28/06/2011

I remember when this was all fields: Adiyman 2011

A number of years ago I was one of six young foreigners who went to volunteer in the eastern city of Adiyaman, a tiny watermelon-loving settlement in the Kurdish east of Turkey. The job was to teach English over three month period to thirty of the city's children, co-ordinated and funded by the South-East Anatolian Project fund for development in the traditionally impoverished south-east.

Unfortunate for the local education authority, the original project had it's funding completely removed by Ankara in 2009. This came as no suprise to anyone involved in the camp, as a vast ammount of cash was squandered on inessential items in the first few weeks. I'm glad I wasn't at that meeting.
Returning now, I can see that our small scheme has had a sustained effect on young people there - in no small way thanks to individuals such as ever-enthusiastic local English teacher, Serdar Tunc, and intripid Washington-based do-gooder Lindsay Trice, to name but two. For the beauty of the scheme in the last two years is the fact that politicians have not interfered at all - and they weren't invited anyway. The new volunteers are treated to stay with host familes who are made aware of their responsibilities to their guests (as if this needed stating, such is the extent of small-town hospitality). A local school is being used freely as a space to teach classes in the day while any activities are funded communally by the students, parents and teachers.
By far the most impressive feature this year however, has been that the original students who benefitted from the pilot scheme are now speaking English to the extent that they are assisting the new teachers in the classroom. A sense of responisibility glows in their faces with not a trace of oneupmanship on their peers. I really feel that this project will have a sustained positive effect on Adiyaman. For better or worse, this is something the education authority might be keen to exploit in the future, but hopefully it will take a while before they decide to act on it.
Adiyaman: Spreadig over the Plains
In any case, one small English project isn't the only thing pointing to a brighter future for Adiyman. Adiyaman is one of several towns which claim the title of "Turkey's fastest growing". However I would contend that it has a good chance at being top of the league table amongst these 'Anatolian Tigers'. Taking any bus route from the centre to the outskirts of town (well, former outskirts), I feel much like my grandfather must have done walking me to school pointing around, saying 'I remember when this was all fields...'.
Looking over the skyline I ask Serdar, "apart from the endless new apartment blocks" slowly climbing the surrounding slopes around the city "what else is new in town?". He gestured around, "they completed the roads here, new hospital over there, new university medical faculty here. They start accepting students this September."
I learnt a number of years ago that the quality of the current hospital here puts many British wards to shame. While I worked at the camp, one of our students fell and suffered a deep cut to his forehead. Used to the chaos of hospital visits in our respective countries, I and my Canadian colleague grabbed our books, crossword puzzles, card sets and snacks, before rushing out to the hospital to join the queue. After fifteen minutes we were out. I hadn't even sat down.
Although development and urbanisation are still very much the hall-marks of the spralling contrete metropolises of the west coast, in Anatolia things are changing like they never have. When I got back to Tarsus yesterday and related my shock regarding the rate of development, a local friend simply offered; "it's the same all over Turkey, because the economy is so good". Back in my beloved, if stubborn, Izmir they would spit out their drinks upon hearing such anathema.
Just like development under Labour Britain, which turned out to all be financed on dreams, or projections of dreams - for the sceptics, the government hasn't even succeeded in economics or development: it is all a facade. Although most of the time this position is just bias, the way the government fought the election campaign in the big cities didn't do much to convert the unbelievers. I agree with them that it was rather crass to convert whole chunks of cities into building sites just befor election time, with giant photoshoped erdogan faces covering every one like a neon arrow pointing to development. On the other hand, one wonders if some kemalists will ever have the humility to consider that a hospital in Adiyman is way more progressive than learning to dance or taking off a fez, or as Kilicdaroglu would have it, just giving everyone 600TL.
Whatever the politics of it all, which had had no effect on developing the town in the last century, no one could ever have dreamed of this kind of thing ten years ago in Adiyman.

20/06/2011

On the Road to Hatay

So due to a last minute change in my work in Istanbul, I find myself enroleld in a two-week language course in the provincial town of Tarsus, a simple little town just tucked betweek Adana and Mersin.

