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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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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