Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

A running commentary on my life in Izmir, Turkey...and other thoughts.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Sweating for Democracy

Suddenly summer arrived out of nowhere, on a cantaloupe breeze and a wave of sweaty lethargy. Long-sleeved shirts and sweaters beat a swift retreat into the dark recesses of the wardrobe; out pranced t-shirts, tanks, capris, sandals, sunscreen, electric fans. The gently caressing sunbeams, so sought-after only a week before, callously turned traitor, launching an aggressive full-frontal attack. The shade we had shunned through the not-so-long winter months became our sudden salvation.

It was on such a sweltering Sunday that over a million Turks gathered in Izmir's Alsancak district to defend democracy and the separation of religion and politics. Being in principal a supporter of both of these ideas, and admittedly hungry for a spectacle and something to write home about, I glopped on the sunblock, shelled out a fiver for a pretty little Turkish flag (it is a pretty flag -- no wonder they like to wave it) and made my way to the Bostanlı ferry which would take me across the bay. In the streets of Bostanlı, individual dots of red and white slowly trickled towards a common center of gravity, the ferry station. The terminal was a sea of red and white. People of every size, shape, age and gender had wrapped themselves in flags and red and white hats. Did I wear red and white? Actually, no. I wore a navy blue t-shirt and carried a red and white Turkish flag...a subconscious plug for my own kind of nationalism, I wonder? Levent, more environmentalist than nationalist, wore green. Whatever. Perhaps I exaggerate the symbolism.

The terminal was jam-packed, and the ferries were departing every 10 minutes (instead of the usual 30), low in the water and overloaded with flag-waving patriots. There was a festive feel in the air, more like people on their way to a backyard summer barbecue than to a rally born out of deep concerns about the country's future. It was difficult, indeed, to remember that this was serious business, and not get too caught up in the carnival aspect.

Turkey is in a difficult spot these days. The current ruling party, headed by Prime Minister Erdoğan, is religiously conservative, and there has been much outrage amongst the more 'progressive' Turks that Erdoğan's wife wears a headscarf. Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic and adamant secularist, was a self-professed hater of religion and its influence on people and progress. He would probably have done the proverbial grave-roll if he knew what was going on in the upper echelons of government these days. But Erdoğan in his role of PM has in fact accomplished some positive things for Turkey -- perhaps more than any recent PM -- and has helped bring an unaccustomed level of stability and prosperity to the country. However, he has also made some attempts to push his religious agenda, including attempts to restrict alcohol sales and consumption and lifting the ban on headscarves for government employees. These moves, combined with Erdoğan's shadowy past in political Islam, have alarmed the secular populace and aroused suspicions that this is but the tip of the iceberg -- that Erdoğan and his AK Party have much more in mind.

Ahmed Necdet Sezer is Turkey's acting president. A secular kind of guy, a jurist and a former professor of constitutional law, Sezer is relatively well-liked by the 'liberal establishment' -- but he is nearing the end of his 7-year term. The election of a new president was scheduled to go forward last April, but all manner of havoc has broken loose since then, and as yet no president has been elected. In Turkey the president is largely a figurehead (like the Queen of England), yet is still invested with considerable power, both legal and symbolic. In fact, as a representative of the national identity, the president is more significant than the PM. But interestingly, although the president is effectively a representative of the people as a body, it is not the people who elect him, but the Parliament. Currently the Parliament is dominated by AKP members; therefore the eventual election of an AKP candidate to the presidency seemed inevitable. When it began to be whispered about that Erdoğan would be the AKP's presidential candidate, there was uproar in the country. Indignation, fear and anger were expressed: how could a conservative man with roots in political Islam and a wife in a headscarf possibly be allowed to become the symbol of the secular, westward-leaning Turkey that Atatürk and his followers fought so hard to establish? Impossible. There was enormous outcry, a massive protest rally in Ankara, and finally after much hullabaloo Erdoğan announced that he was bowing to popular pressure and would not run for president after all. The AKP then proffered their second- choice candidate, Abdullah Gül. He proved to be a somewhat more acceptable choice, but still suspect with his own history of forays into political Islam. Nonetheless, election day came and Mr. Gül was the AKP's man. The petulant opposition party's members of Parliament, however, boycotted the elections -- resulting in a lack of the necessary quorum, and hence a stalemate. No new president was elected. Another try produced the same result. There was unhappiness on the part of the people about the accuracy of their parliamentary representation -- after all, MPs serve a five-year term, and we find ourselves currently at the end of that term. How effectively did MPs elected five years ago represent the Turkey of today? In the end, the way the stalemate was resolved gave the people more than they bargained for: the Parliament not only voted to move up the date of the parliamentary elections from November to July (if the people were so convinced that the current Parliament did not represent their interests, this was the only sensible thing to do), but it also passed a constitutional amendment whereby the people will now elect the president directly.