Having been following the developments in Syria since February, I was compelled to take the opportunity to be somewhere close to the action in order to head down and see for myself. This has at least in part been because I need to witness for myself the human efects of the Arab Spring occuring driving distance to the south. But the main thing is trying to help in anyway I can. i don't think they need any English teachers down there, but any extra publicity lends a hand. If Jolie can do it I can.

This Saturday I visited a formidable gentleman named Cihat Gokdemir, whose son studies at Birikim and who is heavily involved in the IHH, the aid organisation leading the Mavi Marmara relief projects. Mr Gokdemir informed me that it was extremely difficult for non-government groups and individuals to access the camps as it was being run by Turkish Red Cresent and guarded by security forces. However, it seems that two organisations are represented by a hand-full of individuals at the camps and I hope to be in contact with one as soon as I get to Hatay close to the border. Mazlum-Der and the IHH are both present I suppose due to their own lobbying work, sympathy they get anyway from the government and the advantages they have as a non-state group: They can access both sides of the border.

The only pictures coming from the camps have been shot through the fence but journalists and photographers have not been able to access. I think this is because the Ankara has enjoyed warm relations with the regime in the time of Davutoglu by laying to rest conflicts arising from shared water sources, Kurdish armed groups and border controls, which would normally be open for citizens on either side. The election period put pressure on Erdogan to be the tough guy on a number of issues and a stronger humanitarian stance on Syria was one of them, yet I believe the frantic visits by Syrian officials have lead to the government wanting to downplay the existence of a crisis in order to retain influence in Damascus, and in the east as a peace-broker: Davutoglu's favourite image.

At least, all this was true until today, now i''m not so sure. Today's Zaman is a paper tied-up pretty well with the government which makes it a great way to see how the wind will flow in Turkish diplomacy (as an English-language daily it's audience, and a good share of part-time writers are in the diplomatic scene here). That said, nothing prepared me for the headline "Syria's Close Border Operation May Spark a Clash With Turkey". The headline derived from the fact of a high number of visits by "Top Turkish politicians and military officials", i'e' Davutoglu and Gen. Erdal Ceylanoglu. The words of Davutoglu himself were rather tame however, focusing on the need for a strong Syria, who was their "best friend" and who should concentrate on reform. In fact, the whole sensational headline was inspired by a one-off interview with professor Veysel Ayhan of ORSAM. The professor said that mass-killings in Syria were unacceptable as they recalled the time Turkey, along with the rest of NATO looked awful in the face of huge massacres in the Balkans in the early 90s, which reverberated greatly with Turks at the time.

Anyway, we live in hope that the headline was a double-bluff, or maybe i'm just exaggerating Zaman's political clout versus it's attempt to sell sensational stories. Either way I shall be in contact with Cihat's man in the inside in two weeks. Although I have no idea what the situation will be by that time.


16/06/2011

Birikim Art Exhibition: Art and the Politics of Grand Openings








































Birikim School's public arts fair opened today in Bagcilar's Woman and Family Cultural Centre. The opening was overseen by the 'Belediye Bashkan', or local councillor, and it was rather ceremonious. The guy walked in to the tune of applause and cut the red ribbon while the kids were ready to greet him with trays of chocolate. And hand cologne, as you do. Another one of our students from the fifth grade lifted up a collection box for the up-coming Mavi Maramara mission to Palestine. What happened next I found was a microcosm of the AKP's official stance of unofficial-support to the charity enterprise:

Councillor: Ah what's this?
Student: We're collecting for the second Mava Marmara trip
Councillor: Marvellous... (searches pockets) er... (to public aid) do you have any money on you?
Aid: (not searching his pockets) No
Councillor: Right, well, a bit later let's make sure we put a bit in there shall we?

If this wasn't just a way for the councillor to show his approval, without wanting to show direct political backing, then the absolute believability of a politician not carrying change around made me chuckle. Just typical.

