The Gokeris, culinary and cultural ambassadors of where East meets West

By Vivian Miezianko
Northwest Asian Weekly

Sureyya Gokeri and her husband, Gencer Gokeri, in their store (Photo by Vivian Miezianko/NWAW)

Turkey is a  country that has been a place of East and West for centuries. It boasts magnificent architecture and breathtaking landforms. It has a distinctive coffee and a recent Nobel laureate in Literature. It contains a rich history with connection to two empires — the Byzantine and the Ottoman — and many civilizations.

Modern Turkey, a democratic, secular republic, was founded in 1923. According to The World Factbook, 99.8 percent of its people are Muslims. If a woman from Turkey has built a new life in Seattle, a city starkly different from her childhood home, does her connection with her homeland gradually diminish?

Or does it grow with time?

A childhood with apricot trees

Sureyya Gokeri was born in Gaziantep, a city that the Lonely Planet guide dubs “[one] of the most desirable places to live in eastern Anatolia.” It is close to the Turkish-Syrian border. She grew up with two brothers, but had extended family that lived close by. Gokeri reminisced, “I grew up with my cousins. We lived in the same house. We played with apricot trees, pistachio trees.”

She loved her school life in Turkey and obtained a graduate degree in English literature. When she finished graduate school, her father presented her with a gift. This gift would soon change her life.

Gokeri’s father let her travel abroad. Gokeri could pick either England or the United States as her destination. “England is so close to Turkey,” explained Gokeri, “so I picked America and went to Wisconsin.” She had earlier been a host to an American exchange student from Wisconsin. As a result, she would visit her friend there.

During her journey, Gokeri took a short trip to Seattle and stopped at a Turkish restaurant. There, she met her future husband, Gencer Gokeri, a fellow Turk living in the United States.

Gokeri recalled, smiling, “After I got back to Turkey, he sent me chocolate and roses every week. The chocolate was See’s Candies.” Eventually, Gencer went to Turkey and asked Gokeri’s parents for her hand. “He promised my parents that I would only stay here for three years,” said Gokeri, who has been living in the Seattle area for 20 years. “It was just a coincidence that I met my husband.”

A new life in Seattle

Gokeri did not have much trouble transitioning in Seattle. She said, “I like it here. I was only 23. I didn’t wear [a] head scarf [then].” She was referring to the “non-religious” phase in her life — now, she is always head scarf-clad.

Gokeri tried volunteer teaching. She did not enjoy the experience and gave up the idea of becoming a teacher here.

About a year after her emigration, she and Gencer started their business, Istanbul Imports, in the Queen Anne neighborhood. Having been relocated to Fremont, the store sells rugs, textiles, pillows, and jewelry from Turkey, Central Asia, and other countries. The Gokeris are keen on sharing their knowledge and love of Turkey and Central Asia with others.

Gencer is often eager to talk about the Turkic languages as he states, “Turkish is related to Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Uzbek, Uyghur.” He also mentioned that “the Turkic migration,” i.e., expansion of the Turkic peoples across Central Asia into West Asia and Europe, “started around the 6th century.”

Gokeri gave birth to two sons, now 15 and 10, respectively. A dedicated mother, Gokeri wanted her children to learn about their roots. She said, “I sent them to Turkey every year. Every July, we went to Turkey. They are fluent in Turkish. They go to Sunday school to learn about Islam. We speak Turkish at home, have Turkish satellite, only eat Turkish food, and socialize with Turks.”

Through hard work, the Gokeris ran a successful business. They were able to buy land and property in Turkey. However, the recent economic downturn has taken a toll on the family’s finances. Gokeri is concerned about her sons’ well-being and decided to look for a supplementary income. Since Gokeri has been “self-employed [during] all the years,” she was a little baffled by the thought of looking for a job at first.

She applied to be a cooking instructor at the PCC Natural Markets. Though she had not taught cooking before, she had experience teaching English literature. “People in Gaziantep have incredible taste for food,” said Gokeri. “We know what the best food is. We know how to make it.” Her hometown cuisine combines the Mediterranean traditions with flavors of the Middle East. PCC Natural Markets hired Gokeri, and she has since taught many classes at their different locations.

As her classes were becoming popular, Gokeri began to hold private cooking classes every other week at her home. Gokeri’s enthusiasm in sharing her culture with others is one of the reasons why students like her classes. This past autumn, Gokeri even guided a culinary tour to Turkey, taking travelers to explore her homeland. They indulged in delectable foods while sightseeing and taking in Turkish culture and history.

When asked if she missed any particular Turkish food, she replied, “I cook it every day, but I miss the company. As I get older, I miss home more.”

Look to the future

To the question of what her dream is, Gokeri replied, “In our culture, family comes first. … My children are the purpose of my life. I’m hoping my kids will start college in Turkey, and we’ll move back to Turkey. … Wherever my children are, it’s where I will be.” ♦

Istanbul Imports is located at 754 N. 34th St., Seattle, WA 98103. For more information on Istanbul Imports and Gokeri’s cooking classes, visit www.istanbul-imports.com.

Vivian Miezianko can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

2 Responses to “The Gokeris, culinary and cultural ambassadors of where East meets West”

  1. Yasemin Cetinkaya says:

    I am Turkish and I recommend Istanbul Imports to every one. They have lots of nice things from Turkey, like rugs, jewelery even food. High quality.

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