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  • It's 1996, and I just arrived in Antalya with my Turkish girlfriend to ask her parents for her hand. In a week's time we would be engaged in a family ceremony. Meanwhile, to her relatives I was this mystery American of unknown quality.

    Unless something very unexpected happened, these people were going to end up as my relatives before too long. It wasn't very clear how or that we would be able to communicate, what we would have in common other than their beloved oldest daughter, who was about to be usurped by forces from the West. I fantasized that I would be inspected like a carcass of meat -- prodded, flopped around and sniffed at, judged to be of a certain quality. Perhaps I would also be tested: asked to help construct a stone wall, taken for a 25 km hike up a mountain or ushered out to milk a goat at 5 AM before coffee. Did I have body odor? Should I have more? Would I eat all the weird stuff on my plate, and how would I wipe debris from my face without napkins? Can I manage to eat while sitting on the floor? I was in the game, but without knowing the rules I wasn't sure how to play.

    As I weighed in my mind how I should comport myself, my girlfriend's father was driving us to her sister's apartment block on the outskirts of the city. Approaching the building, we passed by a row of basic brick buildings, one of which housed an auto repair shop with a hand-lettered sign reading BACANAK (pronounced "bah-jah-nak"). I asked Aygül what it meant, and she said "brother-in-law." Apparently the business was a family partnership.

    At the apartment Aygül's sister Aysegül and her husband Levent warmly welcomed me and served us good food and drink. Aygül told me that Levent and I are in fact bacanak to one another – men from outside the family. That's not a general term for brother-in-law, I was told. It describes a certain relationship. Besides bacanak, Turkish has a number of specific nouns to identify relatives by marriage, like

    • Enişte – husband of one's sister
    • Baldız – sister of one's wife
    • Kayın birader – brother of one's husband
    • Görümce – sister of one's husband
    • Yenge – wife of one's brother
    • Elti – wife of one's husband's brother

    How you refer to a relative thus depends on who you are, not just on who they are. English is not nearly so expressive this way.

    So there we were in the home of my future bacanak and baldız, getting to know one another and being treated to many delicacies when after a while Aygül's parents begged to leave. (They lived almost an hour's drive away.) Shortly thereafter, Aysegül and Levent told us they had friends to visit and also drove off, leaving Aygül and I all alone in the apartment.

    I wondered if I had done anything to drive them off but Aygül assured me that was not the case. It was her sister's way of welcoming me to the family, she said. As we would not be permitted to sleep together until we were married, this was a chance to have a good time all by ourselves.

    So we did, and everything continued to go splendidly and I never felt like an interloper. Being a bacanak was not so bad after all. In fact, it was super.

    @image: Tee shirt logo from Tisho
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