At least once a week I get asked some variation on this question: what’s it like to live in an Arab country? Answer: I don’t know. I’ve never lived in an Arab country. But wait, Turks are Arabs, right?
No, that couldn’t be more wrong. But it seems to be such a common misconception that I thought I’d take a few minutes here to clarify a few points that often leave people confused:
- Turkey is in the Middle East, and Middle East countries are by definition Arab. I know a lot of Turks who would disagree with the first part, and a lot of Israelis who would disagree with the second part. Not all Middle East countries are Arab, and many Turks think of Turkey as identifying more with Europe and other parts of Asia in terms of political and cultural likeness. I personally think of Turkey as a bridge between Europe and Asia, but there’s a lot of room for debate on that subject.
- Even if you don’t call it a Middle Eastern country, Turkey is still adjacent to all those Arab countries, and Turks are mostly Muslim, so they must be pretty much the same as Arabs. That’s like saying that Germans must be French because their country is adjacent to France and they’re Christian just like the French. Turks are, ethnically speaking, Ural-Altaic peoples, more closely related to Mongols and Chinese than to Arabs. In fact, historically the line between “Mongolian” and “Turkish” is rather blurred. In Western schoolbooks we tend to identify Genghis Khan and Attila The Hun as Mongols; most Turks see those figures as Turkish or at the very least, Turkic (and though Turkic they certainly are, “Turkish” is a more dynamic term and may or may not apply).
- Like all Middle Eastern peoples, Turks speak Arabic, so that makes them Arab. This is just flat-out wrong. Although it’s doubtless that some Turks do know how to speak Arabic, the language of the Turkish people is, oddly enough, Turkish. Turkish (wiki) is an Altaic language, which linguistically has more in common with Korean or Japanese than it does with Arabic. Arabic is a Semitic language, more closely related to Hebrew and Aramaic (wiki), and having very little to do with any Altaic language, much less any Turkic one. I think where the confusion lies with this is that most Turks are Muslim, and Arabic is the language of Islam, and many people confuse religion with ethnicity. Also, up until 1928 most Turkish speakers wrote their language using Ottoman script, which to an untrained eye looks indistinguishable from Arabic. But in modern times Turkish is written using the Latin alphabet, albeit with a few modified characters.
- Turks look like Arabs, so it’s an easy mistake to make. Have a look at the photo above, taken in eastern Turkey by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Do those men look Arab to you? Of course not. And even within the group, their facial features cover a range from European all the way to East Asian. The truth is, Turks vary in appearance greatly throughout the country— some have fair skin and light hair, others have dark skin and light eyes, and still others have features like those found in Altaic peoples thousands of kilometres east of Turkey. That’s not to say that some Turks don’t resemble some Arabs, but then again I know a few Germans whom one might mistake for French at a glance. It doesn’t mean it’s okay to lump them all together.
As a bit of a side anecdote, by coincidence I stumbled upon a forum a few weeks ago (sorry, I can’t remember the url) where a Korean man was making some very interesting points about ethnicity versus cultural development in Asia. At one point he was giving some narrative background about Turkic languages and Turkic peoples, and then someone else in the conversation used the term “Central Asia,” which set the Korean guy off on a huge discourse about how the whole concept of “Central Asia” was an invention by the Russians to try to solidify the Soviet hold on those areas, and that if it weren’t for the tremendous Soviet pressure on those nations to conform to Russian culture and language, i.e. if they’d all been left to progress “naturally,” then we’d probably now be referring to that entire gigantic region as the United Nations of Turkistan. Someone then asked the guy exactly where he would draw the borders of this theoretical Turkistan, and the Korean man suggested that even Korea and Japan wouldn’t be out of the question. He mentioned that when he and his family had visited eastern Turkey, they often got mistaken for Turkish because their facial structure is so similar to the Turks living in that area.
This got me to thinking about my own observations over the past few months, starting back when I discovered the Azerbaijani television network and was shocked to hear that the spoken language would be nearly indistinguishable from Turkish if it weren’t for those Russian-sounding words they throw in from time to time. And they’re starting to use a Roman script like we do, but when they were Soviet they were forced to use a Cyrillic script, and in addition some of them still use an Arabic-based script as well. But the spoken Azeri language is pretty much like Turkish (I imagine that this is much like the minor differences between spoken Norwegian and spoken Swedish). Same goes for Kazakh, and Turkmen, and Uzbek— Emirhan says he can understand people in all those languages, with some minor vocabulary adjustments.
So that got me thinking about how far east the similarities would carry, and I went to YouTube and started watching some Mongolian programming… unbelievable. I expected it to sound something like my stereotype of Mandarin Chinese, but it doesn’t— rather it sounds a lot like Turkish with some heavy Russian influences (some of the grammatical structures are Indo-European rather than Ural-Altaic, but only some). I was shocked at how much I understood. Also, one of my friends who comes from the western part of China speaks a regional Chinese dialect that she claims is “so close to Turkish, it’s scary.” She said she’s actually had small conversations with Turks and been able to hobble along with basic to moderate understanding.
I don’t know much Korean or Japanese, but Emirhan said Japanese people who speak Turkish almost never have a strong foreign accent. They sound like Turks. And the few Japanese people I’ve met here who learned Turkish have all said that it was an easy language for them to learn, and the pronunciations came naturally. I don’t know any Koreans in Turkey, so I can’t comment on that, but I know what the guy on the forum means when he says that some Koreans and some eastern Turks get mistaken for one another. And it’s possible that you could throw a couple of Mongolians into the picture and still be unsure as to who comes from where. This is one of the reasons why Turks get so annoyed when Westerners assume that “Turkish” and “Arab” are the same thing. Turks have more in common with the East Asians than they do with the Arabs. The only thing Turks ever shared with Arabia was a writing system, and even that’s now long gone, as it never really suited the Turkish language well anyway.
It all gets even more spooky when I think back to a year or so ago when I thought Emirhan was pulling my leg about this supposed theory that Native Americans are Turkic, and then when I did the research to back up my claim that he was talking nonsense, I discovered instead that in several ancient Native American languages, the word for “sky” is the same as the Turkish word, and the words for many of the colours are the same as in Turkish, and so on. Apparently a lot of experts in the field agree that these Americans also orginate from somewhere in the United Nations of Turkistan. And then there are the similarities in some of the faces— again with the high cheekbones and the slightly angled rectangular eyes. Of course I can’t say for sure that that’s where Native Americans came from, but certainly it’s an interesting theory.
So back to my original point, if you were unsure before about whether Turkey was an Arab country, hopefully I’ve cleared that up. But even if you were familiar with Turkish ethnicity before now, perhaps it’s still worth a look at some online resources if you’re curious to learn more about the great mystery of these highly nomadic and charismatic people. I, for one, am always on the lookout for new clues, but I’m not kidding myself— this is a puzzle that will never be completely solved.
Edit, May 2009: I’m closing comments on this post, just because it’s been almost two years, and I think everything that needs to be said has been said. We’re now to the point where people are either starting to repeat what others have said, or are going off-topic. I’ve deleted some of the off-topic comments where it was obvious that certain contributors were using this thread as a place to voice their propaganda, which may have its place elsewhere, but is irrelevant here. The point of this article was to clear up misconceptions about race, not to start a flame war about which race is better than the others. So… yeah, comments closed.