Author: Katherine Branning
Publisher: Blue Dome Press
ISBN: 978-1-935295-8

Click Here To Purchase Yes, I Would...: An American Woman's Letters to Turkey

A single photograph of an ancient building – the Gok Madarsa in Sivas – is all it took to trigger a teenaged Katherine Branning’s fascination with Turkey.   As she recalls in this engaging chronicle of her relationship with the country and its people,  the photograph captured her imagination  at a time in her life when she felt especially lonely and directionless, its “.. warm stones” convincing her they could “  turn (her) dark days into sunny ones.”  Soon after, fate conspired to bring Branning to Turkey ; the rest (or,  atleast her recounting of it)  is epistolary.

For ‘Yes , I Would..’,  Branning’s chronicle of her experiences in Turkey , takes  the form of twenty eight letters, each dwelling on some  aspect of the thirty year love affair that has been her relationship with the culture and its people. Each letter is addressed to the woman whose own correspondence on her stay in Turkey inspired this book - Lady Mary Montagu, a British diplomat’s wife stationed in that thriving centre for global trade,  for  a brief period in the 1700s.  Lady Mary’s  articulate letters, compiled as  'The Embassy Letters ",  reveal the respect and  appreciation  she had for a culture others of her ilk would have dismissed as oriental and backward.   ‘Tis prudent to remain neuter’, she declares, and it is these words that Branning holds closest to her heart as she sets out to document her experiences.

Right at the outset, Katherine (or ‘Kadriye’ as she is soon rechristened) Branning underscores what this book is not – a travel book or journal in the conventional sense; a guide book for the casual tourist; a sociological study of a people she loves but doesn’t always understand, or a swipe at their quirks; and most certainly not a memoir . She also chooses to distance herself from such authors as Twain, Gide, Gautier and Stark, rejecting their  accounts of their travels in Turkey as supercilious, uncharitable and downright disdainful” . What she is, she insists, is a bridge builder, attempting to draw a portrait of an Islamic country different from the  grim stereotype the Western world largely believes, especially in the aftermath
of September 11.  

The more skeptical reader might carp at this  book sounding like a tourist brochure  -  Branning’s writing is marked by an unwavering cheeriness and a complete absence of discussion on what she terms the “shadow zones”.  Her days in Turkey  seem, rather like Elizabeth Gilbert’s  charmed romp through three countries in ‘Eat, Pray, Love’,  touched by serendipitous fortune.  For Branning’s Turkey is stuffed with  bounty - helpful strangers,  abundant hospitality, wonderful food and, of course, endless glasses of tea. She travels the length and breadth of the country alone in all manner of public transport, sits unescorted in remote eateries , even breaks into heritage buildings – and is assisted every step of the way by what she calls ‘the magic hand’,  the Turkish enthusiasm for extending a helping hand.  Even when faced with  the odd annoyance - terrible English translations, bad hotel rooms, faulty plumbing -  she chooses instead to embrace them as ‘TT’ – the Turkish Touch, that deliberately shies away from the arrogance of perfection . (“Life is not perfect… only Allah is.”) Much like the famed Turkish rug,  that always harbours a small flaw in its weave, Branning finds the TT heartening,  imperfections that “..give breathing life to.. the world around us”,  a “..minute reminder that we are in the material world, not in the spiritual realm of shadows and dreams.” 

Carp though we may, it is nonetheless hard to remain untouched by the affection in Branning’s writing – she speaks of Turkey and its people  like a doting aunt describing a difficult, but well meaning  ward.  Through the rosy tinted lens that is “Yes I Would..”, we watch Turkey struggle to embrace modernity while still holding onto the traditions Lady Mary’s letters once extolled, see how far women have come in a society  this conservative .  We learn also of Turkey’s unsung contribution to Western culture and medicine , such as tulips now considered synonymous with Holland, or the concept of inoculation  that most people attribute to Edward Jenner’s efforts.  What we never learn much about  is Branning herself – she stays firmly in the shadows of her subjects (and that of Lady Mary) as narrator, revealing little of her personal life, or the effects of her solitary travels on her family.   “My life is certainly not that interesting … that I should indulge myself in boring you with it”, she says at the beginning of the book, firmly dismissing any parallels the curious reader might draw with the colourful life her muse so defiantly led.

In later chapters, Branning explores Islam as well, and comes away  comforted by its innate tolerance, simplicity, sense of morality, and contribution to social welfare. This  comfort is  soon shaken   - Branning acknowledges her own rage and despair in the days after the World Trade Centre tragedy  in the grim ‘Mashallah’, the most personal of all the letters in this book. And yet is the innumerable small acts of kindness  shown her – the “glass after glass  after glass of tea “ she has shared -  in her years in Turkey - that help her find closure, and keep her steadfast in her role as bridge builder.

 “Yes I Would..”  is one such bridge, a narrative ‘magic hand’ that seeks to connect its readers with a culture increasingly alienated from the rest of the world by fear and prejudice. And while it  may read in parts like the beverage it celebrates – neatly portioned  , overly sweet , impossibly pink – it is still a hand so well intentioned, so unabashedly TT, that the reader cannot help but take it.  

Click Here To Purchase Yes, I Would...: An American Woman's Letters to Turkey