Meltem Naz Kaso is a 26-year-old Turk who has studied and worked in cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Florence, Istanbul, Paris, Rome, and Yerevan on various scholarships and fellowships. They include Shelby Davis Award and Utrecht Excellence Scholarship. Currently, Meltem is a second year student of a research master’s program in gender and ethnicity at Utrecht University. In her free time, she engages in creative fiction and non-fiction writing and travels widely.
When an adventure-seeking agnostic woman like me volunteers to help women from different faiths communicate; an American storyteller goes outside her comfort zone in search of knowing her Muslim other; and a missionary Turkish woman dares to tell her story, social patterns that set us apart begin to dissolve. We become dangerous to the persistence of prejudices with regards to xenophobia and Islamophobia. Here is what I am talking about: I was lucky enough to listen to the story of a Muslim woman who has taken a path much different than mine, along with an American woman whose background did not match mine. I am inspired to share our story, to make a home for it, and give you an opportunity to meet a Muslim woman behind her veil, behind her closed doors.
On a hot summer day, I travel to Çarşamba neighborhood of Istanbul to help a young American photojournalist meet ultra-conservatives. Çarşamba resembles Saudi Arabia, if that is possible in Turkey. The women cover their faces, leaving only holes for seeing. Bearded, robed men emerge from the time of the Prophet Muhammed. Çarşamba people don’t trust commercially produced perfumes and make their own according to strict Islamic standards.
Residents of Çarşamba practice a strict version of Shari’a, the holy laws of Islam.
I meet the photographer, and we search for the building that fits the description of a Quranic school for young girls. Ahmet, a Çarşamba residence I had met in Yavuz Sultan Selim Mosque, suggested that we go there.
We are somewhere between the Fatih Mosque and Yavuz Sultan Selim Mosque when I realize that we are lost. It is one of the warmest days of the summer, and we are dressed in layers so as not to offend anyone. It is Friday, a holy day. My sweat pours from my forehead into my eyes.
I see a woman in a black chador. It is hard to tell whether she is fat or thin, old or young, smiling or frowning. She comes so close to me that no one else can hear her voice. “Follow me,” she says.
She unlocks the door of one of the silent buildings. We close it behind us and we enter into a world of colors. “Merhaba, I’m Sabaahat,” she says. Surrounding us are a dozen young women dressed in grass green, red, yellow, light pink and leopard designs. They have on matching headscarves and loose dresses.
“Girls, bring me my navy blue headscarf, please,” Sabaahat says. She has a tiny nose, a wide smile and no make-up. Wrinkles around her eyes tell me that she is in her fifties. “And bring our guests a pair of slippers.”
Wearing slippers we climb the stairs to the teachers’ room. There, Sabaahat tells me that she has approximately eighty students and fifteen volunteer teachers. “The teachers are not paid. They do it for the love of God,” she explains.
Sabaahat’s students have chosen her school over the state-run high schools. Each of them completes one to four years of education. Ultimately, they receive a certificate from Sabaahat that has no official value. Still, they are lucky. “Back in my day, my Quranic school was covered in black curtains. Police raids and break-ins by counter-terrorism teams were a daily occurrence. Our teachers were taken to court,” Sabaahat says. “Some of them were even arrested.”
Ten years ago, Sabaahat and her sister founded the Quranic school. They teach the Quran, conversational Arabic, history of Islam, the rules of prayer and fasting, and theology. The teacher on duty wakes the students up at dawn for the Fajr prayer while recitations of the Quran resound from both mosques. After having completed their prayers, the students go back to bed until eight o’clock. Meanwhile, the teachers prepare breakfast. At nine, everyone finishes eating and starts their first lecture. They study until ten o’clock at night and have a lunch and dinner break, and four more prayers throughout the day. After dinner, the students have dessert. In winter, there are cookies, and in summer, there is ice cream.
Students pay a tuition of approximately one hundred Turkish liras per month. “In fact, costs are much higher,” Sabaahat explains. Her family owns a five-star hotel in Taksim, the business and tourist center of Istanbul. She doesn’t need the money to run the school. “Money is important for parents. Even if they give ten liras, they care more about their daughters’ performance.” That’s the only reason; Sabaahat says, that she charges her students.
