The view from Topkapi
The Turkish language enshrines a way of approaching others with compassion
Unlike many of my peers at U.Va., I didn’t have the gumption to plan my summer ahead of time. Had I started applying for summer jobs during winter break, my natural course of action would have been to take summer classes, work on a political campaign or do another Capitol Hill internship. Instead, I applied to work at Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul, Turkey, once the Imperial residency of the Ottoman sultans and now an exhibition center for invaluable Ottoman art, relics and architecture.
Although I had been to Turkey countless times before, this was the first year I really experienced the city of Istanbul as an adult—specifically, a “working” adult. My job branched into several tasks: from translator to tour guide, bouncer to film crew assistant.
But compared to my admittedly limited experience with working in the United States, what struck me the most about working at Topkapı was not so much my job or the palace itself, but something very different about the working environment.
As part of my commute, I took a 30-minute ferry ride from the Asian side of Istanbul to the European side. The region of Istanbul surrounding Topkapı was crawling with tourists from all around the world, and the ferryboats were no exception.
One afternoon on the ferry, I sat and observed a particular group of tourists: an Australian family with two kids who were about my age. I could tell they were Australian because the dad was working a khaki safari hat and their red skin told me they took more gambles with the sun than an English family would.
Right in front of me, they made the decision to sit outside for the boat ride—a good call considering it’s a three-lira trip that passes almost all the great sites on the Bosphorus Strait. Plus, the boat’s top level had a built-in mini-cafeteria that sold tea, chips and grilled cheese.
I guess the father noticed right away, because his eyes got big as he announced to his family that, “Ay. There’s a refrishment bah,” to which his son looked and replied:
“I’m gettin’ something to drank.”
A wave of shock and jealousy hit me. After just a few weeks in working at Topkapı, I had gotten use to asking if anyone wanted anything when I was getting something to eat or drink. In fact, anything that was taken out in the office was shared—almost in a militant way. “Would you like some?” and “Have some” often escalated to “Please bite it just once.”
And now, here was this comparatively rude but oddly lucky Australian kid, about to go to the “refreshment bar” all by himself, leaving his family to make their own decisions on what to get and how to get it.
During the next few days, I tried to dig up reasons for why this affected me so much. It might have been because it was the Holy month of Ramadan, and I had been spending eight hours a day in an office where half the staff at work was fasting, while the other half was eating and drinking only when they were out of the room. It might have been that I was offended at the behavior regardless of Ramadan, as Muslims are taught to share what they have with those who have not. It might have been that after all these years of living in the United States, I dearly missed the idea of “every man for himself.”
Regardless of the reason, though, I knew that the culture I saw at Topkapı was not specific to that office, but to all of Turkey. And while I could easily justify the difference with some academic nonsense about how Eastern cultures value holistic society over the individual, that’s only a small fraction of it.
The truth is that the behavior in my office and beyond was not about generosity, religion, or even the concept of sharing itself. Most cultures, including America’s, teach children to share at a young age. The truth lies in the Turkish language including a word that’s thrown around in a very common phrase: “Canı ister,” or “His ‘can’ will want it.”
“Can” (pronounced “jahn”) has no direct English equivalent. It’s one of the several Turkish words for “life,” intended to describe “life” as the thing that distinguishes organisms from inorganic matter. It’s more associated, however, with the soul and compassion independent of the conscious mind. In Turkey, it’s understood that there is “can” in every living thing—my grandmother once told me not to eat food while walking outside because “If even a bird saw it out of the corner of his eye, his ‘can’ could want it.”
The militant sharing I had witnessed in the office was not a byproduct of a holy month or religion, but a simple consideration of the “can” of others. Whether they’re from the United States or Australia, my hope is that everyone who visits Turkey can recognize the consideration of “can” and carry it back with them, because while Topkapı was impressive on its own, it was the understanding of “can” that separated its staff from that of Capitol Hill, and it was the understanding of “can” that made my unplanned summer job something I looked forward to every morning.