18/10/2011

The Left in Turkey: What's Going On Elsewhere

The general manager of the school recently probed me on my choice of facebook link - a Guardian article about the Occupy Wall Street and other global anti-globalisation-and-stuff movements:

Ömer: What do you think about anti-capitalism protests? Where is it going? Pazar, 20:24 · BeğenBeğenmekten Vazgeç
Liam Murray: this is happening in new york, washington, rome and athens, but i think it isalso the effect of the arab spring too. in the west, this is the latest product of twenty years of greed at the top level of society and increasing poverty at the bottom level. this time protest has more success because it is not from one particular ideology and there is no leader. should be interesting to see what happens! 18 saat önce · BeğenBeğenmekten Vazgeç · 1 kişi


Another friend, just off-the-boat and tying to get familiar with political trends here, wondered if anything like this had been going on in Turkey. Protests for various causes are ceaseless, mostly come to naught as they do in any country, hence my wariness of getting too excited about the latest American protest movement - although I was equally skeptical about the Tea Party and the 'internet revolution', so I've been proven wrong before.

The Americans in Istanbul are convinced information is being suppressed by a media betrothed with business interests. A quick scan of American news sites seems to hint at this, even the Huffington is failing expectations.
In Turkey, the religious press are mentioning it briefly as blowback from Tahrir Square, whilst Vatan bizarrely seemed too busy drawing parallels between the protesters' demands and the Ottoman taxation system to make any in-depth analysis, whilst this piece itself was seemingly good enough for centre-left daily Radikal to copy and paste it onto their own site. Little wonder no-one has a clue what's going on. Who even cares.

However, it is those friends amongst the Turkish left who have taken the least notice regarding proceedings, almost less than they did the Arab Spring and the Greek riots - both leaderless, populist movements reminiscent of the leftist anti-parliamentary opposition riots of the 60s, and both on the very borders of Turkey!

Anti-Globalisation in Turkey


Nationalism and socialism both being powerful political forces in Turkey to this day (anyone who contends with the current government directs criticism through either one ideology), Turkey can afford to be quite smug about itself for having staved off whole-sale free market liberalism for so long, especially having sat at the gates of the European Union (and what's more, Greece) for so long, only to have come out of the crises as regional winners.
It is the lack of smugness though, that is most admirable. This stems from various factors, part-humility, part-sympathy and, I suspect, part-learned anxiety; economic and political winds have a habit of blowing eastwards, and Turkey has never been so far from turmoil. People are really not used to this.
Globalisation, the blurring of national boundaries and lessening of state power are taught as anathema from a young age here. Semi-spiritual “Social Science classes” are required by the curriculum for promoting national ideology, plus “National Defence classes” are taught by professional soldiers who enter schools. However, this does not translate as anti-capitalism, as a threatening borderless ideology, and certainly doesn't mean that such movements draw a wide and varied crowd, at least in our day and age.

The Alienation of the Left

Socialism in Turkey certainly retains a very inward-looking, national flavour, and more disappointing than that, hasn't moved on from the 1950s, has failed to join up with liberal thought, pluralism, environmentalism or non-essentialist feminism and has failed to broaden its scope and adapt its ideology. In fairness, with all the coups, state-sanctioned killings and wholesale massacres it hasn't really been given the chance to blossom on what would otherwise be fertile ground.

On 1st May this year I walked alongside many groups flying the flag of the left on the march to Taxim Square, site of CIA/MIT massacre on leftist activists in the 1970s. I didn't make it all the way to though. Why bother, after all; the crowd formed an alphabet soup of twenty leftist groups worthy of a Monty Python homage. According to former members of the ODP, these groups care for nothing but turn-out figures, and often coerce friends and acquaintances to appear once a week at meetings for the purpose of boasting higher numbers than other leftist groups. They meet and dissect Marx (no-one could dispute the great leader) and in effect, continue to fossilise their ideology by dragging it further to the fringes of modern political discourse, keeping it under lock and key in the university like a teenage boy worried radio might start to like the band he discovered. "Your not even a real fan," is the message to the masses.

Luckily the May protest didn't turn into a street battle. It has only been a year since demonstrations became permissible in Taksim Square – the vibrant heart of Istanbul. Although this was announced as one of the government's democratic reforms, it also demonstrates a consensus among leaders on just how little a threat the radical left actually represents to the system. The left seem little aware of this in the excitement of being allowed out without a curfew, and still think marching with flags and Che Guevara t-shirts is worth it without connecting with the public at large.
The anarchy that ensues in protests around the country, particularly last week in Ankara where the various groups with interchangeable uniforms, facial hair and flags continue to alienate the public who rightly perceive them to be rebels without a cause. This gives the police a certain amount of sympathy, and mandate to abuse, which in turn, only gives the left something to complain about, forming a convenient distraction to any deep thought about how socialism can answer the problems of the 21st century.

Without the Soviet realpolitikal threat, all governments - Turkey just one of many - have got used to not having to take socialism too seriously. It has meant that cuts can be made, union rights can be curtailed and the cream of society can get away with tax evasion, fraud and bribery on a national scale - something they were fine doing as long as the money seemed to trickled down enough. This lack of taking the alternative too seriously may even be the cause of my natural ambivalence.

This recent bout of movements has been a little in the way of inspiration from Egypt, joined with a more general western reaction to marketisation being pushed to its limits by the economic slump. I think it will take more than a few tents to make permanent changes in the system, but I have been proven wrong before.