the most enormous flag I've ever seenThere is more to the story. During the uproar over Erdoğan's potential candidacy, the commander of the Turkish armed forces warned the AKP that what they were doing (i.e., subtlely pushing their religious agenda) was a potential threat to democracy and secularism. This remark was interpreted by some, particularly in the foreign press, as a threat that the military would intervene should the elected candidate prove too Islamic for its taste.
Despite the young age of the Turkish republic (84 years old this year), there is a rather long history of military meddling politics. Several times when a ruling party has been deemed a 'threat to democracy' (as interpreted by the military) they have been removed militarily. This gives rise to mixed feelings of the Turkish people about the military -- on the one hand, they love and revere it as the saviour of secularism and democracy. On the other hand, a government selected by the military may be secular, but it's certainly not democratic, and there is growing frustration among many at the feeling that there is no middle ground between military authoritarianism and religious extremism. What they want, simply -- or not so simply, as it seems -- is democracy and secularism. The question is, in a country like Turkey, is it possible to have both?

sour green plums, usually eaten with saltThis was the gnawing, troubling crux of the problem that drew over a million Turks (and at least one American) out into the jackhammer noonday sun last Sunday. We pushed, we sweated, we tried not to poke each other's eyes out with our flag poles. There were wonderful sights -- an old wizened drummer, drumming away while girls wrapped in flags danced provocatively in circles to the beat. Little children in floppy sunhats and flags-cum-shirts. People brandishing witty placards (which took me a long time to understand...getting political puns in Turkish is no easy feat). Scores of boats bobbing just offshore, packed with people in their red and white, observing the spectacle. A giant stage on which presenters, in booming voices, recited the speeches of Atatürk. Patriotic songs. I couldn't see any of it, jammed as I was into the seething mob. It was a challenge not to be gorged by a flag pole, or have your toes trodden on, or be pushed under the heaving, pushing massdancing for secularismes. At some points, it was nearly impossible to move, and your nose was assailed with the scent of shampoo and perfume and sweat and sunblock. The sun grew more merciless, my temper frayed; I stopped caring about democracy, and only wanted to flee to a cool and empty place. After much pushing and grunting, and one frantic moment where my flag slipped to the ground and was promptly trodden on by at least six pairs of feet as my hands frantically scrabbled and pulled at the cloth and tried not to tear it, we finally emerged from the rabble, ducked into a cool underground bar, and discussed the meaning of democracy over icy half-liters of beer. A woman in a grunge-rock bar in Turkey, swilling beer. That, my friends, is one victory for the secularists.

Infidel Izmirians are here, where's Tayyip (Erdogan)? A reference to one conservative politican's reference to the people of Izmir as 'infidels'Turkey is and will remain secular'Take your mother and your party and go to Iran.' A reference to a story about a farmer who tried to approach Erdogan about problems Turkish farmers are facing, and who was rebuffed by Erdogan, who said 'get out of my sight; take your mother and go home.'the Izmir bay

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Moms and Disco Lights

Dear Mom,

Every year when Mother's Day rolls around I can't help but remember that one dreadful year when all four of your loving but scatter-brained children were a bit tardy in remembering the day. The repercussions of that day haunt me still, and probably made 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned' my most easily remembered quote. (Incidentally, I did some checking on that one and found, to my surprise, that it does
not come to us from Shakespeare, but rather from William Congreve's 1697 play 'The Mourning Bride.') Anyway, back to the topic at hand: I think you were absolutely justified in your indignation; I guess after years of back-breaking, hair-whitening child raising, I'd want a little recognition, too.