Government ministers and state officials tend to get to a point here where their entourage is responsible for everything. In Izmir, the education secretary would power down the halls of the council house like Darth Vader strolling the deck of the Death Star, everyone standing to attention with their backs to the wall if only more obviously bask in the light emanating from his buttocks. His equivilent in Adiyaman, Mr Mehmet Oztuncer, I found was alot more relaxed in demeanor, but then again you can't help warming to a man whose desk has a button which instantly makes a woman with tea pop out of nowhere. Turkish politics is a funny world glimpsed through a keyhole view i've had so far.

Anyway, the focus should be on the work of the kids really. The quality of the stuff on display was fantastic, and the kids behaved as though they were at someone else's parents' house: eerily well. The most beautiful work in my opinion was the burnt wood drawings, shown in the first picture. They use a special gas-powered tool to burn/roughly engrave marks onto wood. I do also have an admiration for 'ebru' art, or marbling, when it forms the back-drop to silhoettes or islamic calligraphy (also pictured).


14/06/2011

No Racism in Turkey? (Part 1)


“It’s just typical of those black guys” muttered the old man, tipsily marauding into our conversation with the bouncer outside.

In all fairness we had just left one of Istanbul’s biggest reggae bars, so if we’re talking statistics, then in all probability it was a black person who took Sumelya’s camera. But I doubt anyone was number-crunching.

Wisdom bore out of experience, and increasing indifference, told me not to bother tackling the old man’s racially-coated proclamation as we sat listing the details of the missing article and ignored his ramblings.

As legend has it, “there is no racism in Turkey”.

You are permitted to smile wryly, but it is not an outright lie when spoken here, and will explain why with two key factors; a scientific definition of racism and a great deal of societal denial.

First we must deal with definition, for not even the most outward of racists will acknowledge their own misguided fear of foreigners as being a racist one, and it is because of an over-simplification of the definition of racism that allows them to make offensive remarks without thinking.

It is the style of the time to use pre-prepared defence mechanisms, the most popular being; “I’m not a racist or anything but…”. Once this is clarified, one can summarily follow this with a comment so right-wing Atilla the Hun would blush. But although the follow-up may sound racist, it has been established that one is “not racist”. Thank God for that.

In Turkey, “I’m not racist but”, generally translates as “I’m not a nationalist but”, because although nationalism is as racist here as it is anywhere, racism would be an exaggeration on the accuser’s part. However, check out some of these genuine follow-up sentences I have heard, or do hear on a common basis. So, I’m not nationalist…

1) “But I hate the Kurds because they are terrorists”
2) “But I hate the Americans because they think we are terrorists”
3) “But I hate the Europeans because they think we are Arabs”
4) “But I hate the Arabs because they fought us at Canakkale”
5) “But I hate the Ottomans because they were not even Turkish” (except at Canakkale)

And it goes on. In my younger, feistier days in Turkey, I would hear these terrible generalisations and try to lecture the offender with my own woolly liberal views backed-up by historical facts. Then, feeling like his/her true nature was being revealed, out of nowhere came the defence mechanism again – but disguised as part of the debate itself. By far the most annoying of these defence mechanisms is “hey, you can’t say anything about the Kurds, I probably have more Kurdish friends than you”.

As I’ve mentioned, this miserable formula is much the same everywhere. If you are travelling in England for example, and want to sit in a pub preaching ignorant drivel, all you need to do is deliver your hate-speech and then state at the end that “I’m not racist, some of my best friends are black”. Just make sure none of them are present at the time [they never are].

But let us define terms. “Racism” in Turkey is understood as it is explained in the children’s dictionary: hating someone because of the colour of their skin. Does anyone fall into this category? Sure, society’s tribal fears can be pricked by visible differences such as skin and dress, but most people harbouring racist thoughts would prefer to attribute their distaste to socio-economic, historical, cultural, political or even scientific reasons, and would reject, quite justifiably in my opinion, the assumption that they simply don’t like certain skin-tones.

