Travel

Taking a seat on a bus in Turkey reveals the country shifting secularism. By Matthew Clayfield.

Bus etiquette in changing Turkey

Mevlâna Museum, the mausoleum of the Sufi poet Rumi, in Konya.
Credit: Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd./Alamy

It was the height of Ramadan, that wonderful, languid, celebratory month that so consumes the Middle East. And in Konya, Turkey, that had its repercussions.

I had come up against some of these already. Lunch options were few and far between as the city fasted throughout the day, and drinking – hard enough already in this Central Anatolian stronghold of whirling-dervish Sufism – involved a level of investigation and invention that the heat precluded. Not for Rumi’s most ardent admirers the beer and raki so thoroughly enjoyed by my friends back in Istanbul and Izmir. (Or at least not publicly. Konya is said to have one of the highest rates of alcoholism in the country.)

None of this came as too much of a surprise. What I hadn’t anticipated, though, was the effect of the celebrations on travel. Ramadan is traditionally a month of mass migration, but I had expected people to be travelling to religious centres such as Konya, not away from them. It was by luck rather than design that I nabbed the last seat on the last available bus to Gaziantep, 562 kilometres and nine hours to the east, but my departure time was much later than I had planned – I had scored a much-dreaded overnighter. That necessitated a flurry of last-minute emails to the hotel in Gaziantep, letting them know I’d be checking in a day late and apologising profusely in bad, Google-translated Turkish. But at least I had a ticket.

All mass-transit bus terminals have the feel of a rural stockyard – the sweaty, heaving bodies, the madness – but Turkey’s add to the sensation the finer details, such as the auctioneer’s call.

“Izmir! Izmir! Izmir!” cries one man.

“Ankara! Ankara! Ankara!” another.

In a country that employs a good portion of its male populace to stand around yelling, I wonder if there’s much opportunity for career advancement. Do the men who yell out place names for a living graduate to yelling about kebab types – “Şiş kebab! Urfa kebab! Adana kebab!” – or vice versa? Is there a preference? A hierarchy?

“Antep! Antep! Antep!”

That was mine.

The bus was due, but hadn’t appeared, and I was beginning to stress out a little. I was hauling my luggage about on five-minute round trips to the Metro Turizm ticket desk to confirm – to double-, triple- and quadruple-check – that the gate number they had given me was correct. In a language I couldn’t understand and with gestures I could barely follow, I was assured, I think, that it was.

Fellow Gaziantep-bound men chain-smoked their amusement at me. The women averted their eyes.

The bus was a full 30 minutes late, but its appearance was a welcome relief. Little did I know at this point that it was going to be even later to its next stop.

My seat was occupied by a sleeping child. It was also – far more importantly – next to one that was occupied by a middle-aged woman. She looked up at me as though I was expecting something and I looked down at her with a sinking feeling. Random men do not sit with random women on Turkish buses. It simply isn’t done. I steeled myself for a long overnight wait.

When I recounted this story to a German activist in the Kurdish city of Van a week later – we were at a Kurdish wedding, where men and women sat on opposite sides of a vacant lot and enjoyed the evening feast at separate sittings, rules she readily violated with a certain European je ne sais quoi – she laughed and recounted one of her own.

On a visit to Turkey a couple of years back she found herself in a similar situation, she said, needing desperately to catch a bus on which the only remaining seat was next to a man. The fellow behind the ticket desk was reluctant to sell her the ticket, but a little bit of Germanic strongarming eventually got the job done. Agreeing to take responsibility for anything that happened on the trip – “Because what could happen?” she asked me – she paid her fare and took her seat. “The man was a perfect gentleman,” she said. “He smiled politely and kept completely to his side.”

But she fell asleep with her long dress down to her ankles and woke up with it above her knees. “I got off at the next stop,” she said. “I was desperate, but not that desperate.”

My own seat allocation provoked commotion. I stood in the bus aisle with my neck crooked against the ceiling and listened as the situation was explored in great detail, at length and loudly. Why the hell didn’t I brush up on my terrible Turkish? Why didn’t I at least rehearse “I’m sorry” or “I don’t understand” or “I’m an idiot”? We were now 45 minutes behind schedule and those who had already been on the bus for hours were beginning to flinch under the undimming fluorescents.

At this stage in the proceedings, an explanation seemed more important to the Metro Turizm staff than a resolution. The steward – Turkish buses are fine affairs, much finer, indeed, than buses in English-speaking countries – was on the case and I think kind of relishing it.

There could be no mistake, he gestured at me, holding out the ticket stubs for my perusal. We both had the right tickets, the right seats. Whatever could have allowed this transgression to take place?

The woman’s ticket said she was a man. An oversight at the desk. An administrative error. And now, apparently, a pressing moral one.

The search began in earnest for a male passenger who wouldn’t mind sitting next to me and who was travelling with a female member of his family who wouldn’t mind sitting next to a random woman with two kids. (A second child, it now came to light, was sleeping on the floor under the seat.) The search also began for the children’s shoes, which had slid around on the floor during the night. This latter hunt would continue intermittently, between stops, into the early hours of the morning.

The woman I was displacing was, I am pleased to say, in relatively good spirits. I would have felt a realcad if she hadn’t been. The fellow she was with was rather less amused by the situation and I spent the witching hours of the night trying not to touch or sweat on him out of respect for his sacrifice and in fear of reprisals. The 10 o’clock bus for Gaziantep left Konya some time after 11.

“What’s it all about?” my German friend wondered. “Are they trying to protect women from lecherous men or men from the horrors of temptation?” I only thought about this myself much later. I suspect that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s presidency – Turkey’s Islamist strongman was elected to the position with a certain inevitability a week after the Kurdish wedding – will give us a clearer idea over the coming years. The widespread religious conservatism that delivered him to power is becoming increasingly entrenched and those who espouse it are becoming increasingly bold and activist in their approach to social questions. Turkey’s hard-won secularism – the bane of believers for the better part of a century – is being slowly and deliberately eroded.

We rolled into Gaziantep covered in that grimy film specific to overnight bus rides early the next morning, a few hours later than advertised. I eschewed the usual minibus service to the city centre and had a cab take me straight to my cut-rate hotel instead. There, I fell into bed as the first traders began to open up downstairs, shouting loudly about their wares. I didn’t wake up until late afternoon.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 29, 2014 as "The passenger". Subscribe here.

Matthew Clayfield
is a freelance foreign correspondent.