Let me tell you about Mother's Day in Turkey. In general, Turkish society is not 'festive'. Perhaps you noticed this when you lived in Istanbul: there is a pervasive, almost tangible melancholy here, even amongst people who seem happy. Does this have to do with Turkey's being an Islamic society? With bearing the burden of a troubled history? Is it a reflection of socio-economic conditions? Or is it the belief in
kader (fate) and the idea that everyone's destiny is pre-determined? I couldn't say. Maybe Turks are just melancholy people. When it comes to festivals, a side-by-side comparison of Turkey, Germany and the USA will place Turkey far behind the latter two in terms of sheer numbers of celebrations. Turks are good at enjoying life in a quiet, low-key way, but they're just not the festival types. In the eight months that I've lived here, I don't think that I have once stumbled across any kind of outdoor food/drink/music/exhibit type of event. Even at the şeker bayram, one of the most important holidays of the year, where children eat scads of sweets and are coddled mercilessly by their elders, there is no outward display of the holiday. If you hadn't been told that it was happening, you might not have noticed. Şeker bayram is the closest thing Muslims have got to Christmas, but it certainly is not like Christmas, where there are decorations in every shop and caroling in streets and umpteen zillion pre-Christmas events going on. Basically, life goes on here, unpunctuated by spontaneous outbursts of public joy, real or simulated.

But these last few weeks something has been different. There is suddenly a hint of optimism in the air, a lifting of the heavy sense of resignation to Fate. The weather's turned hot, the night air balmy, and people are thronging the restaurants and cafes of the neighborhood late into the night. So you could just chalk it up to the weather. Then again, perhaps it's something else., say, Mother's Day anticipation? Is it possible? This past month billboards have been cropping up all over the city in a month-long buildup to M-Day. On bus shelters, on advertising walls, on buses themselves there are these enormous (to me rather maudlin, I must confess) posters bearing the words "ANNEM BENIM" (my mother) in gigantic letters, and ecstatic pictures of people of various ages with their arms flung around their hallowed, sainted mothers. Large numbers of TV advertisements have adopted a 'mom' theme.

I think it's fair to say that on the list of things sacred to all Turks,
mothers take the top spot. They are revered here, and it would be unthinkable to disrespect, argue with or, God forbid, forget them. They are viewed the source of life, power, goodness, honor and all that is holy. And as one who comes from a place where nothing is particularly sacred, and children feel free to argue with and disrespect their parents, this touches me.

Anyway, after being bombarded from every direction with images of loving mothers and misty-eyed filial devotion, I start getting the idea that M-Day might actually be the biggest holiday of the year. But it was the tents that greeted me on the way to work last week that confirmed my suspicions. Set up in a square so as to form a small courtyard, the tents were selling various knickknacks, chocolates, etc. The entrance to the 'courtyard' was festooned with white banners bearing enormous red letters shouting out HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY!! Later in the evening, performers hit the stage; there were even disco lights and dancing -- more 'festival' than I've seen in the eight months of my Turkish life.

Wow, I thought. So this is what it takes to get the Turkish people to whoop it up and party -- a celebration of mothers! Too bad that mine's not here for this! Still, I thought you might be pleased to hear that there are places where the love and devotion of mothers is not underestimated -- indeed, it is the pretext for the biggest public shindig of the year. I'll be thinking of you, in the reflected glow of the disco lights, and remembering all the love you've given and everything you've done for us.

much love,

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


America, let's face it, is the land of Me, Me and Me. Particularly California, where I grew up. Nothing is more important than my career, my diet and training regimen, my schedule, my personal fulfillment and happiness. We are pretty much a land of self-centered individuals...which is not to say that we aren't nice, friendly and hospitable, but still, deep down, we are lone wolves, rooted in the culture of 'what I want.' There are a lot of good sides to this: it breeds industry and innovation, fosters variety. Everybody's trying to be more different than everyone else; everyone wants to stand out.

But if America is the land of lone wolves, than Turkey is a society of sheep. Before you defenders of Turkey go getting huffy, let me clarify that I don't mean sheep in the unthinking, obedient, brainless way you're probably thinking. I say sheep because, in exact opposite to me-centered American culture, Turkish society is profoundly group-centered. The individual is not encouraged; standing out is not something to be proud of. Being a superlative cog in the big wheel is more to be aspired to than being a stand-out individual.

