Oct 7, 2012

Free Hugs in Eskisehir

I think you'd love to hear what happened before the free hugs, much more than the flashmob itself.

Taken by Talha
It was Saturday, the day that the factory works only half a day, and thus we finished work at 2:00 PM, went back to the hotel and headed directly to a nearby mall for a quick meal. Meanwhile, I had had sent a msg to my Turkish friend Talha to see whether he has some free time for the afternoon or no. It was a confirmation indeed. Fast forward to 5:30PM, I met him outside the hotel and he automatically notices my camera, asking me about my photography chances in Eskisehir, I replied with "none so far". He was kind enough to withstand my blabbing, my on-going sudden stops in the middle of the crowd only to get a photo I needed to take. Honestly, if it weren't to Talha's tour yesterday, I might've left Eskisehir without visiting anything but the hotel and its surrounding. The town's history is one more marvelous thing added to my experiences.

Eskisehir is the type of town that's filled with young people, actually what amazed me yesterday during the day was seeing two children down the road, and a mother. The town is always alive, vivid and energetic; in fact it's a 6:30AM Sunday morning now and you can still find people filling the streets. Alas, more about the city in another post. It was already 7:15PM in that afternoon & I asked him to help me buy some cardboards and a big pen. That done, we went to a local restaurant, he had his meal and I was preparing my free hugs sign while bypassers were wondering what's been written in English, a language that's so rare in Turkey. Talha helped me find the word for "Free Hugs" in turkish that would give me the same exact meaning. But then there was a problem, the word "free" had two separate words in the turkish language, one that meant "no money", the other meant "freedom", and basically this same contrast in the english word "free" was made on purpose to deliver both meanings, but now I had to choose one..
Talha looking for the proper translation on the web
I told him it's better to stick with the "no money" word because it's already internationally famous and of course people will not get the message if they read "Freedom Hugs". One more thing to add though, the whole period prior to the free hugs, I made sure I asked everyone I know from Eskisehir about the free hugs activity, the reactions and answers that I got were dissimilar, but at least all of them agreed that no one has ever tried this before, and people might not be ready to see a man holding the free hugs sign. I've watched the anxiousness arise in Talha's eyes, and I understood that pretty well: I was doing something that might be highly offensive to the local culture and traditions, and people might react aggressively, or at least throw an insult or laugh it away. I was fine with most of the reactions, and people have the right to think that I'm maybe trying to sexually molest someone or maybe pickup a girl, we've already had this before in Lebanon. But the point is that it was too late to back up, and to me personally? I couldn't say "well it doesn't work" without trying it. We reached the hotel, put off all of my stuff, took the sign, and here we go.

Getting ready in my room minutes before the flashmob
He asked me if I had my camera on, I replied with a no, so he suggested to take a photo of me with his phone. The street I chose was, in my perception, the most liberal and open-minded street in Eskisehir. Most people were secular there, and all of them, of course, were of a young age. Talha's anxiety grew larger when I decided to hold the sign and stand on a busy corner. I have to be honest here, if it weren't to the Turkish translation, people of Turkey would probably never understand what I'm doing, but I found out, 5 minutes later, that the translation we had picked was misunderstood for some other meaning. That explained the mockeries I received while standing there not understanding a single word they're telling me, replying to them with a simple "Sorry, English only". Talha, who kept his distance from me, worried about me and getting prepared if anyone becomes aggressive, suggested, 5 minutes later, that we stop the flashmob since, from what I've felt, I was apparently delivering the wrong message. It turned out later that the Turkish word also meant "Free Fucks", well go figure!

Sign was down, and we went to the edge of the street, all worried and me thinking of what would the next step be. Talha, being a local, was a bit ashamed to being spotted with me, the foreign tourist doing the Free Hugs. He put himself in a position where he might be made fun of, and for this I thank him. Finally, I asked if we only kept the English words, would that make it better? He replied with a yes, but I'll be losing the majority of the people, since as I said, no one understands English, and at that point exactly, it was fine by me.

Eventually, it was time to plunge back in again, timidly holding the sign below my chin, not expecting much of people, and honestly the early signs of a complete depression had already taken their toll. I felt like doing something wrong, and I had this big urge to cry. Having stood there for more than 30 minutes receiving nothing but insults and mockeries was not the most pleasing situation I been to, but it gave me this instant flash of the pain other free huggers we always see on youtube need to go through, before receiving their first free hug and breaking the ice. The moment came and it was FINALLY my time, when I saw a guy standing in front of me speaking in Turkish I instantly thought he was making fun of me and said of course "Sorry, english only". And, to my surprise, he spoke in English "I need a hug". That moment was nothing but AWESOME! I still have goosebumps even though it's 12 hours later. All the worries and the anxiety were vanished when I received my first hug. Moreover, he was kind enough to thank me for my hug! From this moment on, I honestly didn't want to put the sign down whether people accepted or rejected it.

I have to admit though, even though some people were very accepting, I must say it was not the kind of reaction I used to receive in Beirut for instance. During the one and a half hours I spent there, I received a total of 12 hugs. Right after that guy came, a fuss was created around me, and everyone was wondering now what was I doing and why. Next, came two girls, although I'm sure they didn't need the hug, and that they came only to post their photo on Social Media, one of them actually wanted to borrow the sign for a few minutes and try it herself. So she held the sign, and started dancing on the rhythms of the nearby club's music. I giggled a bit and taught her how to properly hold the sign so that people can read it. I said: "you have to stop dancing, lift it up and scream the words Free Hugs so that people notice you". One other example was a guy who was sitting inside that bar right on the pub's border and thought it was a good idea to receive his hug over the plants, but I managed.

One more thing I have to add though. I had already spoke of the idea in front of my Turkish friends in Couchsurfing, and to my colleagues in the metal factory we're working at. Gizem was the mechanical design engineer in the factory, and as I thought, she would understand me the most. Once she knew of what I was going to do, she said I'll come with my friends to give you the support you need. And they came indeed, Gizem and her two other friends spotted the sign from afar and instantly made me happy by surprisingly standing before me, smiling and cheering, while her friends couldn't hide their laughs at certain times, the kind of a laugh that I would perfectly grasp and understand. A note on the side, Gizem and I were having this conversation where she transferred to me some of the impression Turkish people have for the Arabs. She was stating that the Arabs were conservative, and thus, indicating that Turkish people, at least in Eskisehir, were more liberal and open-minded. But to me personally? The kind of a community that is afraid of free hugs, could never be more conservative.

Eventually there was this moment when I needed to turn down the sign and call it a day. One and half an hour later, the first Free Hugs flashmob in Eskisehir had to be wrapped for the night even though I swear I didn't want to stop. We went to a nearby place where I met my other friends, Sajid and Mutlu, who dropped by to say hi and ask about the Free Hugs "thing". I was so delighted to see them all.

In the end, I have no other words but utter thanks to each of Gizem for her honest support and not backing up, for walking with me and probably being mocked at too. Thank you Talha of course for being such a great supportive friend, I know he could've just went to do what he loved instead of staying there watching for me. Thank you Mutlu and Sajid for your compassion and understanding, your support made my day.


  1. Great post.The importance of a Turkish translation being accurate and efficient can indeed not be overstated. Especially in the ever faster moving world of globalized business, successful information and technology transfer within multinational businesses can make the difference between win or lose.

  2. Here given the translations for Turkish to English languages and other different languages to communicate the different peoples.

    KL Translations