The difference is obvious in Turkey however, because whilst racism is present everywhere, its presence in public debate in the west means that people are forced to if not deal with, then at least suppress their ignorance. As an example which I hope to deal with in a separate, more succinct essay, I was once in a taxi talking to the diver about the number of foreign customers he recieves in Istanbul. He generally had no problem with the tourists except when it came to language problems, he said, although he explained "apart from the Africans - I hate them, they smell so bad". The significance of multi-cultural discourse in Britain was brought home to me when I simply replied "is that so?" which should be enough to imply "I don't agree with you". But the possibility that I might be offended was simply not counted on.

This absence, and the simplified understanding of racism in Turkey is a problem, but this is not without explanation. Particularly under both Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Ismet Inonu, Turkey’s hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from the surrounding areas were unashamedly assimilated to prevent the kind of fragmentation which destroyed the Ottoman Empire. In this time, the common Islamic faith of these new immigrants meant that there was no serious motivation for a “united in diversity” style discussion as happened in Western Europe in response to mass immigration there. Islam has always been considered a significant component in Turkish identity and subsequent “Turkification” policies since even before the republic.

Above all, this unscrutinised definition of racism also means that one can claim “there is no racism in Turkey”, because there are no laws which segregate races (even though there have been). And to a great extent, Turkey has been a melting pot for hundreds of different races for its insistence on citizenship-based nationalism. As Mustafa Kemal famously phrased it “How happy is one who calls himself Turk” Just as long as they call do themselves Turk it’s fine. The only problem arises when a minority, be it Alevi, Greek or Kurd, wish to make a gesture to assert their cultural identity. This ultimately beggars the question, “why would you want to exemplify our differences?” a question which relates to the Sevres Syndrome and paranoia of division, which is particularly acute in Turkey. Wishing to show difference reflects a form of ingratitude towards the generous ideals of the French nationalist model – we’re all in this together, why would you want to wreck the illusion?

This brings us to the linked subject of denial in society. A few years ago I read a great article by Radikal’s sports correspondent Ibrahim Altınsay. At a kick racism out of sports style conference he said, "There are some clichés in Turkey, the sentence, ‘There is no racism in Turkey’ is one of those". Altınsay was referring to a number of incidents that came up in 2006 when Samuel Eto decided to move here after a season of abusive chanting in Spain. But whilst Eto, being different in terms of ethnicity and citizenship, enjoyed the respect of fans in Turkey, a number of incidents at the same time reveal that discrimination of culturally different players in the Turkish periphery were sky high. Sivasspor’s Israeli striker Pini Balili was subject to some vile anti-Jewish chants, and it is a routine affair to shout politically-charged insults at Diyarbekirspor’s Kurdish fans on the very rumour that one of them has waved/once waved/wants to wave/might have seen a PKK flag.

The understanding of racism in black and white terms [for want of a better word] maintains the denial in society that nationalist declarations and generalisations constitute just one shade of racism. Take the article I wrote about teaching union Egitim Bir Sen, for example. Here, an official union leaked concerns to the public that bringing foreign teachers to Turkey would somehow ‘promote’ those teacher’s cultures. As if Turkey doesn’t promote it’s own culture enough, was my first thought, but at the same time, this was incredibly condescending for all involved; students, teachers and foreigners. At the same time, the charge that we might be secret missionaries beggars belief. And yet, I can’t find one article which deplores for what it is. Instigating fear of foreigners, racism in other words.

Of course, terminology is not important as long as ‘ignorance’ and ‘discrimination’ are confronted. But if the R-word retains a certain power that I can’t help feeling would really bring attention the severity of certain lines of thought which are unfortunately an accepted part of society here.

This is an article i'm writing on my own in order to write a more specific piece about perceptions of black people in Turkey. I'm just brain storming, but I hope it can form a stand-alone article at some point. Editing is underway.

Questions to answer:

Is it naive to view racism against black people and Kurds through the same prism?

13/06/2011

Adnan Menderes Memorial






So here is my visit Turgut Ozal and Andan Menderes' mausoleum, which I previously mistook for many years to solely being the tomb of Adnan Menderes. Thankfully they are within walking distance of eachother. Ozal was quite inspired by Menderes' life, having been in military service at the time of his execution I can only assume this was the event which politicised him and encouraged him to build a memorial during his premiereship in the 80s. Although humbler and smaller in size than Ozal's own memorial, there were notably quite a few visitors during the half hour I was there. Many people stopped to pray Fatiha at his grave from all generations - some people were bringing their children along too. The memries of '61 clearly still move people.

