Katharine Branning, Vice President of the French Institute Alliance Française of New York City, visited NUS last month to present her book, Yes, I Would Love Another Glass of Tea, which is based on her almost 35 years of travel and research in Turkey. The structure of Yes, I Would centers around the letters of Lady Mary Montagu, an English aristocrat who lived with her diplomat husband in Istanbul in 1716 and 1717. The letters, published under the title Embassy Letters, have been in print since Lady Mary’s death. Ms. Branning engages in a back-and-forth dialogue with the letters throughout the book. “Lady Mary and I shared many of the same experiences,” she notes. Ms. Branning kindly answered a few questions over email after her return to the United States.
What made you write this book?
My adventure with Turkey began with a rather odd event. One day when I was a young student in Paris studying art history, a slide appeared on the screen during a lecture, showing a building that jolted me from my seat. I had no idea what it was, but it was seemingly built of golden stones, deeply carved with dancing animals, stars, plants and trees, birds, and cursive writing, all framed by lace arabesques. The professor said, “…Et maintenant nous voyons ici le Gök Medrese de Sivas….” I had never before heard the words “medrese,” “Gök,” or “Sivas,” but I knew that I just had to go see firsthand the country that could produce a building both powerful and magical like that one. So I decided then and there to go to Turkey, to travel to that place called Sivas, and to find that building. This may seem like a peculiar motivation to encounter a country, but those stones really called to me.
The inspiration to write the book came from a remark by my friend, the Kayseri poet and historian Muhsin Ilyas Subaşi, who told me that he thought that my observations would be of interest to the Turkish people, and that I should put them in a book format. At first I was doubtful that they would be of any interest, but the more I thought about it, I began to think that I did have a unique experience in the fact that I had traveled regularly to Turkey for so many years, and that these experiences could be related in a positive and constructive way.
I read the Embassy Letters of Lady Mary Montagu when I was in my early 20s and they left a lasting impression on me. Ever since I first read her letters, she has been a role model for me, and I have always striven to follow her example in my private and professional life when I travel and certainly when I write. So when I took up the challenge of Muhsin Ilyas Subasi’s suggestion to write this book, I knew exactly to whom I should address it.
You have mentioned that you see Lady Mary as less ethnocentric than other visitors to Turkey of her time (namely men). What brought you to this conclusion?
Indeed, what is most remarkable about her as a personality and a writer is that she showed an unprejudiced eye to her surroundings. She was an appreciative tourist, always acting as would a guest in someone else’s home. I admire how she reported incidents and facts openly and honestly, never negatively or critically. She was a true ethnographer in this sense, noting in a descriptive fashion all around her, from jewels to carpets to food. She describes things and allows the reader to formulate his/her own opinion. Other Western writers (Burnaby, Loti, Gauthier, Burton, Lamartine, de Busbecq) tend to editorialize more and adopt a superior, Eurocentric tone. As much as I enjoy the rousing travelogue of Frederick Burnaby, On Horseback through Asia Minor (1898), I always remember this one line from it: “Poor Turkey! She has descended the steps of civilization, and not ascended them like European nations.” Lady Mary would never have said anything like that.
You speak about tea as a fundamental part of Turkish culture as well as a way to bridge differences between people. Could you elaborate on these thoughts?
For that, I will refer you to the wonderful video clip that was made of a part of a speech I gave at the Anatolian Food and Cultures Festival in Costa Mesa, California in October 2011. The clip says it all, with such beautiful pictures illustrating my words!
What are your favorite aspects of Turkish culture? Least favorite?
It could very well be that one of my favorite aspects of Turkish culture could also be one of my most challenging ones to deal with! That aspect is Turkish society’s very strong bond with family, the extended family (work, parishioners) and community, and the world as a whole. Turks generally live their lives as a reflection of those around them, starting with the intense structure of the family circle. A Turk never does anything alone, but always with someone. This is seen in the way they defer to family for all decisions, their obsessive use of cell phones, their festivals and foods, and their love of sports teams. Many Turks also live to serve those around them, through daily gestures and through larger humanitarian efforts.
However, for a Westerner, more attuned to independence and liberty in his/her actions, this aspect can appear sometimes quite oppressive. You are made to feel as if there is something wrong with you if you just want to be alone for a moment, or if you believe that children should learn independence and self-autonomy, or if you want to take a walk in the woods by yourself. Your actions are constantly scrutinized (albeit in a loving and caring way) by everyone around you, and this takes some getting used to.
Could you share some thoughts on Turkey’s position in the Middle East? In the world?
Turkey is a success story in the making. Turkey is one of the world’s rising powers, with a population of 75 million people. It is a member of the G20 and NATO, and is the world’s seventeenth largest economy, with a 9% growth rate—a rate only surpassed by India and China. It exports everything from hazelnuts to cars to apricots to textiles. Turkey has developed extensive trade with Europe as well as with Iran, Libya, Syria, and Iraq.
But perhaps most importantly, Turkey’s greatest richness lies in its potential to mediate peace. It is perhaps one of the rare countries in the world that can be considered European, Asian, and Middle Eastern. Turkish leaders can speak with their counterparts openly and easily in poles as diverse as Tehran, Brussels, and Washington. With its vibrant democracy, Turkey is playing an increasingly influential role on the global stage. It is seeking membership in the European Union, despite the resistance of some countries. It has opened 33 new embassies in the last decade, many of them in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It plays a mediating role in many of the conflicts in its neighborhood, and has emerged today as the Middle East’s most dynamic power center. All eyes, from both the East and West, are now on Turkey.
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