Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Istanbul: Cultural Exchanges, Part 1

Istanbul. Bosphorus.

For a few days, some Iraqi-Kurds and I enjoyed sporadic connections. "Bali" spoke excellent English and was very outgoing. With him were his wife of only six months, his brother, his cousin, and his cousin's wife of a few years. None of Bali's relatives spoke a lick of English and I, of course, spoke no Kurdish.

Some conversations:

Bali and his relatives had invited me to join them on a walk though Gulhane Park and then a sit by the Bosphorus on large, black boulders. They brought fruit, nuts, and candy with them.    
On virginity

Bali: "Are American women virgins when they get married?"

Mzuri: "No, most aren't. That doesn't mean American women are promiscuous."

Bali: "We believe it's important to be virgins before marriage."

Mzuri: "You mean just the women, right?

Bali: "No, the men, too."

[Embarrassing admission: I laughed out loud in disbelief.]

Bali: "No, really."

Bali: "I think that's the best system."

Mzuri, neutrally: "Well, if both parties are virgins, it removes concern about disease."

One evening, we sat at one of the tables with comfortable benches outside the hotel. We shared fruit.

On geography.

Somehow, the two wives and I lurched our way through an information swap - where each of us was from, how old they were (24 and 27), and how long they'd been married (six months and four years, respectively), and that they were sisters.

I felt embarrassed when we talked about where they lived, which is in Iraqi Kurdistan. Yes, I did know kinda about Iraqi Kurdistan and that its capital is Arbil. And it was relatively safe for visitors. But why didn't I know which countries bordered it? Eek.

The sisters and I drew horrible maps on napkins to show where they and I were from. 

Why don't I have a portable world map that I travel with for just such cultural exchanges? (It's not like most people in the world have heard of Missouri. It's all about New York and Los Angeles.)   

I also didn't know much about the distribution of Kurds in the world. There are many Kurds in Turkey, for example.

Credits: Juan Cole of Informed Comment, Rich Clabaugh and the CS Monitor

On consanguinity and marriage.

I've already explained that my Iraqi Kurd acquaintances were Bali, his wife, his cousin, and his cousin's wife. And that the two wives were sisters.

Bali: "My wife is my mother's sister's daughter."

Mzuri: [Cognitive wheels grind.] "Oh. Your first cousin. And so your cousin's wife is also your first cousin. And his first cousin? You're all first cousins"? 

Bali: "Yes. Do you marry first cousins in America"?

[My first knee-jerk thought, immediately squelched was: We have jokes about that for people from Arkansas.]

Mzuri: "No, not generally. Second cousins, yes, sometimes. But not first cousins. In some states it's illegal."

Writing this makes me wonder more about consanguinity rules in various cultures.

Here are the first-cousin laws in the U.S. Traditionally, Americans really don't like first-cousin marriages.

This bit about some Ethiopians from wikipediaAmong the Christian Habesha highlanders of Ethiopia and Eritrea (the predominantly orthodox Christian Amhara and Tigray-Tigrinya), it is a tradition to be able to recount one's paternal ancestors at least 7 generations away starting from early childhood, because "those with a common patrilineal ancestor less than seven generations away are considered 'brother and sister' and may not marry." The rule is less strict on the mother's side, where the limit is about four generations back, but still determined patrilinarly. This rule does not apply to Muslims or other ethnic groups.[4]

But among Kurdish culture, first-cousin marriages are not only common, they are traditionally desirable. They strengthen the power and security of the family. Here's a link to cousin marriages among Kurds specifically - unfortunately, the sources are from a generation ago, so it's tough to know how prevalent cousin marriage still is. 

On the other hand, some cultures carefully marry outside their clans to ensure not only genetic diversity, but to create strategic alliances between clans.

For the record, Arkansas law prohibits first-cousin marriage. 

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