The Turkish Way

Demel Mehmet

Three things have remained constant throughout my life; no boys, no sex before marriage, and no bad reputation. These are very Turkish Cypriot things that are bred into girls from generation to generation, and they are not very wild expectations to have as a Turkish Cypriot. This is just the Turkish way.

I didn’t really pay any conscious attention to these things until my friends started becoming more independent. Being a young teenager growing up in a predominantly white area, it was hard to feel like I wasn’t an alien. Social progression occurred at a much slower rate to my Caucasian acquaintances, which affected all aspects of my life. I wasn’t allowed to go out with friends until I was much older, and when my parents did start allowing me, I couldn’t just go wherever, whenever, with whoever. While my friends were developing romantic relationships, messaging their MCMs (man crush Monday) on BBM (BlackBerry Messenger), boys were totally off the cards for me. While my friends, in later years, were getting drunk at some house party, I hadn’t even bothered asking my parents to go and instead was sitting at home watching their pictures flood my Instagram feed. I became very much enchanted by a state of can’t-relate.

Having been raised by first generation British Turkish Cypriot parents, who were born and raised in southeast London after their parents emigrated from North Cyprus, my upbringing has been comprised of ‘the Turkish way’ of doing things and ‘the British way’ of doing things. The aim was to allow me more freedom and independence than my mother had, while still keeping the Turkish Cypriot traditions, culture and values alive. A proposed perfect blend; If people were colours, we, as Turkish Cypriots, are red and English people are blue. My grandparents told my mum that in a class full of blue, she had to remain red. It didn’t work. Hence, my parents told me that in a class full of blue, as a red person, I could be purple. It still didn’t work.

If my grandparents had moved to North London, my life would seem to have been very different. While there are many Turks in South London, there aren’t as many of us as there are in North London, and hence I feel we are less immersed into our own little Turkish bubble. Turks seem to have formed a ‘Little Turkey’  in North London, and have been able to shelter themselves from any English influence. Those of us in the South seem to have adapted more to the British way of life, mixing our culture with theirs. If I lived in North London, I would have been told to remain red amongst a class full of reds.

My cultural experiences only spread so far; I haven’t grown up with a large family spanning hundreds of cousins and aunts, so my family ties are weak. In fact, I barely speak to much of my extended family, to the point that I scarcely go to any weddings, we don’t go on group holidays to North Cyprus every year, and when we do its only for two weeks staying in a hotel. Sure, I know how to make dolma and firin makarna, I can whip up a Turkish coffee and indulge in a coffee cup reading from my grandma, and we burn olive leaves every time someone external leaves our house, but being a British Turkish Cypriot has become a broad mix of aspects from both lifestyles.  Our cultural identity is the language, values and way of life that have been instilled from generation to generation. It is having seftali kebab for Christmas dinner and receiving Easter eggs but having no affiliation to Jesus. It’s having grilled hellim (halloumi) and pastirma instead of bacon in your fry up and being torn between who to support during an international football match on the rare occasion England play Turkey.

11th birthday with group of ethnically diverse friends
On stage at Turkish School
15 years old, pictured with my brother

I am not fluent in Turkish. I understand approximately 70% of the language, and I refuse to speak it out of sheer lack of confidence and fear of being ridiculed by judgemental Turks. During my whitewashed teenage years, my mum decided that I needed more Turkish culture instilled in me and enrolled me into Turkish school when I was 13. While attending with aims to learn my mothertongue, Turkish school became more of a social motive than an education facility. As apprehensive as I was, I settled in pretty well and made friends. During this time, amongst breaktime banter, I discovered that my life so far, wasn’t the life of every other Turkish girl as I had thought it had been; “Why are your parents like that?” “You’re not allowed out much?!” “So you can’t even have a boyfriend?” It was at this point at which I started to question everything that had been instilled in me thus far. Suddenly, I realised that this way of life wasn’t just ‘the Turkish way’ anymore as it might have been back in the day, it was just my family’s way.

In desperate attempts to find somebody who was in the same upbringing boat as me, I had even tried forming friendships online with other Turks. Unfortunately, even this was a struggle because I found that most Turkish girls came with a bitchiness embedded in their DNA, which translated just as well online as it came out in person. Virtual acquaintances, even, were a constant reminder that traditional diversity is so vast within the Turkish community.

Accepting the realisation that you can blend yet be individual at the same time was my downfall. I had placed all my hopes on seeking some Turkish Cypriot friends, or even mainland Turkish friends because I thought I’d finally be able to confide in people who got it, didn’t question it, and would share their similar experiences. The harsh reality was that I was still questioned, I was still faced with expressions of disbelief and confusion, and my desire to develop bonds with Turks with who I share traditional commonalities remains unfulfilled.

Looking back over my life thus far, I can understand that my family’s attempt to keep the Turkish way of life alive has nothing but pure and innocent intentions, but I say this as someone who is now 22. During my prime teenage socialisation years, I failed to see and understand the motive behind the way in which I had been raised, and it caused a lot of issues between my family and I. From the tantrums, to the classic sexism argument, and the adamant defiance of wanting to live this way, I did all I could to change from red to blue. It wasn’t until much later that I comprehended the many shades of purple.

I have always struggled with my identity; I have always known and been highly aware of ‘the Turkish way’ of doing things, but my surroundings relentlessly remind me that the Turkish way no longer fits with todays society, let alone this country. Throughout my life I have been constantly conflicted by wanting to fit in, doing what the rest of society is doing, yet also wanting to be that good, little-miss-perfect Turkish girl, who obeys her parents and their wishes. In hindsight, I can see how immature some of my choices and thought processes have been. As I continue to evolve and mature, I cringe reminiscing about my behaviour and outlook on life. Knowing how I felt and thought during my teenage years, I can’t help but question how I will raise the third generation of British Turkish Cypriots, which I know will present new challenges, fit with the times in which my children will grow up. May God give me strength!


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