Sometimes we need to remember to look at progress, to see where we have come from and where we are now.
People ask why I came to Turkey. I think, maybe, in total vanity, that it could be that I was Helen of Troy in a former life an am looking for that level of excitement. The fact of the matter is that, as many here assume, I was leaving the US, just not for the reasons that they think. From any people’s perspective, I would not be here were I not running away from something. One of the biggest ironies of my life is that I naively came to this country without knowing much about its past. This is ironic as I did not want to be in the US because there was so much about US foreign policy that seemed to contradict what the US was founded upon and that is even if we overlook the small detail that the land was already populated.
Little did I know back then that there are so many angles to the history of the founding of the Turkish Republic and that I would spend many years tiptoeing around to try and get some of the facts, to find out what really happened.
If this was so difficult for me, imagine what it is like for those who grow up here. There is much that cannot be discussed or mentioned. One can go to jail for insulting ‘Turkishness,’ though just what that is has yet to be clearly defined.
I live in a town that was almost completely re-populated during the Greek-Turkish exchange. A few of the ladies I work with are only now beginning to talk about their families trip from the islands of Midilini or Crete to Ayvalik, and how their families made the adjustment to life here. It is difficult to know just what happened of course as the perspective of memory changes over time. It is all the more difficult if so much of what happened cannot be discussed in public.
This is true for many people all around the country.
Today I am writing not about the garbage ladies nor my life here in Ayvalik. Today I am sharing a bit of the political which is also personal. I come from a place where freedom of speech is a priority. Growing up with that notion sometimes makes it difficult to remember that so many people do not grow up with that concept as a given.
On January 19, 2007, Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist, was shot dead in broad daylight, just outside his office. The young man who pulled the trigger is still behind bars; though it is commonly believed that he did not act alone, no one else has been brought to trial. Hrant Dink was proud to be Turkish; he was also proud to be Armenian. He dedicated his life to trying to bring acknowledgement of past events. He did this in a manner that spoke of getting along, of mutual respect rather than of anger and blame. More than one hundred thousand people marched in Istanbul the day after his death. Say what you will but here in Turkey, it was an enormous gesture of strength, honesty and integrity for so many people to be on the streets in a peaceful manner of solidarity for justice and peace.
Until very recently, one could not talk about the Armenian situation here without feeling that you were treading on forbidden territory. Until very recently, you could not acknowledge that there was a ‘Kurdish problem’ in public, you could not speak Kurdish in public. Now there is a state-owned Kurdish language TV channel and there is much discussion on the difference between ‘mother tongue’ and ‘official language’. People may not yet speak openly of the burning of Izmir but there is more and more recognition of the difficulties faced in coming over from Greece.
Sometimes we need to remember to look around and see just what is moving forward.
Some of us start out ahead of the game in life through no doing of our own. Many others start so far back that it is nearly impossible for them to catch up. At the same time, there are many people in many places trying to make the quality of life a bit better for others, to make the scale of equal opportunity a bit more balanced.
Several years ago, a good friend gave me a book entitled ‘My Grandmother,’ by Fethiye Cetin. At first, the book seemed to be just about the author’s grandmother. It was nice, but I wasn’t getting it. Then the tears started to pour down my face. And they kept coming down. I was touched by the story, the honesty, the fact that so much had not been acknowledged for an entire lifetime. It was a personal story, not a political issue.
Another friend also gave me a book, ‘Children of the Sun,’ by Sevim Ak, a warm book about a young woman’s time spent in Southeastern Turkey and her interactions with the children. The region is predominantly Kurdish region, economically poor, in many areas, desolate. There was a civil war for nearly twenty years and the military presence is still strong and rumblings of the PKK, the Kurdish insurgency, are still heard. Geographically the area borders Iran, Iraq and Syria; culturally, the borders are more fluid.
Those of us who grew up with bedtime stories, with story hour, with book lists for summer vacation, understand the love and the power of the written word, be it fact or fiction. Not everyone grows up that way though and not every society is a literary society. Recent research shows that Turks are almost at the bottom of the list despite a high literacy rate: 4 people read 1 book per year here.
So when I came home the other day and saw that Cemile, the woman who weekly increases the quality of my life by cleaning my house, had pulled the book ‘Children of the Sun’ off the shelf to take home, I was a bit surprised. She had previously asked if she could borrow some of my books, as if I would say no. I did not ask why she chose that particular book though I should add that most of my books in Turkish are either political or delve into social issues. Cemile went on to say that the previous week she had borrowed ‘My Grandmother,’ and really liked it. She liked it so much that her children asked her to explain it. My eyes lit up but words failed me. I was stunned, I was impressed, I realized that I was witnessing a major social change.
Even in a country with a top-down democracy, change can come from the bottom. I do not think that I will live to see the day when, as Martin Luther King said, “[people] will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But I live with hope and the stubborn belief that things can be different.
Thank you to all who believe and are dedicated to bringing the quality of life up a notch or two, to working towards justice, peace, and a life of dignity, to acknowledging the past so that we can all move on to the future with less angst, few burdens of secrecy, more trust in one another.
If you have made it this far, please stop for a minute to think not just about someone or several people that dedicate their lives to making a difference but also just what you can do to make a life a bit better for someone who started off lower than you did.