Those bitter feeling towards the military and the Kemalist state could not have been demonstrated more evidently than last night when the AKP won a record third term in office. They seem to have lost a minor number of seats but gained new representatives in traditionally statist strongholds such as Canakkale and Antalya. The results came in last night at around AKP 50%. CHP 26%. MHP 13%. So my estimates for the Justice and Development were a little coy, but I was bang on the money with CHP. It would take a disaster on the AKP's part for them to get any more than 25% however. MHP ended up taking only one county - Igdir, a rural Turanist heep on the border of Azerbaijan.

Personally, having taken a test on Al Jazeera's website the result transpired that I should vote DSP, the "democratic left". They didn't get very far, but anything can happen in the next four years.

11/06/2011

Elections2011: You Heard It Here First... Probably



As hard as I am trying to reserve blog-space for full, edited articles, I can't resist anticipating tomorrow's election. In the morning I will go to the Adnan Menderes monument on the stump of the Golden Horn to reflect on a significant day as Turkey distances itself furthur and furthur from the threat of military coups (like the one that unfortunately killed Menderes in '61)

In the afternoon I might be trailing around poll stations in various parts of the city interviewing voters with my eternally-curious Bosniak friend Smylia. Then coffee.

After that, I suppose we'll want to know the results. I'm not a betting man, but if I was then I would certainly say 40% AKP going down as 2 terms in power inevitably sends you, 25% CHP going slightly up due to the fresh face of Kilicdaroglu, and about 9% MHP as I don't see them going far over the 10% threashhold. Out of the smaller parties I see BDP making some gains in the east over the AKP, but not substantial. Meanwhile Saadet will possibly have benefitted from the exposure of their former guru Erbakan's mass following, presented at his funeral earlier in the year. It will be interesting to see if the new quasi-social democrat HAS party, lead my Numan Kurtulmus will convince anyone in Istanbul or Ankara, as they were competing strongly, and I think unwisely, for AKP seats in those areas. Let's see how accurately my predictions fail...

10/06/2011

Book Review: Tarik Akan






So this is exciting. I've just finished my first whole book in Turkish; Tarik Akan's "Anne Kafamda Bit Var", or Mother, There's a Flea in Head.

The book tells the real-life story of famous Turkish actor Tarik Akan, after he is arrested during the traumatic 1980 coup d'etat, for his alleged affiliation and support of communist groups in Turkey.

The drama begins with Akan landing at the airport in Istanbul having toured Europe. While there, he is supposed to have given an interview to a journalist in which he stated heretically that "we (the Turkish people) didn't win the first war of independence, but we will win the second one". Akan is summarily picked up by police at the airport and escorted to a detention centre where he is just one of many political detainees, the vast majority being from the left.

I find the book both a riveting read and a useful resource about the period. Akan's thoughts, emotions and fears in a difficult time can be felt universally. One is conscious of times when Akan's fame as an actor gives him extra fortune via a star-struck policeman or a family connection, however Akan is unapologetic about this. For rather than alienating the reader, this just emphasises the desperation of his condition, this is especially due to the fact that for the most part he relies on his people skills, strategic cigarette sharing, and often, the defience which earnt him his incarceration in the first place.

In numerous passages Akan's perhaps secondary reason for writing is made clear. Published a decade later, Anne Kafamda Bit Var clarifies his innocence for the reading public. However, Akan writes with a great amount of humility in the sense that he not once lectures on his personal opinions, ideology or the events happening outside the prison. He refrains from expounding his own misfortune, instead focusing on the unfair arrest and torture of fellow inmates and their families and friends. Akan acts as simply a witness to the brutality of the coup, and the machinations of power on a personal level.

This makes Anne Kafamda Bit Var an must-read for anyone interested in Turkey's most devastating military coup, which many Turks who lived through the time, are not inclined to talk about. It has encouraged me to find ways to open up to people about the time. This will inevitably involve more reading.

