Anti-Semitism and Shampoo

Some of the most inconspicuous things can become the source of polemics in Turkey. I've had people warn me against the evils of Islamist supermarkets, nationalist moustaches and imperialist, western birthday cakes. This month it's been shampoo. Well not the shampoo itself, rather the back-and-forth in the press specifically about the "Hitler commercial" promoting said shampoo on TV.

The short 15-second commercial shown on the right, aims to promote a men-only shampoo by showing archive footage of Hitler dubbed over in shouty, German-accented Turkish saying:

"You wouldn't wear a woman's skirt, so why use a woman's shampoo! Here it is, the 100% male shampoo, Bioman!" (pronounced "Be-A-Man," ha ha... ugh...)

The reaction has been mixed, but I'm inclined to say that although critics have been vocal, to the majority were either entertained or didn't bat an eyelid.

Most positive feedback on Youtube tended to focus on the fact that the advert took a brave step making light of such a serious hate figure.

One Turkish user expressed joy that Turkey was "not like other (countries) that live in fear. Actually, any time Turkey is the first that is free to do something is wonderful". Another user commented that "The ad is smart as it grabs your attention. Maybe there was a time when taking this man extremely seriously was called for, but nowadays he can be joked about quite easily. I'd like to have seen the same kind of mockery performed in the 30s and 40s".

However, not everyone could take the same relaxed position. The Chief Rabbinate of Turkey issued a press statement to condemn the advert as damaging to "society's conscience". According to Hürriyet daily, Chief Rabbi İshak Haleva said using Hitler, who massacred more than 6 million people – most of whom were Jews – in an advertisement for any reason is categorically unacceptable.

Despite some valid criticisms of folk like Norman Finkelstein, (author of the "Holocaust Industry") who argue that the Holocaust has been eched onto the global consciousness with the contemporary political motives of Israel in mind, it is contemporary political motives in Turkey which inspire the "let's break the mold and stop taking this seriously" back-lash against anything to do with the Holocaust.

Turkey has seen a rise in anti-semitism in recent years across the political spectrum. To the religious establishment this has come from opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but to secular Turks alerted by the ferocity of the Mavi Marmara attack supported by the former, the new anti-Semitism combines with the Kemalist passion for conspiracy theories - many of them homegrown.

"Bless your hands" is an expression used to thank someone who
has prepared you a meal. 
Due to recent football scandals, I've heard more and more the old cliche "there is no racism in Turkey". Again, from both sides this article of believe is held by those who would at the same time hold outrages opinions about Jews. Any accusation against which is instantly batted away by a statement affirming that the speaker is only concerned about Israel, or against capitalism or some-such.

Lip-service to political correctness seems to fall under little scrutiny. In Hatay last year I asked a book shop owner if "Mein Kampf", Hitler's racist prison diary/autobiography was selling alot, noting a vast new shipment piled up at the front of the shop. "Oh yes" he replied, indulging me with the explanation that although "he did some bad things, we can still say he was a very clever man".

Such statements dance around racism itself, but in the last year I have seen two students aged around 15-16 avidly reading a copy. Once I asked why, they simply told me they were curious, but when one considers the Stalinist rigidity in Historical interpretation taught in Turkish schools one should not assume a degree of critical thought appropriate to dissecting such a the book, especiailly in the current climate. Last week, I bumped into one of those students in the masjid. We were talking about how school was going when he joked that I should come and teach at his high school, as he always got away with not doing work in my class. I joked back, half-curious as to the response, that if I had him as a student again he wouldn't get away with anything I "will become Hitler" I said. He duly responded that if so, he would like that very much.

Other examples are plentiful, and more horrifying. One staunchly CHP friend in Izmir, who had even visited Auschwitz whilst inon a Poland trip, told me that Hitler "was right about them". A teacher in my school, showing a rare exemplary knowledge of Medieval European history and Jewish culture, concluded that "they cause trouble everywhere they go" and went on to explain, as I had heard that Saudi Arabian text books taught although hadn't quite believed, that the Jews come from monkeys! I may have blanked out the context but I also remember the phrase hain ırkı, "treacherous race" coming up more than once.

