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Monday, October 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Festival highlights Turkey's diversity, tolerance, peace

Seattle Times staff reporter

Gokce Sezgin was easy to spot yesterday amid the crowd at Seattle Center's Center House, adorned as she was in a festive, scarlet-and-gold robe and a silver-trimmed scarf reflecting one clothing tradition of her native Turkey.

But it was another tradition — one of cultural diversity — that Sezgin, president of the Turkish American Cultural Association in Washington, emphasized as she spoke about the two-day Turkfest staged at the Center over the weekend.

Dancers — among them Sezgin — whirling in colorful costumes, musicians strumming on lutelike instruments, displays of intricate embroidery and vendors selling hand-woven carpets, jewelry and elaborately decorated hats from Turkey and nearby lands were all part of the festival.

About 6,000 Turkish Americans live in the Seattle area, according to John Gokcen, honorary consul general of Turkey for Washington state and Turkfest's executive director.

The festival's theme was the diversity that has characterized Turkey for centuries, as a crossroads between the Near East and regions to the west, as well as the cultural, ethnic and religious harmony that Sezgin and others maintain prevails there.

To highlight those diverse influences, the festival featured dancers, musicians and handcrafts not only from Turkey but also from Greece, Bosnia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and other countries and from Jewish groups.

"We've been living with these people for a long time," said Sezgin. "They were a part of our land long ago, and we still share a lot of things.

"Yesterday we had a Turkish band and a Greek band playing together," she said.

Though Greeks and Turks have a reputation for mutual animosity, the musical merging symbolized the tolerance that can happen among such groups, she said.

"That's the message we're trying to get across," said Sezgin, who came here four years ago to earn a master's degree in business from the University of Washington. She is now working here and expects to return to Turkey with her Turkish husband in five to 10 years.

Peace, tolerance

The festival's theme comes as violence and fear dominate news from Turkey's neighbor, Iraq, and other regions of the Middle East. Despite the turmoil in those places, Americans should feel safe visiting Turkey, which has long welcomed them, Gokcen said.

"We are trying to provide information and to educate people" about Turkey's diverse society, Gokcen said of the festival. He said that participation by Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee's Seattle chapter, "helps to show how Turks are tolerant of Jews and other ethnic groups."

Turkey is overwhelmingly Muslim.

Tourism has suffered

Gokcen said tourism fell off in Turkey last year with the beginning of the war in Iraq but has begun to rebound this year. As the land of some of the world's most-ancient civilizations, Turkey traditionally has drawn tourists to its historical sites.

"Most of the historical places are 2,000 miles from the Iraq border," though at least one major site is about half that distance from the border, Gokcen said. No major site is near the border, he said.

Among those attending the festival yesterday was U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, who said that when he visited Turkey last spring he felt "absolutely" safe.

"With the people [of Turkey], there is no problem at all," McDermott said.

"The Turks have been on our side every time you turn around for over 50 years," including in Vietnam, he said, adding that "there could be a little more negotiating" to improve current relations between the two countries. Turkey's government did not allow the U.S. to use Turkey as a staging area for its troops at the beginning of the Iraq war.

Such concerns seemed a world away, however, as the dancers whirled and musicians played on a stage hung with Turkish tapestries at the Center House.

Judith Blake: 206-464-2349 or jblake@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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