Are YOU a Christian?

The too loud music that came from the dusty field behind the University apartment complex that would become my home for the next three years grated on my nerves. It was late summer afternoon and I had just arrived to take up a teaching post in Ankara, deposited miles from the city in what felt like the middle of nowhere by a helpful student who then hastened away. My eyes stung, for this was still in the days when, believe it or not, smoking was allowed on international flights. The combination of the dry, smoky atmosphere inside the plane, together with a virus I must have picked up the day before saying good-bye to my infant niece— worsened by the fatigue of my voyage and the stress of encountering an new life alone in a foreign land—was beginning to inflame them with conjunctivitis. As I kept scratching, I made an inventory of my clean but meagerly furnished flat, from its drab institutional carpeting to its beige painted walls, from the two forks I found in a drawer of the narrow kitchen, to the three plates in the cupboard. I stretched out atop the rough woolen blanket covering the twin bed and tried to ignore the relentless pounding of percussion, the screeching of unfamiliar instruments, and the shrill voices keening an incomprehensible language. I moaned and covered my ears and somehow, as darkness finally fell, with no letup in the din, I managed to fall asleep.

I woke late in the jet-lagged morning to someone knocking at the door.

“Merhaba. Gunydin. I am Ali, your kapci.” He was a youngish man, handsome, with jet black hair and thick moustache. He had come to welcome me and explain his function. As kapci—key man—he was in charge of the building and grounds. He would be picking up the trash when I left the blue plastic bucket outside in the hall, and, he added, looking down at my feet, that he would also shine my shoes, if I would leave them by the door.

I asked him what was with all the noise last night? A party for the workers and their families, he smiled, given by the Rector. I went out back and saw barbeque equipment still set up on the slope that led up to a construction site. A few older men wearing gray caps and gray moustaches gathered the remaining folding chairs to load in a waiting truck. Party trash had been raked into a large pile. The parched brown grass had been heavily trampled. There had been food, music, dancing—drink, probably.

“You should have come to join us,” said Ali. I probably should have.

As it was, it took me a some time to appreciate Turkish hospitality, to manage the give and take of bargaining at Maltepe pazar, to understand and exchange Turkish greetings, to get used to Turkish customs such as the fasting at Ramazan, to recognize in the call to prayer a ritual that marked the rhythms daily life. And it took me quite a while indeed to warm up to the beauty of Turkish music. Schooled in Western harmony, my ear was baffled by the complete absence of counterpoint. Put off by a melodic structure that violated normal temperament and lacked chordal accompaniment, I hastily judged this unfamiliar music to be primitive, stuck in the evolutionary past. Consequently, I was deaf, whenever I heard it, to its melodic intricacies, rhythmic complexities, and emotional intensities.

Yet, in time, I adjusted. The campus pharmacist knew just the right medicine to fix my eyes. Ali showed me the pleasure of having polished shoes to wear. My students helped me do marketing and invited me home to Turkish meals where, after dessert, everyone was invited to sing his favorite song. The university offered classes in Turkish language, and I learned from Father Leighton—the Irish priest who taught history and said mass at the Vatican embassy—that Ramazan ends with the Feast of Sacrifice—a celebration commemorating the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac—a founding myth of Judaism and Christianity, as well as of Islam.

As for music, my friend Pierre took me one evening to a lokanta downtown that served beer on the terrace and featured Turkish musicians playing inside. Pierre was from Luxemburg and a pioneering professor of Computer Science. It was one of the unexpected realities, living at Bilkent, that it was possible to make friends not only with Turkish students, professors, and staff, but with teachers from all over the world who often took pleasure in sharing their Turkish discoveries. Life as a foreign professor in Turkey had its headaches—bureaucratic obstacles, unpredictable bus service, the lack of any nearby grocery store—but they were more than offset by the richness of an unparalleled cultural milieu.

Pierre was a tireless adventurer. He would mount his bicycle on the roof of his car and spend his weekends touring the countryside with a Turkish colleague. He was the one who led excursions to Ankara’s oldest hamam (Turkish bath) and was planning to spend the next bayram (a religious holiday when there’d be no classes) visiting Iran. The more he poured out his tales, the better the beer went down, and the better the beer went down, the better the music sounded. As I took in the joyous chatter of Turkish voices around me, I became aware of the heady rush delivered by the Turkish musicians reaching swell after swell of melodic climax repeated time and again.

Edwin, another new friend—he taught painting—took me up into the Ankara citadel, the old Byzantine fortress within whose walls—many of whose blocks were salvaged by builders long ago from even older Roman ruins—meandered narrow lanes left over from the medieval Ottoman town whose houses still lined them. Edwin was a scholar of Byzantine art, and as we looked down from the high ramparts, he explained the history of the peoples layered beneath us: the modern Turks atop, the medieval Ottomans, atop the mysterious Seljuks, atop the artful Byzantines, atop the conquering Romans, atop the clever Greeks, atop the forgotten Persians, atop the ancient Hittites, all the way back to the dawn of civilization.

Towards the end of term, Edwin invited me to come with him to Christmas Eve mass at the Vatican embassy. The Vatican embassy exists on embassy row in one of the most plush sections of Ankara, the capital of Turkey. To get there we crossed town from the bus stop, on foot, through the modern commercial heart of the city. Muslims don’t celebrate Christmas, but they celebrate New Year’s, and the streets were decorated with lights much as any city in the US would be. In fact, the season has become a commercial holiday in most places of the developed world. As I walked along with Edwin and his wife, passing vendors selling roasted chestnuts, Edwin voiced his belief that what happens on Christmas Eve becomes an omen that predicts what will happen in the coming year.

There were a hundred people gathered in the chapel, maybe more, dressed in their best, seated at pews that circled around the central altar, among them many families with children for whom Christmas is a perpetual wonder. Our friend, Father Leighton, said the mass. The familiar carols, the bright faces of the kids, my satisfaction at having made new friends, the Christmas message of peace on earth, together with a bit of home sickness, made me sentimental. Although I had given up going to communion long before, I decided, in the spirit of the occasion, that I’d participate now. I felt a little awkward, though, not quite up to speed on how taking communion was done these days, it had been so long since my altar boy days, so I hung back a little and watched what the others did, taking the host in their hands and accepting a sip of from the chalice.

There would have been no problem had I been in the line that led to Father Leighton, but I was not. Instead, I was in the line that led to a habited sister, who when I approached a bit nervously, did not voice the expected invitation, “Body of Christ?” Instead, she challenged me in a tone of surprised incredulity. “Are you a Christian?” she demanded.

This was not at all a good omen. And although it was only an awkward moment and the good sister soon offered me the host, the experience has always bothered me. I see it today as a bad omen. It spoke ominously of the inherent suspicion many westerners harbor against Muslims. Yes, I am olive-skinned enough to resemble a Turkish citizen, and sure, I had neglected to shave that evening, but what reason would I have had, Muslim or not, for taking communion other than a desire to share in the ritual? And who was she to think of denying me communion, of denying me belonging?

There are many Americans today who, knowing little of Muslims or Islam beyond news reports of terrorist attacks, see Islam and the West pitted against each other in intractable conflict. I would ask them to study history more carefully in order to understand the common ground of Mediterranean culture we share and the legacies of ancient science, art, and religion we enjoy. What stands between Islam and the West is not alien otherness but a kind of reciprocal mixing. I would invite doubters to visit Turkey to see this kind of mixing in action. If Turkish democracy is now being challenged by authoritarianism, and it is, this seems only one more way our cultures can be seen to resemble each other. Am I a Christian? Yes, and a Muslim, too.