The 1980 coup had a profound effect on today's Turkey in many ways; a lack of humanities students in universities put off by their parents, the propondency of nationalism and Islam in political discourse and most importantly considering it's election time: the current business of creating a new constitution to replace the one introduced by the junta.

More book updates soon.

01/06/2011

Taking our Jobs and Teaching Our Children!


Myth VS Fact

“It used to be that Turks would migrate to Germany to find work. Now we see people migrating from poorer surrounding nations to make a living in Turkey.” Thus observed (astutely and at long last) Education Minister Nimet Çubukçu just over a month ago.


Of this increasing number of immigrants, it is estimated that there are over 2 million unregistered foreign workers in Turkey, yet one group consistently lost in the newsworthy bag of refugees and job-seekers has been the undeniably large number of native English speakers, often semi-legally employed in schools, universities and course centers all around this country. That is, until now.

Last month, the Education Ministry launched a TL 1.5 billion project that involves the employment of 40,000 Anglophones over a four-year period, with the aim of helping whip Turkey's English skills into shape. Upon hearing this, my immediate concern was yet more droves of backpacking beatniks filling up Taksim with their “awesome” travel yarns and opinions -- so help me God. Though I overcame this inner arrogance quite quickly; for having worked in state and private schools with many teachers here, I can say with no doubt that this sort of government-led initiative has been a long time coming. Learning English with the extra help of native speakers is extremely vital to ensuring Turkish students can be confident in international communications and awareness.

However, the response was not unanimous. The Education Personnel Labor Union (Eğitim Bir-Sen), for example, staged a protest last month against the move. The union's criticisms came threefold: 1) Turkish teaching jobs would be going straight to foreigners, 2) foreigners would be earning the same as experienced Turkish teachers and 3) (most shockingly) foreigners could come with the “ulterior motive” of “importing their own culture.”

Eğitim Bir-Sen did not mention the benefits this move would bring to Turkish teachers or Turkish students, nor, surprisingly, did they return any of my emails. And if I could be so shamelessly crass as to bring personal reasons into the debate, the union also failed to think about the much-needed benefits it would bring to native English teachers -- so much for professional solidarity. So just for the record, let's address their concerns here.

1) A win for Turkish teachers of English. The plan outlines, first of all, that a Turkish teacher is to remain present in the classroom at the same time as a native speaker -- thus the annual demand for Turkish English teachers will stay the same. That argument put to rest, this is a great opportunity for Turkish teachers to keep their English skills up-to-speed at school with daily usage and interaction. Although Eğitim Bir-Sen General Manager Mrs. Zübeyde Kılıç claims to be defending teachers' professions, I can say without exception that my Turkish colleagues find our presence a great resource to have at hand, as long as the imported teachers do a good job in promoting practical English and resolve the problems arising from a focus on grammar, which has been the case for decades.

2) Greater fairness to teachers and students. I (and a good number of foreigners here in Turkey) have worked voluntarily, below minimum wage, minimum wage and on equal pay with Turkish teachers, and I can tell you that the latter is by far the most desirable. In a place where one is far from home, with no friends or family contacts to help you get set up and with a job helping a country's youth gain access to university, greater learning and a generally broader perspective of the world, one feels entitled to make ends meet. In any case, according to the head of the project, foreigner teachers will be paid around TL 2,000 a month, TL 200 less than the average Turkish teacher.

Of course, I support Eğitim Bir-Sen's arguments that Turkish teachers' pay should be raised above current levels, regardless, but I ask them that we might have enough money to live here, too. This especially, given that the current generation of native speakers in Turkey has been forced to avoid the whopping costs of work visas and residence permits by dodging the law and sneaking out to Bulgaria/Greece/Syria every three months to restamp their visas in return for illegal working status. This has been done on the orders of cost-cutting language centers and companies whose profits depend on hyping up native speakers to private schools, but has not been so much fun for anyone who has had to deal with a whole string of problems from not having legal status here and not least for those who have encountered random ID checks by civil police.

