Are you happy? Where ever in the world you ask that question, you can always identify with the answers. Journalist Frederike asked women in the Turkish city of Bursa. What defines their happiness?
‘Green Bursa’ is how Turkey’s fourth biggest city, Bursa, about a hundred kilometres south of Istanbul, is often referred to. And indeed, there is no lack of parks and lanes, and then there are the surroundings of the city: huge forests and green hills. It’s a city with more than two million inhabitants, but it doesn’t feel overwhelmingly busy because the city is built spaciously. There is a lot of economic activity: because of the car, food and textile industries Bursa is actually one of the richest cities in the country. The city is modern, but rooted in tradition: it was the capital of the Ottoman Empire before 1453, when Istanbul was conquered, and the city breathes history.
A good city in which to seek happiness. Especially when it concerns women, because Bursa has been a developed city for centuries and that has also given freedom to women. Much more than in the east of the country, for example, where family traditions oppress and the male dominated culture doesn’t give women many possibilities. More too than in small villages around Turkey, where you will easily become the subject of gossip if you stray from the beaten track.
The modernity and the traditional roots of the city are reflected in the women of Bursa. Happiness, it turns out from conversations with four women, doesn’t play a big role in making choices. Often there is even really a choice. Getting married is obviously one. Having children – or at least trying to have them – is another. And Turks, both men and women, generally don’t work out of a longing for self expression but out of pure necessity. The question of how happy they are doesn’t seem to be one they often think about in daily life.
Her face glittery with party make up
Take for example Arzu Yahsi (33). She is still wearing her party dress and her face is still glittery with party make up. A pearl necklace, matching star-shaped earrings. A friend, a bit younger than herself, just got engaged this afternoon with an official ceremony and reception. It reminds her of her own wedding in 2000. ‘The same night we had already had our first fight.’ She married young, as tradition demands, but when her marriage turned out to be dramatic, she decided to get a divorce – an increasingly common phenomenon in Turkey.
Arzu’s marriage lasted for nine years, and last year she and her husband officially separated. She still has a hard time dealing with that, even though she really wanted the divorce. ‘We got married just after he finished his army service. He changed so much. He was jealous, aggressive, he wanted to control everything, from my looks to who I visited when.’
Arzu lives in the city centre of Bursa, on the third floor in a narrow street. Small living room with pink couch, white walls, a simple carpet, a TV. A room for her, a room for her 8 year old son, Cihan. She doesn’t have to think about the question of whether she is happy or not. ‘I’m unhappy’, she says. She gives her happiness a 5, on a scale of 10. She sums it up like this: she doesn’t see her son often enough, her parents have health problems, her brother is jobless, and her salary is not in tune with the responsibilities she has at work. For four months there has been a new love in her life, but that hardly contributes to her happiness, she says. ‘I’ve become scared. Scared that he too will change just like that.’
Her biggest grief is that she doesn’t see Cihan enough. Even though her marriage was bad, looking back she gives her married life a 7. ‘I saw Cihan every day, and now only from Friday afternoon till Sunday evening. On weekdays he’s with my ex. I miss him so terribly much, I can’t describe that feeling.’She walks away, her party dress feels too tight and she wants to get out of her tights. She comes back in a pink jogging suit, with tears in her eyes and a pack of paper handkerchiefs. Why she is crying exactly? ‘I keep wondering if it was maybe my fault that our marriage didn’t work out. He has a new girlfriend and I think he treats her properly. He gives her presents. We were together for nine years and he never gave me a present. Was I such a bad wife?’
She focuses on her work. In ten years she worked herself up to being branch manager of a bank and she works long, stressful hours. Good for her self confidence,, but happiness? No, she doesn’t find that in her work. Work is necessary. Happiness is in her son. Only when he is grown up, Arzu thinks, will she be able to really feel happiness again. ‘When he becomes independent, does well in life, goes his own way, that would make me happy. He’s doing very well in school. Recently he got an A for a test. That made me very happy.’
‘My future husband has to find me’
What a contrast with Selin Yazicilar (28). She doesn’t think for a second and gives the happiness in her life a 9. It shows: she is radiant. Why? In love? No, on the contrary. She is free and can do whatever she wants.
Selin is hardly ever alone: she has a lot of friends and often visits her huge family. And she travels: she has seen a lot of Europe and every corner of Turkey. She usually travels with a friend, on her own or with a group. She can afford it, because she studied economics and is head of a financial department of the Bursa municipality. ‘No, that was not my dream job as a kid. I wanted to be a TV or radio producer. For that, in secondary school you had to choose a social stream, but well, my friends chose beta classes so I did the same.’
But however free and modern her life is, in the end she also wants a traditional life. Marriage, children, her family close by. In five years’ time she wants to look back at her wedding day and hold a son or daughter in her arms. She had a serious relationship between her 19th and 24th years, but eventually it broke up. But she is not looking for a man. She says: ‘My future husband has to find me.’
And he should, in line with the demands of modern Turkish women in search of life fulfilment, meet a set of demands: an equal level of education, an equal job and an equal income. And a car, because she has one too. Selin: ‘I have a certain level of material wealth, and I want to keep it when I get married and have a family of my own.’ What if she falls in love with a poor guy? She looks shocked: ‘I will really not fall in love with a man without a career or a certain standard of living. I won’t lose my senses!’