10/10/2011

Another School Year Starts...

I have not had the time or motivation to write for the last month. But that's all going to change, I promise. It was PC World's job to give my laptop a free 'health check-up' and general clean-out while I was in England, I don't know what their intentions were, but since entering Turkish territory the laptop has sat in a coma under my desk unable to switch-on.

At the time of writing the school year is three weeks in. A number of changes have unsettled me and brought serious questions to my mind about what I'm supposed to be doing here anyway. This was an internal debate I had had whilst in England but didn't rush into any conclusion. Well it's dawning on me that maybe I knew what to do, I just didn't want to take the risk to think of anything else to do until it was too late. I've now been pushed into action.



Nightmare Class

In the last school year I had the 'nightmare class' twice a week. The nightmare class was made up of fifteen or so 5th grade boys. Granted I haven't any experience in single-sex schools, but I see mixed-gender as having a calming effect on boys. Girls' far more rapid growth of maturity has a kind of civilising effect on their male counterparts who would otherwise (our 5th grade as a case in point) be dancing on the tables. I tried everything to calm that class down but unfortunately I think my visably young age and none-Turkishness was the main disabling factor as it always is, even in none-extreme cases. That, and the fact they were, as a collective unit at least, just awful kids.

As my discipline techniques fell one by the other I got so wore down that for a week I decided to appeal to the masses: The old Roman bread and games format kept my sanity from going astray. Simply replace 'bread' with 'films' and you have a teachers' guide book to splendid isolationism. Except that the crowds wanted more. Every lesson upon entry it was the same; "Watch film, watch film... teacher, watch film!" Eventually I cracked. "Watch a film you say?" "Yeess, watch film please teacher". I grudgingly conceded to the wild screams of the crowd who were still busy adjusting their chairs to get a view of the monitor when they realised I had took their commands literarly and was sat at my desk watching Indiana Jones on the laptop for the next half an hour.

The next classes were full of alot of resentment on my part. I was done - which is a shame to say what with every child being special ect ect, but then i'm only human and took it personally - the other classes were doing fine. Only one thing made the situation barable: I would be working for the high school next year, a fact I would regularly rub in their faces to incit some guilt.

The Discontent Mounts

Why do I mention all this? Well it is relevant to how I feel today because during the summer that light was snatched away from me in an extraordinary but every-day example of politics and misinformation in the Turkish workplace.

I had gone across the city to check with the general manager regarding the certainty of my coming position at the high school (as apose to working in the kindergarden and primary). His support was confirmed, depending on what the principles and others decided. The head of English in the high school, the eminent Hale hanim, also confirmed her support so it was a suprise when my work mediator (or 'meddler', invariably), Oguzhan, showed up at my house as I was packing up to leave for England during the school holidays.

"Firstly, you will have to go to a few meetings next year - they want that." Fair enough, I thought - the feeling that if everyone was going to stay behind an hour a week, I should be no exception was palpable when I had to cheekily sneak in and out of one meeting to collect my bag. My Turkish is good enough that I can have a half-decent conversation with the other teachers, so who are they to know that it is rather too testing to have a solid fifty minutes of Turkish listening on the topic of new books, programme changes and 'which room is best to have the next meeting in.'

"Secondly," Oguzhan continued, "They want you to stay in the primary." "What?" I exclaimed, you mean all my threats to 5B would have been a lie? What followed was a typical example of the uselessness of any notions of freedom of information in Turkey. Information more often than not, conflicts.

The Wild Goosechase

According to Oguzhan I was not given the job because they have classes full of girls and they were worried they might be attracted to me. Proposterous. 'What kind of guy do they think I am' and such thoughts aside, there was no girls' class - it is a mixed school of mixed classes.

I immediately e-mailed the predictably frank head of high school language department asking if it was true.

"Actually, new primary school principle Yunus hoca doesn't want any other native but you. So as far as I know there will be a new native teacher for high school. But I don't know who he/she is yet. So you'll be in primary school next year."

Ah, of course, the only boss I'd ever loved, Hamit Yolcu, had taken his moustachio'd smile and beaming eminence to Sivas to begin teaching religion and give up to stoic elitist culture of high-ranking private school officials which he alone seemed to have never been affected by anyway. I was going to miss him, but Yunus was aimable enough, despite being a strict teacher, who I had worked with whilst he was a class teacher for 'the good' 5th grade class. I decided to e-mail Yunus asking why the decision had been made and expressing my shock, although being British I didn't directly imply guilt on his part. Sometimes I wish I wasn't born on that tiny island of diplomats because subtlty just doesn't work everywhere. He simply replied;

Haberim yok Liam... Ama yoneticilere sorarim, hayirli ramazanlar...

In other words:

I don't know nothing... I only work here... I might ask someone that has a bigger title than me but I probably won't. Have a nice ramadan.

I might have spiced up the vocabulary bur the translation is more accurate than you might think. So I took all of this information back to Oguzhan, giving him a chance to go back on the whole girl/boy divide arguement which was based on wild conjecture.

His reply:

Students are all girls. They do noot want them to fall in love with a teacher like you. Funny. Handsome.

My reply:

Your very kind, but what about classes with boys? Can't they fall in love with women teachers even more easily? It just makes me think they don't think I could handle it. And especially after the recommendations it wasn't nice.

His reply:

Oh yes, he didn't reply. That was it, although it has been some comfort to have got my friend Shabnam to work here. More on that next update.