This raises the question for me: can one who was raised in the most Me-centered part of Me-land, coming from a totally non-cohesive, non-communicative family of die-hard Individuals, no less, manage to integrate into Turkish sheep society? Can a lone wolf, by changing its surroundings, actually effect its transformation into a sheep? Or will it forever remain a wolf...albeit one in sheep's clothing?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Outsider Days

There are days when you want to cry -- when nothing works and everything seems to be conspiring against you; when you try to ask for help, you find that you can finally (finally!) formulate the questions, but it doesn't do you a damn bit of good, because you can't understand the torrent of verbiage that gets thrown back at you. You are helpless, an infant unable to get its simplest needs met, and all you want to do is jump up and down and scream. Nothing makes sense. Everything is done the opposite of how it would be done in your own country. You can't make heads or tails of things -- there's no comprehensive city street map, no yellow pages, no map of bus lines, no names on the bus stops, no address lookup system, no way to find anything except by asking, asking, asking. Asking, and not understanding the answer, because the answer is never simple. Seemingly straightforward yes/no questions become opportunities for monologue, and in the end you step away from your interlocutor with a bemused look, none the wiser and a little more desperate than before. And as your desperation mounts, whatever language skills and common sense you have acquired gradually melt away. You feel so very lost, you start to wonder if you are of far below average intelligence, and the worst of it is that you don't even know a soul to turn to who would understand what you are going through, this half-life you are living, this constant feeling of 'outsiderness'. At least twice a day I get asked 'Siz yabancı mısınız?' (Are you a foreigner?) ("DOES IT MATTER???!!!!" I want to shout back on the bad days.) It is draining to be a perpetual foreigner, to never quite understand the what's and why's of anything. To miss most of group conversations. To be so slow formulating your reply to what someone has said to you that they lose patience and start to talk about something else, or look at you as if wondering whether you're not the sharpest tool in the shed.

I am on my way to work. I decide to take the bus instead of the ferry, because the bus goes nearly door to door. A kilometer or so from my stop, the bus collides with a taxi. We come to a dead stop; the police are called, everybody waits. A few people get off the bus. I hesitate, wondering how soon we will be underway, whether I should seek alternate transportation. The bus and taxi are blocking the entire road, bringing rush hour traffic to a dead stop and giving rise to a cacophony of horn-honking. Finally the police arrive, survey the situation, and the bus pulls off to the side. Traffic begins to flow again. A dolmuş (shared taxi) stops. I ask the driver if he's going to Gazi Boulvarı...the reply is a rapid-fire torrent of words that nearly sweep me away. I had been expecting just a nod or the Turkish 'no' -- a click of the tongue and raised eyebrows. Certainly I had not anticipated this. Unsure, I thank him, close the door, and watch as he drives off. Other buses come, all with unknown numbers and unheard of destinations. Is anyone going where I'm going? I start to panic. I'm teaching in 15 minutes. But somehow I am suddenly linguistically paralyzed, and the paralysis is metastasizing and seeping into my physical being. I am frozen on the sidewalk. I finally manage to ask an elderly man how to get where I want to go...again, the response is a cascade of words; my reply an 'excuse me?', and again, the fire-hose response. And then a pause, and the eternal, blasted question: 'Siz yabancı mısınız?' Repress instinct to strangle.

I don't know why it never occurs to me to ask people if they speak English. Mostly they don't anyway, but the interesting thing is that it never occurs to me. I bumble on in their language, not understanding their responses, growing increasingly desperate and probably not any more polite. Perhaps feigning total ignorance of the language would actually get me further...reverse psychology is a handy tool, I find -- remove the pressure, watch the ability to perform come rushing back.

Five minutes later, I inquire with yet another bus driver. Is he going my way? He responds with an answer I can understand - that single downward tilt of the chin that means 'yes'. Relieved beyond reason, my panic dissipates and all the Turkish I have learned and suddenly forgotten comes rushing back. Without hesitation or grammatical mistakes, I say, "I was on the bus that had an accident. Do I have to pay again?" A click of the tongue, an upward thrust of the chin is his very understandable answer -- no.

The day is somewhat saved as I rush into my class. The relief is immense, and yet there lingers a gnawing kernel of long can I live like this, an impotent outsider? That it will end in an extreme -- triumph or utter disaster -- seems certain.