Belonging

May 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Fellow Fulbrighter Amy sent an e-mail a few weeks ago that she had secured State Department funding for a Turkey Fulbright ETA traveling photography exhibit and needed our best photos from the year.  Eager to contribute, I borrowed Alex’s ‘one day when I’m a real adult I’ll own one of these’ DSLR cameras and headed to one of my favorite and quietest places in Tekirdag: the Jewish cemetery.

When I found out last June that I would be living in Tekirdag, the first thing I did was google the place, study its history, and contact current residents.  Tekirdag used to have a vibrant Jewish population who, after centuries of residence, gradually left throughout the 1900’s for greener pastures: Istanbul, Israel, and America–specifically Seattle.  Yes, Seattle.  It’s surprisingly home to one of America’s largest Sephardic population (read more about their arrival here).  The Jews left for various reasons: greater economic opportunity, the formation of Israel, difficulties in the new Turkish republic, and a 1934 pogrom.  So while the town’s got a great history behind it, I am the only living Jew in Tekirdag.

Last summer I called various members of Seattle’s Bikur Holim Synagogue to talk with the children and grandchildren of Tekirdag emigres.  They were eager to discuss their 2005 congregational trip to Turkey and their relatives’ memories of their ancestral home.  One man in particular, Isaac Azose, sent me DVD footage of his 1992 voyage to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Sephardic Expulsion from Spain, and also sent me the name of one Nissim Hasan, an old Muslim Turkish man who used to work for a Tekirdagli Jewish family about 50 years ago and spoke Ladino.  But Isaac didn’t have Nissim’s phone number; instead, he had the address of one Turhan Ozbek, a real estate agent who could magically put me in touch with Nissim.  So one aimless October day, I went in search of Turhan.  One small problem: most streets are horribly labeled in Tekirdag and I had just arrived in the city.  I had nothing to lose and absolutely no shame, so I walked into a real estate office in the center of town armed with a big smile and my dictionary and asked where I might find this Ozbek character.   Huseyin, the man behind the desk, was confused but genuinely curious about me and my mission to find an old man I’d never met before.   Wouldn’t you be?  A whole parade of mustachioed men came in the tiny office, drank tea, looked puzzled, drank more tea, made some calls, then left.  Finally Huseyin put his daughter Deniz on the phone, an Internet cafe proprietress  who had lived in London for a year or two.  It was determined that Huseyin and I had reached our Turkish/gesticulation communication limit and that Deniz’s translation assistance was desperately needed.  To the cafe!

While Deniz’s English skills were marginally better than her computer skills, they still weren’t great.  She also was horribly confused about why I needed to find Ozbek to find Hassan but went along with the whole crazy scheme and tried her hardest.  Through a whole network of phone calls and asking passersby, we found Ozbek’s office.  Not surprisingly he’d moved in the past 15 years.  To his office!

His office, as I later came to realize, was a typical Turkish real estate office.  A ground-floor room, apartment ads plastering the outside windows.  Inside, one small clean desk facing the door, and one filing cabinet.  But while many of T.dag’s agents have entered the 20th century and use computers, Ozbek’s office looked like a 1970’s relic: a fading poster of a Middle Eastern tourist site lettered in Arabic, and a typewriter.  Oh yes, a typewriter.  Even Huseyin thought that was funny.

We sat with bated breath, waiting for Ozbek to return from his lunch break.  He returned and told us that Nissim had died five years before.

Well, that was a pretty decisive end.

Huseyin, Deniz, and I went back to Deniz’s cafe and said our goodbyes.  But before I left, I asked Deniz for directions to the Jewish cemetery.  She told me it was located somewhere behind the bus station, “up”, but that I shouldn’t go there because it’s dangerous.  That’s the warning I hear weekly about locations in Tekirdag.  They’re not.  I went.

The Jewish cemetery was located up a hill past the larger Muslim cemetery, behind some new apartment blocks, and under the watchful gaze of a new mosque.  I would have missed it, had I not picked my way down a weedy hill to examine some gray stone slabs half visible through overgrowth.

Many of the older stones at the top of the hill were faded, falling apart, covered in weeds, and inscribed in Hebrew.  I walked through and took photos, then descended to examine some much newer stones with Ladino inscriptions.

The newer stones were elevated above-ground and in much better condition than the sunken ground-level ones.