Racism, as Turks understand it, is a western concept tied-up with not-long dead Eugenics and Racial Darwinist theories and apartheid laws. In this sense, racism does not exist in Turkey. But in people's attitudes it is very much alive and well.

Racism is not how it used to be. When I first arrived in Turkey in 2008, the book "Children of Moses" by Ergün Poyraz was the number one paperback. The book explained how the leading members of the AKP were in fact crypto-Jews aiming to bring about the downfall of Turkey with the help of Israel. The crypto-Jew has, long before recent events, been ever-present in the minds of conspiracy theories in Turkey. Although staunch Kemalist Poyraz found himself locked-up in the Ergenekon investigation not long after, political Islamists in Turkey tend to throw the secret Jew accusation back to the other side by accusing Atatürk and his Salonican contemporaries of the same charge: Being Jews, and therefore most probably Masons.

The story is an interesting one. Anyone with an interest in Jewish history in the late Ottoman empire should have a look at Marc David Baer's book The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslims Revolutionaries and Secular Turks, which looks at the continuation of anti-Semitism through the early Republican era, and gives particular attention to the situation of the Dönmes, Jews who nominally converted to Islam and were sent to Turkey from Salonika during the population exchange. Despite the heroic work of some Turkish diplomats during World War II, such as Selahattin Ülkümen, these examples have been presented as exemplary Turkish statemenship  reminiscent of the Ottoman rescue operation to ship Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition,despite opposition from the state at the time.

Against this back-drop, the ironic, twenty-first century shock value of Hitler advertising Shampoo, should be judged. The advertisers themselves should have known this, although they themselves are probably dupped.


Foreigners of Istanbul Unite!

As I sat trawling through the job section of Craigslist last month, I couldn't help noticing an intriguing advert for an up-and-coming website, Yabangee.com. With the tag-line "Istanbul for expats, by expats" the site makes its aim pretty clear already.

The site is full of information about arts and music events, and newly opened quirk stores like the Lomography Embassy (pictured) on Serdarı Ekrem Street near the Galata. It also contains interviews with notable Levantines, including Kacie Kocher from Istanbul Hollaback - the anti-harassment awareness group.

When I e-mailed Thomas Bacon from the site, I made sure to thank his team for the wonderful creation. There are so many English-speaking foreigners in Istanbul with all linked together through mutual aquaintance, that it should be more than a token page in Today's Zaman and the James Joyce Irish pub keeping them together. With a speedy reply Thomas agreed a good yabanci community site was long overdue.

The site aims to include Book reviews / Film reviews / Art galleries / Expat travels / General advice / 'Life in Turkey as a foreigner'-type stories / Restaurant and bar reviews / 'Top 10' lists and many more ideas.

For the moment, the news feed is a little thin, whereas articles about events are plentiful. It's great to see events posted I'd never have found in similar Turkish sites or stiff, tourist-oriented sites like Time Out. All in all a great addition to Istanbul online, I look forward to seeing how the site evolves in the next few months, if not years.

picture snipped from the website itself.


Reform Needed in English Teaching

With a nice stock photo of a creepily well-behaved class, totally unconcious of the photographer, Zaman published my latest article complaining about the lack of movement on the proposed English language reforms from last year. The piece seems to have an attentive readership, and recieved comments respectfully disagreeing with the idea that natives are the key. I agree with those comments to the extent that a capable, indigenous staff of English teachers would be ideal, but to legislate against native teacher entry tends to hold back alot of potential, if we look at things from a school-by-school basis. Leave it up to the language departments of schools, and give them a wealth of options in assisting the kids and the staff, is my general concern. What do you think?

