Today in 1453

May 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

Before I forget, today is the 558th anniversary of the Fall of Constantinople.  Mehmed the Conqueror, only 21 years old (don’t you feel unaccomplished?) defeated Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI and won Constantinople for the Ottomans.  Little-known fact, the city wasn’t officially named Istanbul until 1930.

Ottomans are not Turks, Turks are not Ottomans, and Ataturk was quite firm about that shift in identity.  But I guess I feel some sort of excitement about today (I think it’s my students’ proud Facebook status updates) and so busted out my best (read: only) Ataturk t-shirt (my Mehmed one is in the wash).  If you can think of today as “Kicking Other Ruling Powers Out of Istanbul Day” and make broad comparisons to post-WWI occupation and the Treaty of Lausanne ,then yes, the t-shirt makes a bit more sense.

To commemorate this auspicious day, here’s They Might Be Giants’ version of Istanbul (Not Constantinople).  I first heard this song on the Tiny Toons cartoon show and grew up believing that Istanbul was located in the middle of a vast desert.  It’s a horribly uninformed, historically inaccurate, and possibly insulting tribute to both Ottomans and Turks.  Don’t let TV raise your children!

If you look quickly at the map in the intro, you can see Tekirdag right to the west!


18th of March

March 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

In early March I began to see signs around Tekirdag advertising what looked like a military commemoration.  Most military remembrance days in Turkey have to do with the legendary WWI Gallipoli campaign, in which Ottoman forces defeated an attempted joint British/French/ANZAC invasion, but I knew that ANZAC Day wasn”t until April 25 (I’m planning a weekend trip to bake in the sun with some pasty Aussies).  Heading to dinner one night with my Turkish friend Emel (I met her on Couchsurfing, she’s used to explaining Turkey to others), I stopped her and asked her what the below ad in the center of town referred to:

Turns out March 18th is Canakkale Naval Victory Day, which I found a bit confusing because the dates of the Gallipoli campaign (from April 15, 1915 to January 9, 1916) don’t include March 18th.  Hmmm.  Actually, March 18th marks the aptly-named Battle of March 18 in 1915, in which Ottoman naval forces defeated the first major British/French campaign to take the Dardanelles.  The attack laid the groundwork for the subsequent mud-laden slog and trench warfare during freezing winters and agonizingly hot summers that characterize WWI and did so much to catapult Ataturk to national recognition and shape the growing ‘Turkish’ consciousness.

Back to the sign.  My beginning Turkish led me to believe that a group of hearty folks would be trekking from Tekirdag to Canakkale (a bus trip of at least 3 hours), and man, was I impressed.  But really, Tekirdag was sending a delegation on a bus to participate in a Canakkale-based commemoration walk.  And though I saw ads around my town and Istanbul for remembrance ceremonies, they all seemed to take place in Canakkale itself–disappointing, because I wanted to glimpse, if not participate, in the day’s events.

Namik Kemal University was ready, however, with its own ceremony, held yesterday (3/21) though not widely advertised through the campus (well, neither was the German ambassador to Turkey’s campus visit).  Luckily, one of my favorite students informed me of the event and made me promise I’d come so I could see him play the ney.  Although it meant missing my new favorite Pilates class, I booked it from English class and Spanish tutoring and bike riding at the gym to the campus Pyramid Salon (think NKU multipurpose fancypants salon–important speeches under the glowing mirrors of a disco ball).

Sponsored by the Ataturk Though Association, whose members I think start every day asking ‘What would Ataturk do’?, the ceremony was quite solemn.

This backdrop is pretty standard fare for university occasions–the Turkish flag and Ataturk image flanked by NKU banners.  But the low lighting, melodramatic recorded music, and emotional readings of the day’s history lent it an air of great importance.  I understand generally nothing of what was said (except that the British had a boat called the HMS Irresistible) but really enjoyed feeling the equal pulls of nationalist celebration and mourning.

Part of a hour-by-hour recapitulation of the battle

Performing "Cannakale Icinde Aynali Carsi." You can listen below

My student Taha soloing on the ney and accompanying a reading

After musical tributes and the intense reading (in Turkish translation) of a letter written by a former ANZAC soldier, all of the night’s performers lined up side-by-side and repeated some lines with such fervor I was a bit taken aback.  I really wish I knew what they said, but unfortunately the students I was sitting with weren’t able to translate them for me.  The repetition ended with “Ne Mutlu Turkum Diyene,” a refrain seen on statues of war imagery in every Turkish town.  It translates roughly to “How happy is he who can say ‘I am a Turk'”.

