One day when Katharine Branning was a young student in Paris studying art history, a slide appeared on the screen during a lecture, showing a building that jolted her from her seat.
She had no idea what it was, but it was a picture of a building seemingly built of golden stones, deeply carved with dancing animals, stars, plants, trees and cursive writing all framed with lace arabesques. It was a picture of the Gök Medrese, and she felt that she had to travel to Sivas to find that building.
From that day forward, she came to know Turkey better and better through extended yearly trips over the next 30 years. She recently shared some of her experiences here in a book titled “Yes, I Would Love another Glass of Tea: An American Woman’s Letters to Turkey.” The book is written in the form of letters addressed to a historical figure named Lady Mary Montagu, who lived in Turkey for a brief period and wrote 25 letters from Turkey to her family and friends.
The inspiration to write the book came from her friend, poet Muhsin İlyas Subaşı, who told her that Turkish people would be interested in hearing about her impressions of Turkey over the past 30 years. “This motivated me to comb my research and travel journals to bring back the many memories and insights of my travels, and I realized I had seen quite a lot in Turkey. As I set out, I knew that I did not have in me a travel journal or memoirs type of book, but that I had specific goals in mind,” she said in an online interview with Today’s Zaman, adding that she had basically three motivations for writing the book. “The first one was to offer a very long thank you letter to the people of Turkey for all the kindnesses they have shown me over the past 30 years of travel there. I wanted to share with them the many positive aspects of their culture that have touched me and enlightened me. The second motivation was to explain Turkey to my fellow Americans, who are perhaps unfamiliar or wrongly familiar with Turkey, so that they could have a positive connection with Turkish culture and its relationship to us. The third motivation was to share the hope that this emerging giant of a country can show Westerners the face of the Middle East that is reasoned, intelligent and peaceful. The entire well being of the world hangs in the balance of this understanding,” she explains.
For Branning, Lady Mary Montagu, who lived in the 17th century, was one exceptional woman. “She made a name for herself through her provocative letter writing, which showcased her exceptional intelligence and erudition. Her perceptive wit shone in the comments on everyday life that she included in the hundreds of letters she wrote from abroad to her family and friends, especially during the year she spent in Turkey. What is most impressive about her to me as a personality and a writer is that she always showed an unprejudiced eye to her surroundings, as well as the ease and poise that she showed as a stranger in a different culture. I admire how she reported incidents and facts openly and honestly, never negatively or critically,” Branning continues, noting that she was an appreciative tourist, always acting as she would if she were a guest in someone else’s home. “I have always strived to follow her example. We are both independent women who share a belief in the power of education and the pen, the lessons of travel, the force of religion and the importance of women’s rights. The two of us were struck as well by many of the same elements of Turkish culture.”
Branning states in her book that both Lady Mary and her are struck by the same things in Turkey and, according to her, the fact that two women travelers would be struck by the same things at a distance of almost 300 years speaks legions about the strength, individuality and perennial nature of those cultural factors in Turkish society. “The distinctive character of the food, the cosmopolitan population base, the natural beauty of the geography, the refinement of the literature and poetry, the importance placed on children, the elegance of women and the different path to spirituality offered by the practice of Islam are all factors that spoke to both of us as they were very distinctive from those of our own cultures. They gave us pause to reflect on them and on our own practices. I chose to address Lady Mary on these same factors to compare and contrast our experiences, but the bottom line is that these traits remain eternal and their impressions on outsiders ever-lasting,” she emphasizes.
The description by Lady Mary of the interior of the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne is a good example of a combined visual and emotional encounter with Turkish culture at a distance of 300 years, Branning says. “I remember sharing the exact same impressions as she did and feeling the exact same emotions when I first entered a mosque with no central nave, no altar and no seats as well as being intrigued by the differences in religious practice and the power of architecture to convey emotion. The kindness of Turkish women and their immediate sense of bonding is another encounter that pleased both of us,” she points out.
The 330-page book also features many photographs, and Branning says this is because visual images are important, as they are the reflection of the subconscious. “I have always tried to photograph not only unusual and striking images, but also those that give an inkling of the character of Turks. The images of everyday life depict the humanity of a people in a very direct way, often more eloquently than words. Over the past 30 years I have, of course, taken legions of photographs of the major monuments and geographical sites of Turkey, but I have always found that the images of people and the tiny ‘event’ items of daily life are the images that stick with me the most,” she explains.
Although this is her first book, she has written many articles and book reviews in her career as a librarian and educator. “My website on Seljuk caravansarays, www.turkishhan.org, is also a major piece of research and writing, and did much to make this distinctive set of buildings known to the English-speaking world. I am currently finishing a historical novel about Turkey, and have a few other writing projects in development concerning Turkey as viewed by an outsider, as well as a novel set in more contemporary times. I also am involved in a translation project for the poems of Muhsin İlyas Subaşı,” she notes.