When In Urfa . . . (Culture and Meaning)

November 25, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

A culture is a “meaning system.” A language gives meaning to sounds. A culture gives meaning to actions. What something means is a matter of interpretation. The same sound means different things in diferent languages. Ditto behavior.

When Elif Batuman walked around in Urfa, Turkey without a headscarf, she thought she was expressing her preferences in dress and perhaps her opinion about individualism, feminism, and the Turkish president. (See my post from earlier this week, “How Culture Works.” For Batuman to have worn the scarf would have meant that she was abandoning her ideas. That’s what it would have meant to her. To the people of Urfa, it would have meant only that she was exercising normal politeness.

Batuman herself eventually came to share this view, but only after she had been clued in by someone else – a woman of Turkish origin who was similarly secular, Westernized, and professional. Her mother.

Here is Batuman on “Fresh Air” describing the conversation.

Here’s the transcript.

The thought that I had in Urfa was what am I trying to show by going without a headscarf given that the people who see me without the headscarf have a completely different interpretation? Like, they don't know my ideas. They just know, oh, this is a person who is here and doesn't respect the way that we do things enough to, like, put this thing on her head.

Like it - and then it was funny because actually after I wrote that piece in The New Yorker, my mother read it. And I think of my mother as such a, like, a proud secularist person. And she's a scientist. And her mother studied literature. And I'm just so proud of her and of her mother. And she was like, I can't believe I didn't tell you to just wear a headscarf in Urfa.

And I was like, really? And she was like, of course. It's just - it's a common politeness. It's - they're people from the countryside. When you go there, of course you wear a head[scarf]. It's just a nice thing to do. And for her it was this thing about, like, niceness. And it wasn't this, like, anguished political thing that I'd been making it into

What does wearing a headscarf mean? Does it mean that the woman has abandoned her feminist beliefs, supporting the patriarchy, and endorsing a repressive, dictatorial president? Or does it mean that she’s just being nice?

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