Ladino grave inscriptions are wonderful descriptive poetry:

As I was adjusting to my new super-fancy camera, a woman came down a dirt path with a large walking stick in hand.  “Merhaba,” she shouts out to me in Turkish, “Hello.”  I respond hesitantly.  While the cemetery is right behind an apartment block development, no one’s ever out there.  The landscape instantly changes to rural–behind the cemetery is a mosque, a farm, and an unpaved road.  Whenever I’ve visited I haven’t seen anyone, including the resident of the shack on the edge of the cemetery.  We ended up falling into a great conversation.  Nefise was super friendly and eager to hear why I was in Tekirdag (isn’t everyone?).  Now retired, she walks a loop around the cemetery and farms every day.  Because she’s out so much, she often meets foreign visitors who come to see the Jewish cemetery (there are foreign visitors?  Who? When?  Tell me!)  Nefise takes great pride in the town’s past Jewish history and always warmly greets the tourists, most of whom are descended from the very people laid to rest there.  The town government supposedly sends someone to clean the cemetery once a month, and when they don’t come (as usual) she calls up to complain.  She has no time for religious or ethnic fighting, and I felt comfortable enough during this conversation to reveal to her that I am Jewish.  Didn’t phase her for a second–in fact, all she did was tell me how much she hated the fighting over Gaza.  After about 20 minutes and the addition of a neighbor who complimented me on my camera (if only!) my Turkish ran out and Nefise and co. headed home.  Buoyed by this lovely and unexpected interaction, I set up the camera again, eager to photograph before the sun sunk too low.

Then a couple of men came down the same path.  One shouted out, “Selam Aleikum”, to which I replied, “Aleikum Selam.”  I was instantly put on edge.  This greeting is perfectly harmless: “Peace be upon you”/”and with you”, more or less.  In fact, plain-old “selam” is the casual Turkish way to say, “what’s up?”  But the whole “Selam Aleikum” bit?  Something only more religious Turks say.  Normally not a problem.  Except when you’re at the Jewish cemetery.

The two men (the Talker and his sidekick, who remained silent the whole time) approached me.  I stood up and closed the camera.  “What are you doing here?” Talker asked me in Turkish.  “Taking pictures of the cemetery,” I responded.  “Why are you here?  The real Turks are over there,” he said, pointing at the neighboring Muslim cemetery.  “This is Jewish.  That is Turk.”

“First I am here.  Then I will go over there,” I replied.

“This is Jewish.  That is Turk,” he repeated.  “Look over there,” he said, waving at the one recent Muslim grave within the confines of the Jewish cemetery.  “That’s interesting.  Take a picture of that.”

“OK, thanks,” I said.  Eager to leave a slightly menacing conversation, I walked over to the grave and pretended to snap pictures.  The two men continued walking.  Once they were out of sight, I returned to the original subject of my trip.

I took some lovely photographs that day.  But I couldn’t get the second conversation out of my mind.   Outside of Istanbul, Tekirdag is one of the best places in Turkey to be an ethnic minority or a woman.  Sure, people still gawk but they’re generally not openly hostile to outsiders.  Plus I can wear short skirts (isn’t that the goal of 3rd wave feminism?)  But really, I’ve felt comfortable enough here to be able to tell colleagues and students that I am Jewish, and I don’t fear any backlash.  This, as opposed to a fellow Jewish Fulbrighter in a small town in Eastern Turkey who tells his friends he’s Protestant, which is suspicious enough.

Turkish identity is a tricky beast.  People who reside in the political borders of Turkey historically speak a variety of languages and self-identify with a host of religions and ethnicities.  Kurds, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews are among the most well-known.  But what about the Laz, the Roma, the Circassians?  Under Ataturk’s goal to create a strong Turkish nation and one Turkish identity, cultural attributes which diverged from the new Turkish norm were suppressed, although generally freedom to practice religion remained.  Some minorities embraced this new push, including many Jews who saw this shift as a chance to finally gain acceptance as equals in the Republic–learn new modern Turkish language and ways, serve in the military, fantastic.

Doesn’t always work out so well.  Examples include the aforementioned 1934 pogrom, the discriminatory Varlik Vergisi Wealth Tax, 1955 Istanbul pogrom, just to name a few.  It’s been and continues to be a bumpy ride.  However, many of the Jews I’ve spoken to in Turkey do identify themselves as Turkish, or equally Jewish and Turkish.  But there seems to be a quite vocal Turkish minority that, well, will just never accept anyone outside of the ethnic Turk/Sunni Muslim identification as a true Turk.  One Jewish woman I spoke with in Izmir said that a colleague once remarked that she was and acted “almost like a real Turk.”  This woman’s family has lived in Turkey for about, oh, 500 years.  Ouch.

I don’t have a conclusion here.  Part of me feels glad to be returning to America, where I’ve never had my national identity called into question because of my religion.  To my face, anyway.  But I’m most certainly in the minority during a decade of substantially increased xenophobia building on a long history of strained racial and ethnic relations.  The Jews of Tekirdag were lucky to find a safe haven in Seattle; I hope when their families visit Tekirdag in the future, more people like Nefise are there to welcome them.

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