Second from the left is wearing an Ataturk tie featuring the Pasa in his Humphrey Bogart phase

Then the house lights came on full blast and the solemn air dissipated.  It’s no secret that Turks are a patriotic bunch–the school systems do one hell of a job perpetuating the sanctity of Ataturk’s memory and legacy.  A large part of Turkish national identity was born during World War I (wherein only Muslim Ottomans fought together on the front lines so as to cement the solidarity of that identity–Armenians, Greeks, Jews and other minorities were conscripted to labor battalions or worse fates), so any military commemoration or national holiday is celebrated in a way America’s Memorial or Veteran’s Day could only dream of.

In a country which recognizes the horror of war but glorifies its military past (and most do, don’t they?), its citizens are taking a pretty strong stance against NATO intervention in Libya.  Twice this week, when new Tekirdaglis have discovered I’m American, I’ve been asked why America’s bombing Libya.  Oh my Turkish is nowhere near good enough to explain this, but writers are having a great time breaking it down.  Despite Erdogan’s protests, the bombing has started, and we can now simply hope for a swift defeat of Ghaddafi, minimal civilian casualties, and a new democratic government that Libyans need.  “Baris…baris” (“peace…peace”) I say when I’m pressed.  Democracy cannot be implemented by invasion and top-down control; well, it can but it’s much better if it comes from within, and without the need for battle commemoration days.

I’ll leave you with a haunting Ladino melody commemorating the soldiers of Gallipoli and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.  There’s something about the strength and youthful fire of military camaraderie I admire.  But I much prefer love songs.

An aside from celebrations

December 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’ve recently begun letting my students add me as a Facebook friend.  Despite my initial inclination to keep that part of my life private, I’ve been swayed by a more casual Turkish teacher-student relationship.  There’s no harm in letting them see I’m a real person within a limited profile (can’t let them see drugs/hookers/last week’s orgy) but they can view some pictures.

One of my ogrenciler recently commented on an old Facebook profile picture: “Your hair is very beautiful.”  After I got over my shock at the correct subject-verb-adjective agreement (something is sinking in!!) and the fact that my hair can look better than scraggly mop, I realized I have no idea what this young woman’s hair looks like.  She wears a headscarf–or, in Turkish terms, is covered.

A secular state by constitution, Turkey’s population is 95% Muslim (practicing or otherwise).  Ataturk, whose image is revered by the followers of an image-less religion, banned numerous traditional and religious garments (including the fez and other non-Western clothing holding his people back from modernity) in a frenzy to sweep away the trappings of superstition and the Ottoman Empire.  Yet the headscarf was never entirely banned.

While dress standards relaxed from the 20’s to the present day, women wearing headscarves were consistently prohibited from university campuses, public schools, and government offices.  So if a covered Muslim woman pursued higher education, she was required to literally leave her scarf at the door.  Depending on your view, this act either liberated her from her assuredly ‘backwards’ family, forced her to remove and deny a piece of her identity, humiliated her, or some combination thereof.  Student movements  demanding acceptance for headscarves on campuses met with varying degrees of temporary success from the 60’s onward.  Prime Minister Erdogan of the Islamist-leaning, definitely not secular AK Party attempted a headscarf-ban ban in 2007, only to be overruled by Turkey’s highest Constitutional Court.  The ban remained.

When the fall semester began at NKU, I only saw a handful of women removing their scarves before passing through the university gates.  However, by mid-October these women walked right through the turnstiles, scarves in place.  My fiercely secular colleagues were incensed; they saw this action as the students asserting the growing power of Political Islam, that hot potato of a phrase that gets lobbed around whenever anyone wants to scare the West.  Normally scarved students were kicked out of class, but a YOK notice supposedly urged professors to live and let live.  So my colleagues were without recourse.

I am an advocate for the “wear what expresses your identity” camp, but that position ignores the gnawing religious-secular conflict at the heart of modern Turkish identity.  Take, for instance, the recent kerfuffle over President Abdullah Gul’s Republic Day dinner.  It’s easy for me to waltz in as an American and approve of my students’ rebellious actions, but I’ve taken the “listen 80%, talk 20%” tactic of intercultural understanding, and to blindly advocate for my view would be pretty silly.

The actions of the NKU students were part of a greater national movement which attracted plenty of attention in the press.  Everyone dissected their actions, their goals, their audacity, their pride.  But this article is probably my favorite.  Not only does it recognize that more and more Turkish women, regardless of religious observance, are pursuing higher education with hopes of employment,  but it goes one step further than most Turkish commentary by actually examining the hiring and workplace discrimination that covered women face after university.  This problem goes far beyond Turkey’s Ivory Towers.

During this past summer’s niqab crisis in France, I was incensed that a government would attempt to legislate women’s freedom with some pretty flimsy excuses.  Whatever decision YOK and the Constitutional Court eventually reach, it’s beyond frustrating (but, I guess, expected) that women’s bodies continue to serve as the visible battleground for society’s greater conflicts.

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