She means to say: you create your happiness all by yourself. Selin: ‘By positive thinking, by knowing what you want. And of course, I’m healthy and I have a good family, those are the presents I got in life. I know how unhappy it can make you if you lose those things, since I lost my father four years ago. I could think negatively, I could lose everythng that makes me happy, but what’s the use of constantly being aware of that?’ And it won’t happen to her either, she’s convinced of that. ‘Because I have a positive attitude.’
Havens in her busy day
In a slightly more traditional neighbourhood just outside the city centre lives Zeynep Teymur (33). Her life is in the hands of Allah. And he is generous to her: her prayers are heard. She is living in Turkey again, in her own house opposite her mother’s, she has a child and a happy marriage. ‘My husband and I lived in Australia for five years. He worked as a teacher, I worked in a child day-care centre. Beautiful years, but I missed my family and country dearly.’
She still prays every day, five times. It takes her a maximum of ten minutes per prayer and those are the havens in her busy days. Zeynep and her husband Ahmet have a small business in office materials: the shop is stuffed with an enormous variety of school exercise books, note blocks, pens, pencils, leads, envelops, gift paper, school books, hobby glue, glitter glue , super glue. The shop is open seven days a week, and Zeynep works six half days, more or less from two in the afternoon till six at night. In a corner of the shop there is a desk and a chair, with internet connection: after four o’clock daughter Alanur (13) does her homework there.
‘I was born and raised in this neighbourhood’, says Zeynep, ‘and I always want to stay here. I feel at home, I’m part of this community. I know everybody, everybody knows me. I like that.’ And elderly man comes into the shop with some text written on a piece of paper. Can Zeynep and Alanur please put the text in a computer file, print it and make twenty copies of it? Alanur starts typing. It’s an invitation for a ‘mevlüt’, a farewell ceremony for a deceased person. Zeynep talks to the customer, gives him tea and a chair and helps Alanur with the graphic design of the text.
‘I wanted to be a teacher as a kid’, she says. ‘That didn’t happen, but I’m very happy that I work and I’m not just a house wife. Sometimes I would like to have more time for Alanur. She goes to school, of course, but still.’ That’s why she doesn’t give her happiness a 10, but an 8.
Quitting work is not an option: the shop needs her. Her situation is an exception to the rule in Turkey: usually women work full-time, or they don’t work. Part-time jobs are rare and would also not pay enough to live on. Working is often not a way to express and develop yourself, but pure necessity in a country were social welfare just doesn’t exist.That Zeynep and her husband have only one child doesn’t influence her happiness. Not any more. She has been sad about it when she didn’t get pregnant again, but she found comfort in her religion. ‘Allah wanted it like this for us, and that’s why I could accept the disappointment.’ Alanur still asks for a brother or sister now and then, and Zeynep then tells her that she can pray for it, but that that’s all they can do. ‘I don’t pray any more for a second child. It’s okay the way it is.’
‘I am 46, who wants me?’
The consistent life of Zeynep is in sharp contrast with that of Selma Polat (46). Her life is: start over again and again. Her husband worked as a policeman, which means you’re transferred to another city every five years. When her first daughter was born, in 1985, she lived in the extreme south east of the country, in the province of Hakkari. When the second was born, five years later, they were living in Tekirdag, west of Istanbul and not far from the Greek border. ‘I learned to quickly make new contacts, but of course that didn’t change the fact that his work defined our life.
The time in Tekirdag she remembers as one of the happiest in her life. You could just leave the key in your front door when you left your house, the neighbours were all friendly and helpful, and she enjoyed being with her two little daughters. But that ended again when her husband was transferred. ‘I didn’t immediately move with him because the children were still so small and he wanted to try to get transferred back to Tekirdag. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. We had to pay rent on two houses, but luckily I found a job in a kindergarten. My parents-in-law didn’t like it that I worked, being a young mother, but the job was necessary so they saw there was no other way. The job made me happy, working with children was great.’
That she doesn’t work now largely defines her lack of happiness in life. She applies for jobs again and again, but is never hired. Not in day-care, not as a secretary, not as a telephonist. ‘I’m 46, who wants me? They prefer young girls just out of school.’
So she spends her days with her now retired husband. In an apartment on the sixth floor of a group of concrete apartment blocks close by the highway on the outskirts of Bursa. Not the sort of surroundings that cheer you up, she agrees. ‘But we moved to Bursa because Şeyda, our youngest daughter, studies here. We could have found a home closer to the city centre, but then Seyda would have to travel far every day. From here it’s only a short distance to the university.’
Her work raising the kids, that was her life, her happiness. She doesn’t expect to find work again, her youngest offspring will soon leave the nest. She has to give it some thought, but then decides the happiness in her life deserves a 6. Just enough. ‘We are healthy, we have health insurance, no financial worries. Our daughters are doing well. That’s happiness, right?’
Selma and her husband will go to a city close to Bursa next week. A smaller city where they still have a lot of friends and where life is cheaper. Maybe they will buy a house there. The first in their lives, because her husband’s work always made it more practical to rent. They could go to that house when Şeyda has her holidays, or maybe move permanently when she has graduated and ‘settled’. In five, six years maybe. Maybe then Selma will be ready for her ‘old days’. Now she’s not yet ready. She doesn’t yet accept that the things that gave her happiness are gone.