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City versus Village


In all countries the villagers or rural populations are different from the urban dwellers, but in few countries is the difference between the two as striking as it has been in Turkey. In the past, this difference applied to everything from appearances to behaviour but since the communications revelation, which has affected Turkey as much as it has other parts of the world, the gap has been narrowing.

A lady from Istanbul recounts an experience she had on the outskirts of Erzurum, a less developed region in the east of Turkey. The year was 1961. While her husband was in the area making a civil service inspection, she decided to take a walk on her own in the lonely streets near her hotel. As usual she was dressed and made up in a way that would have turned heads in relatively tolerant Istanbul: a miniskirt, a colourful long necklace of beads and a hat with pink and white flowers. As she was walking down a street, she saw a black object approaching her. What could it be? The thing got closer and when there was only an arms length between the two, my relative realized that it was a local woman, dressed in a huge black cloth, covering her from head to toe. Even her face was hidden behind this cover, leaving only a slit where her eyes were supposed to be - and the eyes gazing through this gap were filled with astonishment as they traveled from the flowery hat down to the naked legs. The two stopped and stared at each other for a few minutes, as if they were creatures from different planets, rather than women of the same country, and then each went on their own way. My relative later asked me, "How can a woman dress like this?" No doubt, the other person was asking her relatives the same question.

Like those in many other countries, the village people in Turkey are conservative, less educated, naïve and direct, while the city people are complicated, sophisticated, adaptable and educated. These are the features respectively found in Karagöz and Hacivat, the two main characters of the famous Turkish shadow theatre which was the only source of entertainment both in the urban and rural areas from the 16th century down to the 1950s. Karagöz, as the shadow theatre is otherwise referred to, is a blunt, straightforward, bold and uneducated character who is prone to accidents and makes a lot of social and linguistic gaffes. He is the personification of the village man. Hacivat, on the other hand, is the better educated, shrewd and sophisticated, and patronises Karagöz whenever he makes a mistake. Compared to the popular couples of other cultures such as Punch and Judy or Laurel and Hardy, Karagöz and Hacivat are important not merely as sources of fun but as personifications of real character types that have lived in the area for many centuries, and this accounts for their popularity.

Today, because of good communication systems, increased distribution of newspapers, local and national radio stations and private television channels, rural Turkey is not as impenetrable as it used to be, so you are less likely to bump into people as naïve as Karagöz. With a large number of rural dwellers moving to big cities and forming shanty towns around them, these days everybody is a Hacivat, to some degree - a sad but inevitable situation in an age tending to globalisation.