Dispatch from Turkey and Jordan: Intersection of cultures

June 04, 2007

In a series of dispatches produced by Research Penn State magazine, Josh Ambrose, a recent Penn State graduate from the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts, writes from the Middle East while exploring soils of ancient and modern civilizations. Ambrose and five classmates will spend four weeks traveling Turkey and Jordan with Kate Butler, senior lecturer in soil science. Stay tuned for dispatches as Ambrose discovers and describes the relationship between soils and society.

* * *

Dispatch 2: Gaziantep, Turkey

As the lights dimmed again, anticipatory applause came up from Turkish townspeople around us. We were being regaled with a litany of traditional farm dances at a fairly upscale restaurant at the end of our stay in Urgup. The musicians in a nearby corner rested their instruments as a sultry beat came on over the speakers. Within moments, a bellydancer glided out on stage. Not entirely comfortable with this cultural practice, I decided to focus my camera on capturing the varied responses from the other members of the audience across the room. Then disaster struck. After the applause faded after her first act, the house lights came on. The dancer started coming to the edge of the raised platform in the middle of the room ... toward me. She held out her hand imperiously. Me? I laughed and tried to politely back out, tactfully communicate without a common language. She grabbed my hand. There was no getting around it. I clambered up on the platform as she continued to cycle round the room and select a number of other "volunteers" to shimmy their stuff with her. I waited my turn with a mix of cheerful dread and complete, fascinated amusement.

The intersection of cultures continues to be a major theme of our trip. Everywhere we travel, we both observe and experience the old meeting the new, the east meeting the west. Our dancing hasn't been contained to restaurants, either. On our first day in the eastern university town of Gaziantep, we joined in a student festival late at night. There, we were soon pulled into a whirling circle of students dressed in primarily western garb to celebrate Ataturk Day, commemorating Kemal Ataturk, credited with initiating the Turkish national liberation movement in 1919 and solidifying the country's status as a liberal democracy. While the students of the university were quick to affirm their affinity for the visiting westerners, some of the security guards were less hospitable later during a miscommunication over room issues, reprimanding us in stern Turkish for our perceived moral failings.

Later, during a firmly hospitable meeting with Erhan Ekinci, the president of Gaziantep University, he referenced his experience as a military doctor of over 15 years as he explained the continuing role of Turkey's large standing army in intervening to preserve a democratic regime. It was written into the constitution, he explained, that whenever the government was deemed to be in danger of falling to conservative control, the army was required to step in and maintain a short period of oversight until a new democratic government could be elected. The university president referenced the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan as he spoke of the necessity of this policy and explained the perceived threat of a liberal, democratic country to more conservative Islamic political systems. The president asked about our viewpoint towards America's foreign policy with a sharp eye, his pro-intervention stance soon becoming clearly, yet politely, apparent. Our class listened, fascinated by his perspective. In a small example of the tension over these issues in Turkey, we also learned that while it was forbidden to wear head coverings on campus, many young women were being given financial support by new conservative programs of the current administration to wear them -- a move deemed political, rather than religious, by our hosts.

While based in Gaziantep, we took time to visit several agriculture sites in the region, including a 2,500 hectare plantation not far from the Syrian border. Occupying space that used to be a wide lakebed, we took numerous pH and soil moisture readings from the soil. The ground was surprisingly moist in contrast to the hot, arid day. The reason, of course, was the high levels of irrigation farmers in the valley had been maintaining for years. Talking to the wealthy owner of the land, we soon found that this practice has not been without significant cost. Thirty years ago, farmers could reach the water table with a three-meter deep well. Today, they have to go down at least 150 meters to reach the dropping water table. In some areas of the valley, farmers go down more than 300 meters. While the land is still fertile and moist, the future environmental cost of their liberal flooding of their fields has the potential to be quite significant. In addition, while the prosperous landowner we talked to had little financial difficulty with the energy demands of such practices, the increasing dependence of farmers on electricity-dependent technologies, fertilizers and the like has driven many small-scale farmers into deep debt to both government subsidization and private loans.

As in America, this has led to a parallel increase in the rise of large corporate agricultural establishments. This was certainly the case with a large potato storage facility we visited in a mountain several hours away from the Cappadocia region. With vast chambers carved into the cool, temperature-static rock of the mountainside, their clients were increasingly conglomerates such as Frito-Lay and Kraft, who paid the potato-storage facility to lease land from the farmers and store up hundreds of thousands of tons of potatoes for future use.

We are now stationed in Selcuk, near the ancient city of Ephesus. Land management and soil practices here, both historic and present, are completely fascinating. I'll be talking about them in my next dispatch, along with our observations of the excavations at Troy and the other cities coming up in our itinerary. I hope to have the next update posted before we're in Istanbul and flying out to Jordan, but I am, as always, dependent on finding Internet access ... stay tuned!

* * *

See additional photos accompanying the second dispatch at http://www.rps.psu.edu/undergrad/ambrose2.html online.

For more features about research at Penn State, subscribe to Research Penn State at http://www.rps.psu.edu/cgi-bin/subscribe.cgi online.

  • IMAGE: Josh Ambrose

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated July 28, 2017