My friends and my business associates are used to it by now. I still remain faithful to a lot of Turkish traditions I grew up with and use hundreds of proverbs which apply to daily life. I learned these traditions and proverbs through my interactions with the elders in my family, especially from my dear grandfather who had barely escaped the wrath of the Bolsheviks during the Communist Revolution in his homeland of Tblisi, Georgia back in 1917. He would never directly give his advice or opinion on matters; instead he would tell you one of his time-tested proverbs which you would remember forever. I recall the time when a rather rude and uneducated young man from our neighborhood received a large amount of cash from the will of a family member and immediately started wearing expensive suits driving around in flashy cars. My grandfather just looked at him, shook his head and said “a flashy suit does not change a man; you can put a golden harness on a donkey, yet a donkey is still a donkey.”
Going back to the Hittites who settled in Anatolia 1800 years before the birth of Christ all the way to the Ottoman Empire which lasted from 1299 to 29, October 1923; many civilizations and peoples passed through the land of my birth, each one leaving a part of their traditions in my DNA.
My oldest memories are of growing up in Istanbul during the 1950’s, then a city of only about 1,5 million inhabitants. Our daily lives were organized by the elders in the family, our teachers at school and our many friends with whom we played in the parks of our neighborhood and on the cobble stone streets which surrounded our house. One of the most important rules we learned as young children, regardless of age, was to respect our elders and never speak to them unless we were spoken to first. We never referred to anyone older than us with their first names, a tradition I still can’t break away from, regardless of how many times I am told “Mr. Johnson was my father, you may call me John.” If someone was a few years older than us, we were expected to address them with the title “brother” after their first name (for example, Ahmet brother). If someone was in our parent’s age group or older, we were expected to address them with the title “uncle” after their name (for example Ahmet Uncle). When we visited relatives or they visited us, our initial greeting as young children was to approach them with our heads bowed forward and kiss their outstretched right hand and place it on our forehead indicating our respect for them. If we were wearing formal jackets (which we almost always did on holidays and special occasions), we had to make sure we buttoned-up before approaching an adult. Approaching an adult while wearing an unbuttoned jacket would have earned you the scariest stare from your mom or dad. When and if asked to sit with an adultcrowd, we had to sit down with both feet on the ground, hands clasped in front of us and our backs straight up. Slouching or crossing our legs in front of our elders was something totally inexcusable, disrespectful and resulted in our immediate dismissal from the room.
As children, we always ate our dinner first, cleaned up and went to our rooms before the adults sat down to eat their dinner. My father was very strict in that he never allowed any alcoholic beverages on a dinner table when children were present. He referred to the glass of Scotch he consumed before dinner and the traditional Turkish drink called “Raki” which he drank with his dinner as “medicine”. To this day, I do not recall ever having a glass of beer or wine in the presence of my father who is now 93 years old.
Throughout our public elementary school education we always wore state mandated uniforms, had to have our shoes shined, our teeth brushed, hair combed, fingernails cut neatly for the daily “cleanliness” inspections conducted by our stern faced teachers whose favorite dress color was black. We were punished severely by our teachers for any and all infractions and thought the “principal” was the most important person in the world after God, Ataturk and our father. My sister and I used to hide in closets whenever the Principal of our elementary school stopped by our house to have a cup of coffee with my parents at least once a week. We remembered our father’s parting words to the Principal on the first day of the school year, “his meat is yours, his bones are mine”. That was his permission to the teacher to use the ruler on my meat at his discretion. To this day, I find myself nervous and uneasy talking to Dr. Jory Westberry, who is the Principal of Tommie Barfield Elementary School right here on Marco Island and without a doubt, the nicest and kindest person I have ever met.
We were constantly reminded of our traditions by the elders in our family who made sure that we obeyed and practiced what was preached to us. We never threw unfinished parts of bread into the garbage bin without first kissing it and placing it on our foreheads (showing our respect since bread represents bounty from God). The same process was followed if we found a piece of bread in the street or on the floor. I still find myself doing this in my house, around the neighborhood or a restaurant without even thinking about it.
My grandfather knew and appropriately used almost every Turkish proverb known to men. When he would give me or my sister a bunch of coins or bills during the holidays, he would encourage us to put the money in our bank boxes (we did not have piggy-banks; instead we had ceramic bank boxes in different shapes) and tell us, “the lake forms drop by drop”. We probably did not understand what he meant but it was always good to get the coins and dropthem into the box. We never saw the lake form, but I am sure the money we saved went into our bank accounts every year.
I remember once telling my grandfather about a kid who always bothered me in school by challenging me to fights, pushing me around or throwing things at me (I guess you may call him a bully now) and his response was, “dogs bark but the caravan moves on.” It took me some years to figure out that he meant for me not to pay attention to the bully and just move on. One of his favorite proverbs was, “man who burned his lips while drinking hot milk, blows on yogurt before he eats it”. This meant we had to learn from our bad experiences and be extremely cautious not to repeat our mistakes.
I fondly remember my grandfather’s advice to a neighbor who was asking for his advice before he went into business for himself. My grandfather told him to “extend his feet only as far as his blanket would cover;” meaning not to get under a lot of debt and use his own means to get on with this new venture. These proverbs were present in our everyday lives. We lived by them.
When I decided to continue my education (and my life) in America, my grandfather had a lot of advice for me, delivered in terms of proverbs. He told me I was going to a far-away land and when I got there “don’t lie down in low places, the flood will wash you away; don’t lie down in high places, the wind will blow you away” meaning “don’t do extreme things, stay true to yourself and your traditions.
I remember how one day the local grocer gave my grandfather a bag of unripe apples and did not charge him for them. The apples were pretty green and sour. I did not want to eat any of them. My grandfather started eating the apples anyway and told me “free vinegar is sweeter than honey”.
It has been a long time since I first came to America in 1969. But the proverbs and traditions still live with me. This is a different time and a different place and I don’t expect my children or grandchildren to either understand or practice any of these traditions or use the proverbs that ruled my childhood and teen years. On the other hand, I still hear my grandfather’s last words to me before I boarded the plane at the Istanbul airport. “They asked the lion why he was the king of the forest. And the lion replied “That is because I take care of my own business.” I clearly understood my grandfather’s advice this time. If I wanted to be successful in life, I only had myself to depend on. Who knows, maybe someday I will be the king of the forest?
Tarik Ayasun is a member of Vice Chair of the Code Enforcement Board and President of the Marco Island Charter Middle School Board of Directors, he has given many years of community service to various organizations.