Next time I go to Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city situated on the Aegean coast, I have to take a short skirt. Or shoes with high heels. Or even better, both. I was in Izmir this week, and wearing jeans and sneakers made me feel totally inelegant. I didn’t only feel inelegant, I was. At least, compared to the girls of Izmir.
The ‘girls of Izmir’, as they are generally referred to, are known for being modern. They don’t wear scarves, şalvars or old worn out shoes. They wear elegant clothes, shirts without sleeves, short skirts, high heels, and they seem to go to the hairdresser on a daily basis. They are the symbol of the modern atmosphere in the city. People in Izmir are proud to be ‘gavur’, infidels. Proud that the religious AK Party never even came close to taking over the government of their city, proud to host one of the biggest demonstrations against the AK Party some time ago, proud to be the most modern city in Turkey.
The modernity of Izmir dates back to before the republic was founded. Then Izmir was called Smyrna and it was mostly inhabited by Greeks and Jews, not by Muslims. It was a cosmopolitan city with many foreigners and a lively trade. But around the end of World War I, things changed. Greece invaded Smyrna, Atatürk threw them out again, and the city was left in flames by the withdrawing Greeks. Smyrna became Izmir and was from then on a Turkish city, with not too much cultural diversity remaining. But the modernity never left, the vibrant atmosphere was there to stay.
Still, to me there is another side to this modernity. Many of these ‘girls from Izmir’ are modern on the outside, but in fact rather conventional on the inside. Defending the nationalist, secular (or anti-religious) principles of the state, suspicious of change, convinced of their own righteousness, not very open minded. At least this applies to the couple of dozen that I talked to on my previous visits to this city, once for a big demonstration and once for the celebration of International Women’s Day. Even though I’d never say that all girls from Izmir are like this – of course not! – I have learned to look further than just the modern appearance.
Now that I think of it, maybe I shouldn’t wear a short skirt and high heels the next time I go to Izmir. Maybe a long skirt and a headscarf would be better. Just to tease them a little bit, the girls of Izmir.