Jane Akatay is an experienced journalist of depth, intelligence and passion. Jane and I first met when she approached me to participate in an article she was writing about English Language bloggers in southwest Turkey for the Turkish Daily News. Jane’s article, The Tales that Wag the Blogs, cleverly inter-weaved the views of five different quality bloggers, each with their own unique perspective on expat life. When I neared completion of the book, Jane was the first person I turned to for a review. Despite her busy schedule, Jane was pleased to oblige and she wrote more than I could have hoped for. It’s not a brief throwaway review. It’s an in-depth, forensic critique set within the context of modern Turkey mores. It blew me away. Thank you, Jane.
A decade into the 21st century along comes Jack Scott, a gay middle-aged man, who has bravely taken early retirement, daringly chosen to share his day-to-day experiences of life with thousands online in his blog, ‘Perking The Pansies’, and has now written a book with the same title.
No big deal, you may think; it’s been done already. So what? But this man, his blog and his book are more than a little different: Jack Scott lives in a predominantly Muslim country.
Not content to live in the accepting social scene of cosmopolitan London, he and his husband Liam have chosen to come and live in southwest Turkey, a decision that not only subjected them to scrutiny from the Turkish community but also to the watchful eyes of the burgeoning expat community, many of whom he describes with delicious vitriol and cutting humour. With the forthcoming publication of his book, Perking the Pansies, his lifestyle choices and intimate details of his everyday life will be open for inspection by the rest of the world.
Ask a cross-section of Turkish people, especially down here on the coast, and they will tell you that Gayness is a western problem (read ‘disease’) and doesn’t exist in Turkey. It is also generally accepted (as in so many other countries and institutions throughout the world) that the only homosexual in an active relationship between two men is the one who ‘receives’. The ‘giver’s’ behaviour is not deemed to be remarkable at all: after all they are just members of the notorious ‘any hole’s a goal’ club.
So how does a sexually repressed and quintessentially macho society relate to two men living together in marital harmony?
Ten years ago many ‘straight’ British men on holiday in Turkey expressed their shock when witnessing Turkish men’s tactile behaviour with each other: holding hands, casually draping their arms around their friends’ shoulders, resting a hand on a friend’s knee – and leaving it there.
Any physical contact between men, to most Brits, smacked of homoerotica and to their suspicious homophobic minds meant that these demonstrative men were either gay or, even worse, indiscriminate in their sexual preferences – after all even married men were seen to be doing it.
When a gay (and famous) ‘artist’ came along to a local restaurant popular with tourists at the end of the 1990s and, decked in veils and with his heavily kohled come-hither eyes, danced in the most superbly, sensual way imaginable (Turkish men, whatever their shape, age or sexual orientation are generally wonderful dancers), complaints from tourists of both genders: the decadence, indecency of it was evidently traumatising for the average Daily Mail reader and their children. Homophobia is by no means the sole preserve of conservative Brits.
Talk with any heterosexual, bi or gay western man who is open enough to speak about his gender identity and sufficiently emotionally intelligent and aware to question his own sexual vulnerability and he will often say that the rules of oriental societies are blurred to the point where they no longer know what the rules actually are even though they are sure they exist – yet Jack Scott made an active choice to leave the UK and come and live in such an inscrutable society with his partner, Liam.
Scott attempts an explanation: it was economically more viable for the couple to live in Turkey, having taken early retirement? ‘Bill’ the name given by Jack and Liam to their computerised accounting system would suggest that this is no longer the case. Times are hard for all expats living on the dwindling interest realised on their investments.
Sunshine and wonderful summers would seem another good reason perhaps, but as Scott illustrates the winters are cold, wet and frequently miserable and the summers are scorching. For people attempting to get on with their lives, rather than holidaying, the climate is not so kind.
Turkish society maybe provides an answer? It is certainly hospitable and charming on the outside. But as they discover following a murder, it has a dark homophobic underbelly, exacerbated by violent sexual acts (the man’s body reveals evidence of rape), and subsequently a few people warn the couple that views are hardening against gayitude. There is also the disadvantage of a cumbersome bureaucracy, slow, opaque and frustrating for those used to transparency.
No, it seems that, like so many other visitors to Turkey, these two men simply fell in love with the country and all that that entails. They sell up and move out but with a proviso that should the experiment fail they would return to the UK.
There again, many make that choice, for a variety of reasons, but all too often when the dream has turned into a nightmare they no longer have the wherewithal to return and are stuck, full of loathing. Scott pulls no punches when meeting such people and it is a warning to all to beware of becoming nothing more than negative whingers.
Scott’s crisp little portraits are of embittered British expats and Chrissie and Bernard are Jack’s archetypal poisonous couple. They epitomise the expat horror and the storyline would be poorer without them. Clement, a beautifully portrayed old queen, on the other hand, antediluvian and bigoted as his views are, at least has an underlying love of his adoptive country to redeem him and as an aspiring Emiköy, tries to make the most of his chances. His delight in muscle bound rough Turkish men obviously has more than a little to do with his move to the country. We are left wondering whether he will survive. (Opportunity for another book, Scott?).
Scott wields a vicious and occasionally cruel pen when describing these characters but the vignettes are unrelentingly accurate. Will these people recognise themselves? Only time will tell. Emigreys are self-explanatory and although the term may or may not be an original soubriquet, we all know a few.
VOMITS (Victims Of Men In Turkey) on the other hand are a breed of their own and Scott makes use of several in the narrative although mostly at their own expense. But to be fair, his colourful descriptive prose also illustrates some less dysfunctional characters with charm and wit and no little pathos. The couple, Charlotte and Alan for example, who adopt a baby, are a case in point and as their experiences unfold the book takes on a much more serious slant.
Indeed, there is a shift from the smug, pink and fluffy style in the opening chapters, reminiscent of Scott’s blog, to a much more considered narrative in the middle and remaining chapters. As the plot develops (there is one, although this isn’t apparent at the beginning), the personalities of Jack, Liam and the other main characters in the book are sensitively expanded and much more realistic and sympathetic. The quips and bad gay-boy jokes become less frequent and the content takes on a serious exploration of what life really is like for all foreign expats and many Turks too.
Jack and Liam for the most part have a pragmatic and relaxed attitude towards their adopted country and its attitudes and appear to relish every aspect of its culture apart from the two episodes already described.
If the beautiful happy baby Adalet (Turkish for Justice) is a metaphor for the tender love that dared not speak its name until relatively recently in Britain and even now in Turkey, then it would appear that Jack and Liam should be more than a little cautious; and only come out of their Bodrum closet in the guise of cousins, as they chose to describe themselves towards the end of the book. Their future here in Turkey could be perilous but then again with Turkey you never really know – and that is one of its many joys.
Perking The Pansies can and should be read for a number of reasons and not just seen as a book for the gay niche market. It revels in some of the more obnoxious aspects of expats who buy into a country but not the culture (not Jack and Liam; although not completely innocent they do at least make an attempt to learn the language and customs.) Finally, for anyone who is not part of either minority group, it is simply a good read and hopefully the first of many by new boy on the block, Jack Scott.
Jane Akatay, journalist