Commentary: We can learn some things from Turkey

Turkey isn’t high on the list of countries Americans visit. Tell friends you’re going to France and they congratulate you. Tell them you’re going to Turkey, and they ask why.

They might follow the why with a reference to the movie “Midnight Express,” a 1978 film about an American’s nightmarish experience in a Turkish prison. Midnight Express had such a negative effect on Americans’ perceptions of Turkey that the man who wrote the book the movie is based upon recently apologized to Turkey for the damage it did.

If perceptions of Turkey still suffer undeservedly because of one 30-year-old movie, imagine the damage done to the reputation of the United States by the entertainment we export to Turkey and other countries 24 hours a day.

I got a sense of the international public relations nightmare we’ve unwittingly created on a recent 10-day tour of Turkey sponsored by the Holy Dove Foundation in Fishers. Holy Dove and like-minded foundations are on a mission to bring people of different faiths and cultures together to remind us that what we have in common is greater than the things that drive us apart. Holy Dove’s mission is a welcome counter to the daily diet of news and vitriol that polarizes our planet.

Where Turkey is concerned, I suspect most people fall into one of two categories: They have no perception of the country positive or negative (a problem Indianapolis shares with Turkey, by the way, at least in non-sports circles) or they have a negative impression based on either “Midnight Express” or a misunderstanding of Turkey’s predominant religion: Islam.

I fell into the former category. But now my head is filled with images of ancient ruins, beautiful mosques, modern cities and gracious people who opened their homes to us and treated us like kings and queens.

A few of them reluctantly admitted that friends had warned them Americans were cold and selfish. In fact, a recent poll suggests only 9 percent of Turks hold a favorable view of our country. The war in Iraq plays a role in those negative perceptions, but our hosts were influenced as much or more by the depraved, violent characters they see day after day on translated versions of “Desperate Housewives,” “Sex and the City” and other American television shows.

Americans often worry about the effect these shows have on children, but we don’t give much thought to how our entertainment industry feeds our negative reputation around the world.

It’s ironic that the Turks reached out to us when we have some fence-mending of our own to do. It’s up to each of us to be good ambassadors when we have the opportunity to travel abroad or when we encounter visitors from other countries. I hope the dialogue between us and our hosts did some good in that regard. At the very least, I heard and observed some things worth sharing. Among them:

Not everyone believes global warming is a problem, but almost all of us are against wasting resources. Turkey’s doing its part. Hotel-room electricity works only when you’re in the room, and air-conditioning works only when the windows are closed. Lights in apartment stairwells burn only when people are present.

Processed food was scarce in the several cities we visited. The feasts that Turkish families provided for us were heavy on fresh fruits and vegetables. Your local nutritionist would be proud.

There was no shortage of cars in Turkey, especially in Instanbul, where highway traffic was often at a standstill. But all five cities we visited were loaded with neighborhoods where people could walk to work, school and shopping. Americans are relearning the advantages of such a lifestyle, but we have a long way to go.

Proud as we are of our Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis Colts, most of our hosts had barely heard of them. Seems we get more bang for our buck on the other side of the world from the United States Grand Prix, the only big sporting event we’re in danger of losing.

Finally, I was impressed with the pride Turks take in their country and in its commitment to separation of church and state, or, in Turkey’s case, mosque and state. Maybe Turks are just sensitive to such things because of the misery fundamentalism has caused in neighboring Iran and Iraq. Perhaps the pride comes from the fact Turks aren’t far removed from their roots. In spite of the land’s ancient treasures, modern Turkey didn’t come into being until 1923, and Turks are still fiercely loyal to Ataturk, the country’s first president and the father of Turkey’s secular government.

Like all countries, Turkey has its share of problems. There’s a long-simmering feud with the Kurdish people on its eastern border. Some Turks think religion plays too small a role in government, while others fear it’s creeping into the halls of power. And Turks are split on the country’s attempt to join the European Union. But Turkey isn’t a land of foreboding prisons or violent extremists. It’s a beautiful, modern country full of people who are eager to share their way of life with a stranger.

So next time you hear someone is going to Turkey, congratulate them. Better yet, add Turkey to your own list of places to visit. You’ll be richer for the experience.

Harton is editor of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to Chris Katterjohn’s column will resume on July 23.

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