
But it was the intimate meals with Turkish families that left the deepest impression. They bowled us over with their graciousness and generosity, their goodwill shining through when language failed us.
I left feeling if more people could experience this, we would have greater hope for the future even when horrific headlines keep hammering us.
We took this tour courtesy of the Niagara Foundation, a Chicago-based organization that mostly funded the trip. It aims to promote peace and understanding through a variety of programs, offering Turkey as a model of democracy, diversity and religious tolerance.
Niagara is connected to the Gulen Movement, a loose affiliation of organizations and individuals led by Pennsylvania-based Turkish scholar Fetullah Gulen. The movement purports to emphasize education, service and interfaith understanding.
Gulen is not without its critics nor Turkey without its problems, notably tensions between its vigorous religious culture and steadfastly secular state. Suffice to say for now that despite our lingering questions about these matters, many of us came away with a mix of awe, fascination and excitement about Turkey and its possible lessons for the Arab spring.
Our West Michigan contingent — Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim — took in a head-spinning sampling of Turkey’s cultural and natural wonders, both shot through with faith.
Though about 95 percent Muslim, Turkey contains some of Christianity’s most ancient sites: the stunning Hagia Sophia, a massive cathedral turned Ottoman mosque turned magnificent museum; the House of the Virgin Mary, a hilltop chapel where tradition says she lived and died; the theater at Ephesus where St. Paul is said to have defended his faith.
The Tokali Church of Goreme, one of many cave churches in the Cappadocian valley where early Christians took refuge from persecution, enveloped us with jaw-dropping icons of Christ’s life. Its cool chambers breathed holiness, raising goosebumps and stirring the soul.
The Islamic counterpart to Goreme, for me, was witnessing the Whirling Dervishes of the Sufi order spin themselves into ecstatic oneness with God. On a clear night, feeling the whoosh of their billowing skirts, hearing the huffing of their incredible endurance, I again felt enveloped by the divine.
In less dramatic fashion, I also did at the homes of Turkish families. In Izmir, we were entertained by 11-year-old Irfan’s yo-yo tricks and his fandom of Kobe Bryant and Justin Bieber. Disney clocks and boxes of Amway L.O.C. — really! — were other Western touches. The mother gave us each prayer beads from Mecca, and we stepped into the jasmine-scented evening feeling blessed.
I will think of these memories and gifts as Muslims begin observing Ramadan next week. And I keep them in mind as police sift through the grisly details of the Norway slaughter, news reports of which we saw on our last night in Turkey.
After a week of interfaith amity, it was a brutal reminder of the viral hatred that knows no religious bounds. But it did not overcome the light we carried within us, shining with the promise of another way.
E-mail Charles Honey: [email protected]