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  • Writer's pictureManuel Marcel Murrenhoff

What a Trip to Istanbul Taught me about Cultural Diversity.

Sunset Istanbul
Silhouettes of mosque's dominate the cityscape of Istanbul.

I have a confession to make.

I am full of prejudices, I do stereotype and pass judgment too rapidly.

Sounds familiar? We have something in common. You do it, too. Your parents do. So do your friends and neighbors.

And do you know that it is totally normal? It is part of our biological wiring. Stereotyping has a reason for being. It is just a bit outdated, that’s all. Imagine for a second, you were born thousands of years earlier. You are part of a nomadic tribe living from hunting and gathering. Daily life is a struggle to survive. While the region you live in appears familiar to you, you have literally no clue how the world behind the horizon looks like. Damn, you do not even have the slightest idea about the planet not to mention the universe. You cannot explain yourself the rules of physics and the vagaries of nature. Everything is a big question mark. The teachings of science are still centuries away. Your world and its laws are shaped by your everyday experiences and storytelling from the elders around the warming comfort of a bonfire.

The modern high-tech world you live in and automatically taking for granted is a tiny pinhead on the human race’s timeline. The world, as you know, it has been massively shaped by the Enlightenment[1] on the philosophical and the Industrial Revolution on the technical side[2]. Your genetic framework was formed through evolution over thousands of years. For your ancestors up to your grandparents’ generation, life was rough and unexplainable. To survive, they had to be overly cautious and form strong communal bonds. Every encounter with living beings outside the tribe was a potential death threat. Lethal violence was omnipresent. To survive, your ancestors had to develop a strong defensiveness against anybody outside their own community. Throughout thousands of years, this evolutionary advantage has been woven into your genetic scaffold.


Time has changed. What had been an advantage for the individual in the past has become a threat to the peaceful co-existence of humans from various backgrounds. The world you live in is much safer than that of the majority of generations before you. You might not perceive it like that, and yet it is still a matter of fact[3]. The chances that humans from backgrounds different to your own have a hostile attitude towards you is pretty low. And again, your synapses shot off the same emotional firework when being confronted with somebody different or something new as they did in your ancestors’ brains gathering in a cave. The automatic response to potential threat ratio has become far from proportional. It is like trying to shoot the mouse in your home with a machine gun. You destroy your home, and the chance that you actually hit the mouse is quite low.

The hard fact is that you cannot change your genetic wiring. The good news is that as a human being your are the only animal on this planet being able to self-reflect, challenge your automatic responses (instincts, emotions, thoughts) and adapt them accordingly.

For me personally, emerging myself in foreign cultures as expat and traveler is one way to challenge my perceptions, thoughts, and prejudices. I recently experienced this once again when visiting Istanbul in Turkey. Growing up in Germany, a mixture of social conditioning, personal experience, and confirmation biases instilled a particular image of Turkish people into me. Though knowing that my perception was not representative, it still influenced – mostly subconsciously – my behavior, thought patterns, and decisions. Hence I made it a hobby to challenge my own opinions and stereotypes by visiting regions I have no clue about, get to know land and people. It allows me to dive deep into a foreign culture through work and exchange.

My recent Istanbul trip rewarded me with beautiful experiences and learnings:

1. Turkish people welcome you with an open heart.

Turkish people did leave an impression on me that will influence me in the future. Strangers helped me in the metro, providing me change when I had not enough. They even insisted on paying my ticket, which I thankfully rejected. Dance friends insisted on giving me a lift and dropping me at my hotel. They also offered their hospitality to make my stay more convenient. One woman passing by in the bazaar heard some newly met friends and myself talking in German. She welcomed us in flawless German to her country. A German-Turkish young man I met at the airport shared his story about thinking like a German and looking like a Turk.

Turkish Bazaar in Istanbul
Turkish Bazaar in Istanbul

2. Istanbul is the city of contrasts in harmony.

Istanbul is the city of encounters. Located where the Black Sea kisses the Sea of Marmara, it is also the point where the West meets the East, and Europe turns into Asia. Istanbul is the city where modernity and free spirit merge with the traditional oriental vibes. It takes form in the silhouettes of countless mosques reigning over a charming ancient town spiked with pulsating entertainment and nightlife. The regular Adhan[i] sounding from the minarets turns into hammering bass-boosted sounds of Istanbul's nightclub scene after dusk. Interestingly, those two worlds seem to not only live peacefully together but merge into each other. You can spot citizens in traditional clothing enjoying themselves in Western establishments and women in jeans attending mosques.

Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul
Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul

Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul
Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul

3. Istanbul is a meat-lovers paradise.

Kebab is literally everywhere. And it differs from the Döner and Dürum you find in Germany and many other Central European countries. As a flexitarian[4] cutting down on meat consumption, I was thrown back into omnivore mode. I met a cool group of German travelers which I joined for a couple of days. They visited the famous Nusr-Et restaurant, known for its notorious owner Nusret Gökçe (better known under his nickname Salt Bae). Due to traffic jam, I came late and joined at the feast’s end. I was still able to absorb the decadently-entertaining atmosphere. Salt Bae was even in the restaurant at that time. Some of us (excluding me) went for a selfie with the man who gained his celebrity from an internet meme going viral.

Fruit Market Istanbul
Fancy a melon?

4. Istanbul’s Latin/afro dance scene is an El Dorado for women and lion’s den for men.

I visited Istanbul primarily for a latin/afro dance festival. In case you are a dancing woman, you will enjoy the men to women ratio. There is an abundance of excellent local leads, especially in Bachata and Salsa. You will feel like a queen with all the men soliciting for a dance. You will also quickly learn how to refuse dance invitations elegantly. Local men rush to you in the best battlefield-like manner. They literally grab you and drag you on the dance floor. As a foreign lead spoiled from the abundance of follows wanting to dance, you have to adapt if you wish to get secure some dances for yourself.

Mosque in Istanbul
Idyllic wall in a mosque's garden in Istanbul

My trip to Turkey underlined once again that the best remedy for xenophobia[5] and prejudices is personal contact and cultural exchange. The challenges arising out of migration are not exclusively but predominately caused by the educational background of individuals being exposed to a foreign culture in their new home. High education levels correlate with open-mindedness and the willingness and ability for successful integration. A functional infrastructure to sustainably onboard fellow citizens from foreign cultures provided by the state and its authorities represents the other side of the equation. Like an old-school beam scale, only a balance between all parties offers the fertile ground for fruitful co-existence and merging of cultures.

Istanbul view on Bosphorus
On top of Istanbul

Keep it like the Dalai Lama and expose yourself to the unfamiliar. You won’t regret it!

Once a year go some place you have never been before - Dalai Lama
Once a year go some place you have never been before. - Dalai Lama

[1] Age of Reason, 17/18th century

[2] This is the viewpoint from the Western cultures. Other regions (such as Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America) underwent their own developments, which differ in their means and outcomes. Nevertheless you can witness a gradual approximation of values and lifestyles. Historically this was supported by the work of missionaries. Now the exchange and mixing of cultures through globalization is the key driver.

[3] Speaking from a general global perspective. Naturally, we have places on earth were even over the course of many generations things got worse and not better. But that is the exception not the norm.

[4] People who cut down on meat consumption and consume animal products more counciously.

[5] Xenophobia is the fear or hatred of that which is perceived to be foreign or strange (source: Wikipedia)

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