Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

A running commentary on my life in Izmir, Turkey...and other thoughts.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Family Matters -- Footnote

Thumbing through a little booklet on Turkish customs and etiquette, I came across a charming note regarding the wooing of women. As previously mentioned, in more liberal, 'Western' Turkish families, two people who wish to marry are generally free to do so, and typically the proposal takes place pretty much like it would in Europe or the U.S. -- namely, as a private conversation between the man and woman. They tell their families, and after this the groom-to-be's family pays a formal visit to the bride-to-be's family. This is largely symbolic, meant to indicate the blessing of the union by the two families. Contrast this to the old days, when it was during the first meeting of two families that the actual proposal was made (articulated by the parents of the groom-to-be), and it was a second visit that indicated the blessing and finalization of the arrangement by the two families.

In some parts of the country, the older customs still hold sway. If a boy (or his parents) takes a fancy to a particular girl in the village and decides that he wishes to marry her, he and his parents pay a visit to the home of the prospective 'bride,' possibly without her ever having met the boy or his family. This is a little water-testing exercise, a chance for the potential bride and her family to meet the potential groom and in-laws. My book reports:
"In order for the man not to lose face, his prospective bride answers his proposal in a subtle way. She makes [Turkish] coffee, and if she wishes to accept the proposal (or is instructed to do so by her mother), she puts sugar in his cup. If she rejects it, she puts salt in the cup."

I love the subtlety of the whole ritual. The bride's family, even if they (or she) have no intention of accepting the suitor, can receive his family and act as gracious hosts, thus saving face (no good Turk or Muslim may refuse hospitality). The response to the proposal is given so tactfully that the whole business, whether it ends in success or failure, ends with everyone feeling that their dignity has been preserved. And dignity, after all, is what it's all about.

I'm told that this custom is regional and not necessarily practiced by everyone. Other not-quite-as-charming methods of rejection exist, such as writing a thank you note to the prospective groom's family the day after the visit, and enclosing his calling card (which he left during the visit) in the letter. This also signifies a 'thanks, but no thanks.' My poetic self prefers the idea of salt in the coffee.

Although gradually succumbing to the forces of globalization and Westernization, Turkish society is still highly coded. It can be beautiful to watch the intricate and subtle dance of words and gestures in situations where Westerners would have simply said it -- or done it -- directly. It can also be intensely frustrating, and anxiety-producing for the foreigner. What to say, what not to say? As an outsider, you read up and arm yourself with as much information as you can, but at the end of the day, you've simply got to plunge in with good will and a smile, trusting that people will know that you mean well.


At 5:54 PM, Anonymous Mum said...

Fascinating! I pity the poor prospective suitor who has to cope with the salt-laden cup of coffee. If he is truly to save face, he has to down the cup of bitter brew while keeping a straight face; if he were to grimace, or to--heaven forbid!--insult Turkish hospitality by failing to down the coffee, it would be clear to all present that he had been rejected. An interesting alternative scenario: what if the girl's mum says "put salt in the coffee" but the love-struck maiden decides to opt for sugar instead?

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Kate's Blog said...

Funny...I never really thought of that -- the look on the poor guy's face when he takes a swig of salty coffee and tries to keep a straight face! Maybe not such a charming ritual after all. :-)


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