(Photo: Today's Zaman)

[Expat Voice] Reform still needed for teaching of English

Never mind the latest 4+4+4 reform plan -- Turkey's previous, much more modest educational reform proposal, specifically aimed at improving English-language learning, proposed to allow native English-speaking teachers to work in state schools without having to have Turkish citizenship. Turkey's poor rating in the English Proficiency Index this year makes it all the more clear that such reforms would go a long way toward increasing Turkey's language skills. However, as I discovered myself, reform is not that easy.
A year ago, I wrote a fierce defense of the government's proposals in Today's Zaman. I reasoned that allowing natives into the state was, and still remains, the logical answer to a number of complaints from teachers, students and native speakers like myself, unhappy being restricted to private schools.
By the end of the 2010-2011 school year, I had had enough of the demands of private schools and decided I wanted to go back to teaching average kids in a “normal” school. Although Turkish state education is certainly overdue for a shake-up itself, I looked at my earlier work as a Comenius-sponsored language assistant in an Anatolian high school as a paradise compared to my time dealing with the precocious brats of İstanbul's elite establishments. So then, the government having paved my way with an announcement that 40,000 native teachers would be hired, I arranged a visit to my local education authority in Bakırköy to apply for a job for next year.
If only it were that simple…

Sluggish bureaucracy, slothish reform

Having worked at that point in the private sector for a whole year, one thing I had forgotten about in dealing with state business was the grand civil service tradition of being sent with questions from one office to another, waiting for phone calls to be finished and assistant managers to arrive from lunch, only to later be sent back. After a sociable if mind-blowingly frustrating hour asking if I was eligible to work for the state, I finally got the answer I had been waiting for:
“We haven't heard of any such reforms, but it's best that you visit the head office of the greater municipality in Eminönü to find out for sure.”
That would require a day off school, I thought, so I asked if I could just call them. “You can, but…” With those words, the clerk had said enough. We simply exchanged a look that said “Burası Türkiye” -- “This is Turkey, so prepare for a wild-goose chase or forget it.”
Needless to say, I licked my wounds and returned to private teaching for another year. However, looking back, perhaps I was expecting too much too soon -- but I still felt let down. Then, a few months ago, I saw something that made me wonder if I should try again.

Turkey gets an ‘F'

In December 2011, the Hürriyet daily reported that out of the 44 countries ranked on this year's English Proficiency Index (EPI), Turkey came in at a dismal 43rd place -- just above Kazakhstan.
Such statistics should make the government think twice about its goal of transforming Turkey into a top-10 world economy by 2023. Indeed, without an informed public that can communicate, let alone trade, with the outside world, this is a rather lofty goal.

Private sector cannot fill void

The correlation between money and knowledge is something the EPI report highlighted as a “troubling trend” in many countries, and Turkey is no exception in this regard. Language teaching is verily dominated by the private sector -- private schools reserve the sole right to native teachers and thus monopolize a highly effective asset, for those who can afford the extortionate fees. A more common alternative to these are the “dershanes” -- or course centers, advertising English-language courses. Walking for 20 minutes in any direction around Bakırköy (İstanbul), Kızılay (Ankara) or Alsancak (İzmir) inevitably leads one past many of these highly profitable institutions.
When I asked dershane instructor David St. Jean why he thought Turkey's index rating was so low, he criticized the high cost of dershanes, which in any case teach to an insufficient standard. In an example of how much the dershanes exploit the deficiencies of the Turkish education system for all they can earn, David said: “When I do exams, the students always ask me if they will pass the level. I tell them that if they have the money to pay for the next level, they will pass … there are schools on every corner [and] none of them are doing anything different from the other.” A troubling trend, indeed.
It would be easy, perhaps, to suggest that money is at the root of the problem and that the well-off are unaffected by the lack of reform -- but this would only be true if having a private education or applying to a dershane guaranteed a good knowledge of English.
However, standards are low. According to Duygu Çandarlı, a masters student of English language education at Boğaziçi University, teachers “are not qualified enough to apply communicative language teaching in English classes,” in both private and state institutions. One native private school teacher I spoke to, Benjamin Burger, told me that his Turkish colleagues' “knowledge of grammar outshines their comprehension abilities. They could tell me the past participle to anything, but they don't know ‘what's going on?'”

