Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Turkish Connection

There's a lot of talk these days about Turkey's growing influence and reputation in the Arab and Muslim worlds. One place where this can be seen very clearly is in Gokce, a dirt-poor village near Turkey's border with Syria. In the last year, the Arabic-speaking village's men -- many of whom still practice polygamy -- have started looking for second wives online, where, thanks to Turkey’s growing clout and visibility in the Middle East, Turkish bride surfers are suddenly seen as quite a catch by women in the region.

For a number of reasons, the villagers have had particular success in luring Moroccan women to Gokce. From a recent Eurasianet piece of mine about the village and its online bride hunters:
To get a sense of how modern technology can be put to use in the service of ancient tradition, one might want to consider a visit to the Yildirim internet cafe in Gokce, a small, poor and dusty village near Turkey’s southern border with Syria.

When Hasip Yildirim, a 34-year-old former truck driver, opened the cafe two years ago, he imagined it would be a place for local children to play video games and surf the web. Little did he know it would become Gokce’s lonely hearts’ club, although with a somewhat unsavory twist.

Many of the men in Gokce (pronounced "Gohk-che") practice polygamy, which, although officially outlawed in 1926, endures throughout Turkey’s impoverished and predominantly-rural southeast.

In the past, the village’s Arabic-speaking men used to hop across the border to find a second wife in Syria. But the arrival of the internet in the village has changed that. Since Yildirim opened his cafe two years ago, Gokce’s men have started looking for wives online, where -- thanks to Turkey’s growing clout and visibility in the Middle East -- Turkish bride surfers are suddenly seen as quite a catch by women in the region.

"Everyone’s coming to the internet cafe now to find a wife," said cafe-owner Yildirim, speaking inside his fluorescent-lit, one-room business, which has some 20 computer terminals. "Sometimes, there’s no space to sit down."

Locals have zeroed in on Morocco since its citizens can come to Turkey without a visa. In the last year, some 10 Moroccan brides -- all second wives, including a 45-year-old who married a man 30 years her senior -- have come to Gokce, population 3,200. More than a dozen more are expected to arrive in the coming year.

"Everybody wants a Moroccan bride now," said Yildirim. He now acts as a kind of virtual matchmaker, scouting out potential Moroccan wives on an Arabic chat website called Habibti.com ("habibti" is the feminine version of "my dear" in Arabic).

"The Moroccans think Turkey has prestige, that it’s a strong country. They also trust Turkey -- they know it’s a Muslim country and that we pray and read the Koran," Yildirim said. "They don’t ask if we are rich or poor, or what we eat. The first question they ask is if we are Muslim or not."

Issam Moussaoui, executive director of the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women, a women’s rights organization based in Casablanca, says a poor economy and little access to jobs have forced many Moroccan women to look to marriage abroad -- particularly in Europe -- as a way out of enduring poverty.

For some Moroccan women, being a second wife might not sound so strange. Polygamy in Morocco was banned only in 2004.

Meanwhile, after decades of not being involved in the Middle East, Turkey’s stock in the region is rising. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s harsh criticism of Israel’s attack on Gaza earlier this year endeared Turkey to many in the Arab world, while, in recent years, several Turkish soap operas -- dubbed into Arabic -- have become hits across the Middle East, further reintroducing the country to the region.

"Moroccans know a lot more about Turkey now," said Moussaoui, speaking by telephone from Casablanca. "Especially now with the television shows, people know Turkey a lot more. A lot of women watch these shows daily. They know a lot about Turkish culture and that Turkish men [seem] more romantic than other ones."
You can read the whole article here.

(photo -- Hasip Yildirim, owner of an internet cafe in Gokce, a village in Turkey where local men are going online to find Arabic-speaking second wives. Photo by Yigal Schleifer.)


© Jonathan Makiri said...

Yigal, I tried your email link to send you an email but it is not working. I am a photographer in Istanbul and I would like to talk to you about your Polygamy story in Gokce among other stories. I really enjoy your work and am interested in collaborating with you if you are open to it. You can email me at jmakiri@gmail.com.

Thanks, Jonathan

Elish Sari said...

Turkish telenovelas are big in Morocco, and they really make Turkey appear enticing. I met plenty of Moroccan women eager to see Turkey for this very reason. This dismal village will come as a real shock! I'd like to know how many of them actually stay after they see the place.