With this new scheme, we have the chance to work within the law, with the support of the state, and most importantly in the service of greater numbers of Turkish students in a broader range of social classes. We can also reach outside the main cities, thereby enriching our experience of the country and giving greater nobility to our work.

Breaking private schools' monopoly on English-speaking levels the playing field for the vast majority of Turkish students wishing to go to a good university. Therefore, by defending the current system (as in, no system) unions are defending the idea of educational resources as a luxury.

3) Lowering the impact of cheap-shot nationalism. I have very rarely been on the end of racist abuse in Turkey, which is one of the reasons I like living here. However, when discussing international affairs and foreigners from the safety of the third-person narrative, nationalism and xenophobia do tend to rear their ugly heads.

Mahfuz Yalçınkaya, Egitim Bir-Sen's press secretary, stated in Hürriyet that “there could be missionaries among the teachers, or they may have other goals like promoting their own culture.” The first claim has absolutely no basis, and if any Turkish student was receiving an alternative religious education, it would definitely not escape their, their classroom teacher's nor their parent's notice. This is not a concern.

As for “promoting their own culture,” well, I am not even sure what this means, but I imagine that from the union's perspective, this means our very presence in Turkey, in the service of Turkey, demonstrating that Westerners are real people who have no apparent innate desire to divide and weaken the republic (as appose to what Turkish textbooks aimed for 6-18-year-olds would have us believe).

If students graduating from Turkish high schools in the future do not live in a constant state of suspicion of foreigners' ulterior motives for being here, then perhaps they will realize all the more quickly that all of Eğitim Bir-Sen's previous arguments were ill-researched at best and posturing nationalist tripe at worst. Furthermore, these students will hopefully be offended by the assumption that they will run to the union's side just by being told that the foreigners are “back to their old tricks again.”

The very fact that this project requires public spending means it demands public scrutiny, but this plan will no doubt mean that students will gain a standard of English that won't leave those who desire it lacking education and job opportunities in the future. In the long run, this will serve Turkey's economic interests and improve its image in the world. It is also a chance for Turkish state education to make a massive leap forward in terms of language skills.

Maybe once that happens Egitim Bir-Sen can hire someone to email me back.


This was my second published article for Today's Zaman. Published 06/05/11

English Teachers and Teachers of English




This is a my first Zaman article. 16/03/10. It follows my impressions of the humility of Turkish teachers in the face of native speakers:

It is with a daunting feeling that one enters a new place of work, especially in a city in a country where one does not yet feel entirely at home.

As such, it is the coworkers’ duty to make sure their new colleague feels welcomed and immediately at ease in the new environment. Would you like çay?

Now, I’d only be repeating countless other expats were I to extol the merits of Turkish hospitality -- so let’s take that as a given and move on. Instead, I’d like to talk more about a more nuanced issue I have encountered here. Since arriving in Turkey almost a year ago, I have found it to be part of my job, upon face-to-face introductions, to comfort and reassure my Turkish counterparts in the language department. This is simply because more often than not they are severely more daunted by the prospect of having a native speaker present who will mark and grade their level of English.

They will introduce themselves: “I am an English teacher here,” they say (or sometimes “teacher of English” -- an odd phrase originating from the Turkish need to distinguish the language from the people). This would be straightforward enough, but I have found that this is almost immediately followed by the confession “but I mainly focus on grammar.” The nature of this subordinate clause is that of a defense mechanism. It is effectively a euphemism for “Please do not judge my English -- I’m only here to give the basics!”

Of course, this may only be a simple exercise in human courtesy, the implicit self-deprecation which is as common in Britain as anywhere else, but were I bold enough to tackle the hidden meaning directly, I would simply say, “Don’t panic.” We globe-trotting Anglophones do not come here expecting you to be versed in every one of the many irregularities, idiosyncrasies and plain contradictions inherent in the English language -- still less, every accent and dialect we use. This is a point that needs addressing via a comparison of the average Turk’s and the average Briton’s attitude to language learning.

