In traditional Turkish culture, health is thought of as a blessing from God. It is always polite to ask about the health of other people and their family and children. The loss of health may be attributed to numerous reasons: sitting in a draft and getting a chill, going outside with wet hair, old or rotten food causing food poisoning, etc. After the medical explanation of illness, other explanations for illness may include God’s punishment, retribution for wrongdoing, worrying, being the victim of maliciously intended magic, offending or harming a “jin” (supernatural creatures).
Sickness is dealt with in many ways. One proverb used in the eastern part of Turkey is “When God gave a problem he also gave the remedy.” Traditional medicine and remedies as well as Western-based medical treatment may be used. Turkish hospitals and the medical profession have become as good as many in the rest of Europe.
Interestingly enough, as a backup and you could say a holdover from a superstitious past, most housewives have their own set of recommended cures. Here are just a few examples: Yogurt is a popular cure; it is considered good for stomach problems. Tying a scarf tightly around one’s forehead helps with headaches. Particularly popular in the villages, midwives are older, experienced women who have knowledge of traditional methods of healing and also help at childbirth. For those who are more superstitious there are other people who are believed to have special powers of healing. Muslim religious leaders can cure by making an amulet with a verse from the Quran. There are some shrines of saints that individuals may visit solely for the purpose of receiving healing. People will travel great distances to visit a shrine where it is believed the place or water may bring healing.
Death is considered to be the will of God. This does not mean that the process of grief and emotion is less. There are many euphemisms that refer to death such as “He gave up life,” and when people refer to a deceased person they often add the adjective “rahmetli” to the person’s name (with the mercy of God).
The term “ruh” is used for spirit or life of a person. This is sometimes used alternatively with the word “can” which primarily refers to life in a person’s body. According to tradition, Turks believe the heart is the place where an individual thinks, feels and desires. The liver is considered the place where feelings of deepest emotion such as pity and concern are found.
Recently I received a letter from an American who lives in Berlin. She wrote that one of the relatives of one of her Turkish friends had passed away and she asked what she should do in such a situation. Here is the advice I gave to her:
A visit to the deceased’s family is appropriate. Turks will drop everything to run to the side of their family or friends who have suffered a loss. They have certain phrases which are polite to say to the family. Some of these are: “Başınız sağ olsun” (health to your head) or “Allah rahmet eylesin” (may God grant them mercy) or “Allah sabır versin” (may God give you patience). Like in any situation when a person has lost a loved one, sometimes it is best to just sit quietly with the person, and appropriate physical touch for comfort is acceptable.
It is important for non-Muslims to be aware that for a Muslim, when a person has passed away, the body should be buried within 24 hours.
In my next piece I will share more about the actual preparation and funeral service.
In the meantime, I agree with Pat in that those who say that nothing has really changed in Turkey, and no, people’s living standards aren’t really rising at all -- are people who are misled. State hospital care has improved, but you do generally have a long wait.
Note: Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey” 2005. Please keep your questions and observations coming: I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org