Sunday, August 8, 2010


After weeks of number crunching I got away from the office to talk to people about some of the issues I've been researching. I won't call it qualitative research, because I have absolutely no training in that. I suppose what I've been doing is more like journalism, maybe slightly better than cringe-inducing articles starting with "on my way from the airport to the hotel the taxi driver told me...".

Here's one such conversation that exemplifies several others I've had, and is maybe more interesting because for most of it I am the one being interviewed. It started when the manager of a çay restaurant I walk past every day approached me, after I had sat down to eat there for the second time. He spoke in Turkish, and the following tries to preserve the true nature of the conversation, with my broken Turkish translated back to English.

Mehmet, resting his arms on the chair across from me: So, you said you are from America, no?

Me: Yes. I am from America.

Mehmet: Where in America?

Me: Boston

Mehmet, now sitting down across from me: Ahh, lovely. I have a friend in Florida who does architecture, for parks and gardens.

Me: Ah, my girlfriend goes to school to study same thing!

Mehmet, smiling: She was the one who was here last time, right?

Me: Yes, her.

Mehmet: So, I want to go to America. Which is better, America or Turkey?

Me (thinking, he's going to ask me for help to get there, I just met him, and even if he were my best friend there's nothing I could do, I've tried before . . . how can I say I like both countries, each has things I like along different dimensions . . .): Both are good.

Mehmet: Do you like Turkey?

Me: I love to Turkey.

Mehmet: How much does a hotel cost in America?

Me: Hmmm. In cities, two hundred dollars. Outside, maybe, fifty.

Mehmet, eyes widened: Two hundred dollars! America is so expensive! What about you, do you have a house?

Me: No. Rent

Mehmet: Allah Allah. And your parents, do they work?

Me: Of course.

Mehmet: Even your mother?

Me: Yes, of course.

Mehmet: Of course. America is so expensive that even mothers must work. And even then your family does not have a home.

Me: No, no. My father and my mother have home. I don't.

Mehmet: Oh, ok, now I see. Well if your father has a home you have a home!

Me: Well...

Mehmet: It is not like that in America, is it?

Me: No. After 18 years, most people leave home.

Mehmet, eyes wider than ever: No! Here we stay with our family until 25, or until we are married. Even then we don't want to leave. And in America your parents throw you in the street!

Me: Haha, it is not like that. We are going to school. After, we are working. But you? Does your mother work? Wife?

Mehmet, smiling proudly: Of course not.

Me: Why?

Mehmet: You see, we here in Turkey are Muslim, and Islam says women should not work.

Me, getting excited, having done a little research on the issue: No, Koran does not say this. Says women can work. Muhammad's wife was working.

Mehmet: Well, see, in today's world. . . we know from Islam that the place for a woman is at home. And a woman's work is house work, and taking care of the children. She should only work if the family needs money. But you, if you had money, if you were rich some day, would your wife work?

Me: It is not mine. It is hers. I mean . . . not for me. For her. . . (Really wanted to make that point, pretty sure he understood).

Mehmet, nodding: See, women wanting to work, people wanting to hire women, this is a big problem for us. Why do we have unemployment in Turkey? Because when you look at the job postings in the paper, everyone wants to hire women! So men, when they want a job, they can't find one!

Me: Why they want women for jobs, not men?

Mehmet: I don't know! (proudly waving his hand towards the 5 young men employed at his tiny tea and toast restaurant standing idly, showing that he's doing his part).

We're interrupted by the arrival of my Turkish panini and çay. Mehmet wished me bon apetit and leaves me, but not before telling me to come back next week when he'll have a book waiting for me about Islam. Inside the kitchen I hear him relating the fascinating details of American life, where everything is so expensive that even the mothers of the college educated have to work.

This conversations and others have definitely made me think. One thing that eventually crosses the mind of every American doing development work abroad is something like "yeah there are problems here, and a growing economy seems to be helping some of the problems, but I don't want this place to turn into America. Sure there's a lot to like in America, but maybe European countries strike a better balance between work and life (even if those long vacations and early pensions are causing fiscal problems now), maybe that is a better model", we think. The central tension we struggle with is between tradition and progress away from poverty, not knowing how to find balance. Fortunately, it is not for us to decide, though to put our work in context we must have a vision of what the good life looks like, what we are working towards, what "development" really means.

In countries where women generally do not work then, is this a luxury or a sign of backwardness? Is this a tradition that ignorant foreigners should leave their hands off of, or is this preventing Turkey from prospering?

I was lucky to have parents who worked at schools, so I got to spend a lot of time with them over the summers. And I had some friends whose mothers did not work outside of home. So I can appreciate how nice it can be for children to have their moms waiting for them when they get home from school, to constantly have that influence and comfort in your life.

I guess the difference between backwardness and luxury to me, with all the biases of my upbringing in America, comes down to personal choice. If a woman wants to work outside of the home, can she? If she and her husband are wealthy enough that they do not both have to work, and she decides to spend more time with their children, then that is a wonderful luxury (which is somehow generally affordable in Turkey but not in America).


  1. Great entry!
    - Wishing still for the luxury of time,
    Mom of college educated man