Want and necessity

Many Turks will explain their less-than-Oxford-level English on the mind-numbing drilling techniques employed by their former teachers. “They focused too much on grammar,” I often hear, and to be fair to Turkey’s hardworking language department staff, this is not something that the teachers themselves are unaware of. However, the sheer number of examinations levied upon students from their very first year makes it almost impossible for them to deviate from linguistic dogma to be memorized for the week’s test paper (and forgotten in preparation for next week’s). Essentially, the onus is given to the teacher to teach well -- the desire to learn amongst the students is taken as fact.

In Britain the problem of teaching languages is of a different nature. Many Britons will blush when asked about their language learning abilities, but despite the fact that most secondary schools teach French and German, British teaching skills do not provide a scapegoat -- instead, it is the nation’s complete apathy toward the art of language learning that becomes the target. And note the wordage here -- it is considered an art.

French teachers in British schools are consistently undermined by the class clown (every class has one), who at various intervals between reciting “je vais, tu vas, il va, elle va” will pipe up and bemoan “Miss/Sir, why do we even have to learn French; everyone speaks English anyway.” This attitude used to boil my blood even as a student. For why on Earth, I thought, should one expect foreigners to learn our language if we don’t even have the common courtesy to attempt theirs? However, when I conveyed this story to a Turkish friend of mine, her answer was plain and obvious: “Yes,” she said, “Well he was right; why should you learn another language?”

In expecting her full agreement, I was making a very simple error -- the idea that English was our language. If that ever was the case, it certainly isn’t today. We live in a world where, if a German bank arranges to meet with its Czech-based counterpart, the meeting will be held in English -- regardless of both companies’ clearly superior knowledge of German. For any Turkish business with a Web presence, a page with an English translation can make the difference between boom and bust, and for those Turks looking to advance their careers closer to home (be it in the private or public sector), an English qualification is a highly sought asset, no matter how irrelevant to one’s line of work.

Essentially, English has become a lingua franca divorced of cultural context. It has catalyzed the world of economics, politics and social interaction in the unstoppable process of global integration. The class clown would duly note that this is likely to continue regardless of whether the British can count un, deux, trois.

The necessity is simply not there for us to learn, and thus language learning becomes a hobby for those with the time or money to pursue it, hence it’s class dimension.

Turkish students are more than aware of the benefits of English, and Turkish teachers know its study is a genuinely important one. Ask around any high school language class and the students will be ready to tell you their goals -- doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers (If these are mainstay goals and not whimsical dreams, then I fear Turkey will be overstocked with first-class surgeons in the next decade, not the worst problem a country can face). Their minds are focused on serious goals, which will keep them occupied with state evaluations well into their late 20s. Suffice to say that for teachers in Turkey, the pressure is on -- in a way that it really isn’t for language teachers in Britain.

Turkish students have no concept of learning a language for learning’s sake, which is what language learning has been reduced to in our country. It is not all work and no play. Many students are drawn in by American TV and music, but I generally feel that this just sugars the pill. To language learners and teachers from the Anglophone world, this is quite a shame. We have been brought up to consider language as something artistic thanks to the lack of necessity we have attached to it in our own countries, and we wish it was not constrained by the culture of point scoring and target setting preferred by education ministries, who even extend evaluations to the teachers themselves.

Thus, for the English teachers of Turkey (and the Turkish teachers of English), please understand that we humble English-speaking folk who arrive in your country as escape artists and open roaders, helping you in your studies in order to justify ourselves staying here longer, are not people of linguistic science who have come to check the machines, so to speak. We do not expect all English teachers to be perfect, as we are imbibed with the idea that language learning is an imperfect science that depends on one’s exposure to that language, and, however inaccurate our perception that our language is being utilized by the rest of the world just because we are the only ones useless at languages, it is this perception that means we have nothing but admiration for those who endeavor to learn and to teach it, even the boring grammar.

With English taking over more and more university departments as a language of instruction in Turkey and entrance exams giving the language even greater priority, the feeling of learning for necessity may be replaced by learning out of pure obligation, and it will be interesting to see how the Turkish language learning ethic evolves as a result.