Looking to solutions

One thing is certain: The state has an important role to play. For now, with little competition from the state, coupled with massive demand for English-language skills, private companies with no concern for education have free rein to nakedly profiteer from the inadequacies of the system. As for those who cannot afford either, English skills can pave the way for university and beyond.
I tend to agree with the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), in that importing foreigners is only one way to improve things. The introduction of natives must be included in a more general overhaul of the system's approach to language learning -- teaching English from the first-grade level rather than middle school, for example, makes English less of a chore for children later on.

Maybe next year?

Today I logged on to the Ministry of Education's website and called human resources to ask if there were any plans to allow foreigners to teach in the state next year. The first clerk I contacted had no idea where I got her number but told me the plans I had read about last year had been stopped. Luckily, she gave me another number to dial for more information. After being passed from one clerk to another five times, the phone was answered by someone only introduced to me as “the director.”
What department he directed I had no idea, but I like to think I was speaking to the education minister himself, after half an hour of constant redirections. I explained my intentions, my experience in the state and the reports I had read, then went on to ask if the implementation of the plan looked possible within a year.
In any case, the official, elegant, calming voice told me my wild-goose chase was over. I finally got the answer I had been searching for. Needless to say, I am licking my wounds again.


The Cat Hostel

The Cat Hostel is how my apartment block, and my apartment in particular, is refered to by the feline population of Bakırköy.

The setting of the building itself is ideal for the cat who enjoys the finer things. We are surrounded by a grassy garden on the back and sides, replete with small trees. This backs onto an enormous human graveyard which is closed most of the week, thus making it an exquisite marble maze that stretches for (cat) miles. The apartment itself is located in a one way cul-de-sac and is surrounded by a concrete ditch on all sides, built for the purpose of allowing sunlight to seep in for us saps on the bottom floor. This ditch is sheltered from rain by the balconies of the apartments above.

"I'm sure this guy won't mind being late for work 
tomorrow, or having his bed pissed on as a thank
you for feeding my children"
Needless to say our cat Şeyma is having a ball here. She goes in and out when she pleases, barely bothered by the hum-drum affairs of other cats. In fact, it's quite funny to compare cat cultures in different areas. British cats are pretty territorial, patroling outside their owners' gardens only up to as far as the next cat's territory. In Istanbul it seems, even the cats have to compromise the lack of space, and so groups of cats in one area tend to get along as a group, mirroring the way the local humans will simply pretend each-other don't exist even if this results in their inevitable collision in the middle of a busy street.

Şeyma may have thought herself lucky to be here, but not as much as the heavily pregnant cat who crept into my open window while I was sleeping, sneaked into the bottom of my wardrobe and gave birth to six kittens. Yes it did happen.

I woke up last Thursday and noticed a tiny grey/white face poking out at me. "Get the hell out" I said nonchalantly, opening the window further and pointing. I imagined she might be put of darting out to make her escape with me still in the room, so went off to brush my teeth and came back. "Still there?" I said, looking down. Just as I was about to shoo her out, I crouched down and lo and behold, six tiny, blind, fumbling creatures were clinging to her brest. 

Dumbfounded, I simply contented myself to feed her and deal with it later, but her position made it impossible to get her out without getting scratched to shreds but with imediately set to work on a new home...

Make A Cat Yuva

Other cats started gathering outside, as if they knew all about the commotion last night trying to find a place for the mother to give birth, and were somehow involved. Well this hostel was closing, but the wooly liberal I am, I don't have the heart to throw a single mother and several babies onto the street. So I made a yuva, or nest. If you are in the same situation as me and need a solution, this should help:

All you need is:

1) A box (0.5 metre sq.)
2) A roll of tape
3) Some old newspapers
4) An old rag

I won't patronise you with the details - just use your imagination, but if you can't even do that, I hope the following pictures might help inspire...