“My daughter, Meltem,” Sabaahat smiles, “you two came to us during lunch time. Let’s eat and then I will answer your questions.”
A bowl of shepherd’s salad arrives at our table, along with a pot of cooked beans, and four jugs filled with a traditional yogurt drink ayran.
“Sabaahat, are you originally from Çarşamba?” I ask. She says no. Her headscarf is not secured with a pin; it keeps falling off.
“I was born in a yalı in Beylerbeyi. I spent my high school years in Nişantaşı. For college, I went to Bosphorus University to study chemical engineering.”
This comes as a surprise. An average yalı, a mansion on the immediate waterside of the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul, costs millions of dollars. Nişantaşı is one of the most modern and European neighborhoods of Turkey, and Bosphorus University is the most prestigious educational institution in Turkey, originally founded by Americans.
“And your sister too?”
“No, actually, she studied finance in London.”
“My dad was not religious and didn’t discriminate by gender. He enrolled us in the most expensive schools. We went to prestigious universities. What he had in mind for us was to become world citizens,” Sabaahat says as she reaches for her salad. “My father wanted us to experience life abroad and then come back to Turkey to climb the professional ladder.”
One day, after attending her university lecture, a mini-skirt and high-heel-wearing Sabaahat was talking with a friend. He said that there was a talk later in the evening given by a soft-spoken and well-read spiritual leader known as a sheikh. This friend asked Sabaahat to join him. She liked the young man. He had green eyes and a wide smile. She said yes. Now, they are married with two sons.
Islamic mysticism says that a sheikh is the one who holds the seeker’s hand in their journey towards God. According to Sabaahat, a sheikh is the one who chooses his students the moment they are conceived inside the womb. “In the spiritual realm, when Allah asked ‘Am I not your God?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ God Almighty sent my sheikh to save me.”
Around the time that Sabaahat was a college student at Bosphorus University, what she calls “anarchists” tried breaking into her family’s mansion. It had taken a long time before the police came to Sabaahat and her family’s rescue. It was in the late seventies, the peak of fighting between leftist and rightist groups in Turkey. Some 5,000 people died in the violence between right-wing ultra-nationalists and left-wing groups. Sabaahat felt insecure, targeted, and confused.
“But I was curious about Islam long before that,” she added. “My parents were Muslims, but they didn’t truly know Islam. ‘Pray, fast, and that’s it.’ they used to say. The soul of our faith was lacking. I was searching for something to fill that gap in my heart.”
The teachers take away the empty plates and bring chocolate-marzipan cake along with Turkish tea. The tea is poured into a glass with a thin waist. Most Turks I know say that they cannot taste their tea if their fingers aren’t touching this particular small teacup. Sabaahat is no exception.
She takes a sip from her hot tea and says, “I don’t understand why the world is fearful of Muslims.”
“We know non-Muslims, and to a certain extent, we have even internalized their thoughts, feelings, and lifestyle. They propagate it in the media, on the streets, everywhere,” Sabaahat reasons, “But they don’t make the slightest effort to get to know the real us.”
Sabaahat is disappointed that women with headscarves, even more than those who are “Westernized,” show hatred towards women like her and their chadors. “They are embarrassed by us. They think that the secular segment of Turkish society doesn’t accept them because of ‘extreme examples’ like us.”
“Listen, my Meltem-daughter,” Sabaahat says. “Of course, Muslims want God’s rules to reign in the world. But the important thing for a true Muslim is to be able to live Shari’a peacefully even in a secular state. Can I fulfill all the Islamic rules? The answer is yes. This is my Shari’a. This is my Islam. Nobody forces anyone to do anything. All we wish to do is to introduce Islam in a loving environment to the younger generations.”
The rest is small talk. My photojournalist friend says she has taken enough notes. We thank Sabaahat for her kindness and generosity. She tells us it is her duty.
As we pass by the Golden Horn, a narrow and isolated peninsula that separates the historic center of Istanbul from the rest of the city, the women wearing chadors disappear as if into the past.