Celebrations, Part Two

December 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

About four months ago,  I uprooted myself from friends, family, and community in Philadelphia to move halfway across the world in pursuit of the nebulous desire to live abroad.  It was a shift in life, a change, an interruption, maybe–but one I chose.

Turkish men’s lives, however, are abruptly interrupted without their consent.  The call to compulsory military service can come at any time for ‘able-bodied’ men between the ages of 21 and 40.  And once it comes, they’re expected to leave their jobs, friends, families, routines, and report for assignment for six to 15 months.  Without pay.

Guray was an English teacher at NKU.  Something about the goofy smile on his face, the way the students crowded around him after class, the ease with which he brushed off failures and eagerly anticipated the next lesson–he was born to be Guray Hocam.

Guray got his call to service a couple months back and officially left Tekirdag in early December.  It was jarring for me that one of my first friends here simply picked up and left–imagine how difficult it was for him.  We celebrated his departure with a farewell feast.  A local music teacher played questionable covers of traditional Turkish songs while we destroyed a table of mezes, kofte, local fish, and French fries.  The Efes, wine, and raki were flowing, and when the musician finally turned on some quality recorded tunes, the dancing began.

It's hard to capture the unabashed joy and flailing arms of Turkish dancing

Guray began a conscription countdown on Facebook before he even left.  Pinar (on the left, with the curly hair), has a running Facebook countdown of her boyfriend’s service.  Ozan, my water deliverer and close friend, is warily eying his February departure.

Generalizing a nation’s people is generally inaccurate.  But of all the places I’ve lived or visited, I have never met a people bursting with outright patriotism as the Turks.  And so despite their own personal hesitations about armed conflict, Kurdish separatists, and more, my friends acknowledge their duty and go without question.

It’s not like they have much of a choice.  Unless they’ve been diligently stockpiling pictures of themselves engaged in gay sex, they’re SOL.  Turkey doesn’t recognize conscientious objectors.

Orhan Kemal Cengiz ponders here the role of military service, violence, obedience, and power negotiations in the formation of Turkish male identity.  He throws out a whole lot of questions without providing any answers, interviews, or personal opinions, but the questions are indeed all valid and great for late-night bar discussions.

“You could and still can see in provincial bus terminals, young men dancing ‘cheerfully’ as drums are beaten and a crowd chants, ‘The best soldier is our soldier.'”

Forget provincial bus terminals.  While’s Tekirdag’s otogar was certainly thumping to the beat of bass drums and clarinets, Istanbul’s main bus terminal was a sea of jumping, dancing, shouting, twirling, hugging men, women, families, and flags.  There was something almost  rebellious about the scene: ecstatic dancers and rogue bands of musicians clogging the roads, blocking bus paths, and reclaiming public space for celebrations of the human spirit.  In any other context the police would be deployed in full force.

Guray’s Facebook wall was full of “Hayirli teskereler” posts, wishes for a good military service.  That such an established expression exists is evidence of how ingrained the role of military service is in the Turkish mindset.  It is certainly a national experience of identity building, a rite of passage.  This type of intense bonding as part of communal solidarity is nothing new (hello, Israel).  But in a country whose modern history includes nasty military coups every now and then, conscription isn’t something to take lightly.

Be safe, Guray.


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