31/07/2012

"I Hope There's Not Another Linching Tonight"


Hürriyet daily's Ahmet Hakan probably put it best for all of us by tweeting that simple wish.

Up until yesterday afternoon, I had no idea what had occurred in the villages just outside Malatya in the East. Idly clicking around facebook updates and hum-drum newsfeeds however, I began to suspect there had been some kind of development in the struggle for Turkey's ten million-strong Alevis to gain formal recognition for their religion, or 'belief' depending on where you stand. 

A gathering was taking place. The Alevi facebook groups were rallying their supporters slightly fiestier than usual, with statements such as

"We will go to Taksim, and march against those fascists who ask why we are not fasting and call us 'Infidelous!" 

Well, it looked like I would be going to Taksim. But I still had no idea what had sparked the sudden outburst. And then it all became sorely clear...

The "Ramadan Attack"

It started simply enough. In the village of Sürgü, just outside the Eastern city of Malatya (itself, a town with a vast Alevi demographic), a man with a drum started banging away outside someone's house at four in the morning. 

Was he a madman? A drunk? A Hari Krishna, even? Not at all. During the month of Ramadan, where the observant are advised to get up and have a bite to eat before sunrise, drumming people awake is considered not so much a tradition as a vital service for the community - a spiritual alarm clock with no snooze button. However, those not observing fasting would not quite agree. Cue the Alevi family. 

Alevis do not observe fasting in Ramadan, in line with other Muslim sects, rather they fast for twelve days during the month of Muharram. This information was lost on the village drummer in Sürgü as he had made a habit of stopping directly outside an Alevi family's house beating his drum for the village to hear. A member of the family, went out to request the drummer not beat directly outside there house as they had work in the morning and weren't fasting anyway. I'm not sure how diplomatic anyone not fasting could be to a beating drummer outside their window in the early hours of the morning, but to cut a long story short, an argument broke out. The fight started to involve neighbours, and pretty soon, in the words of Veli Ağbaba the local govenor, “between 300 and 500 people" arrived, some 50 identified as being from surrounding villages. As you can see from the video, fortunately the family were unharmed, but they were terrorised and threatened throughout the morning as "Kurds" and "Alevis". Their barn was burnt down and the windows of their house were smashed repeatedly with stones in what the media are calling "The Ramadan Attack".

No Strangers to Abuse

Alevis experience this kind of thing intermittently, hence why, despite there large numbers, they are extremely secretive about their identities and practises, which are out of step with traditional Islam on both the Sunni and Shi'a side of things. 

They have suffered greatly in the Turkish Republic, which even in its ultra-secularist beginings  sought to assimilate them as a form of cultural centralisation. This was performed at various stages, through education reforms, the emergences of a strictly Sunni identity in the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and the state's incessant refusal to recognise the community as a seperate religious group. 

The latter point is particularly problematic as, despite the presence of foundations operating in their own private buildings, and the fact of ten million tax-paying Alevis in the country, there in no state construction or licencing of their places of worship, or Cemevis. As far as journalist, Ahmet Hakan is concerned, the matter is absurdly simple: Taking the Alevi line of argument he states "they don't called our places of worship 'places of worship'... They have a great big mosque in parliament, but when we wanted a room, they said no". This, at almost no benefit to national unity, as seen by events such as this.

Alevis are thus a group apart in the Turkish state, leading to their strong identification with socialism in the 1970s. This relationship brought them even more enemies and lead to bloodshed in both Kahraman Maraş (1978) and Sivas (1993). Events which remain strong in the minds of millions.

The Solidarity Marches

At eight o' clock last night in Taksim Square, all the usual protest groups were there, the main opposition CHP's youth wing, the Kurdish BDP and the socialist ÖDP, together with Alevis waving flags and symbols of support. As the athaan was called to end the fast, the crowd began chanting and taking to the streets in an atmospheric display. 

However, I noted that the groups amassing were an expected, though none-the-less uneasy collective. For instance, the CHP main opposition leader Kılıçdaroğlu had only last week declared that "Alevism is a belief, it is a part of Islam" - A statement which implies heavily that there would remain no formal recognition of the group under a CHP leadership - which still leaves Alevis out in the cold. But they were there to march anyway. 

"Freedom for Cemevis" - This woman from the Socialist
Worker's Party was not impressed by the opportunism of
the opposition.
ın fact, to any outsider, it looked as though the CHP were leading the protest itself, but I noticed that once they passed, there was a space between them and the rest of those gathered. Darting to the behind, I thus put my concerns to the woman from the Socialist Workers' Party, asking her about the presence of parties with mixed messages. After being kind enough to give me the picture on the right, she told me"they are just here to chant against the government. The CHP are two-faced"

Another man sporting a placard for the pro-Kurdish, Peace and Democracy (BDP) Party, was bluntly polemic, saying nothing more than "I am here, because I am against the AKP". A similar impression was gleaned from the ÖDP socialist students, holding up naffly-translated banners inscribed "Made in AKP", which could have been reserved for any protest. 

Who, I wondered, was here on behalf of the Alevis, let alone the Malatya family themselves? I wondered.

Then, a more humble response, from a man claiming to have tagged along with a CHP friend at the front. When I put it to him that Kılıçdaroğlu's words earlier in the month made it odd for the CHP to take so suddenly to the cause of the Alevis, he simply said, "these kind of things can't be allowed to go on, I'm here to show support for humanity".

In the thick of it were a group of young Alevi men holding up a banner with the familiar silhoette logo of Pir  Sultan Abdal, the legendary founder of the Alevi movement. They were busy raising their hands and chanting "We Are Against Fascism, Shoulder to Shoulder", which sounds alot better in the original Turkish. One of them told me that "Sultan Abdal was a song-writer many years ago, and a symbol of resistance against fascism for us". 

Reading the works and life of Pir Sultan Abdal, one sees an inspiring figure revelling in frustrating the authorities of his day. It is easy to see why Alevis treasure the outsider identity they have had to adjust to. 

For many years they have been throwing stones from the sidelines at the way their culture has been suppressed by the state. However, these stones have bore no relation to the physical stones thrown at defenceless family homes in the East. To many from the Alevi community, these events are a reminder that recognition is the key to genuine tolerance in today's Turkey, and may be the only way to provide peace of mind that the Sivas and Maraş will not be repeated.

23/07/2012

Poetry: Ahmet Ümit


High on a wave of cheer having just received my official certificate in Upper Intermediate Turkish, I have been poking around book stores, libraries, friend’s bookshelves and rubbish bins outside schools, all in order to get that next big linguistic high. Just one more hit. 

I am thus, currently being starred at from every corner of the room by books that do nothing but make me feel bad for reading them. I finish a whole two pages successfully, until the alarm is triggered by an extended metaphor. “You shouldn’t be here, should you sir?” the book frowns. They don’t call them conceits for nothing. I look to the floor, mumble “it’s the book that’s stupid, not me” and close it for the week, moving on to another text.

I’m just going to have to push through the pain barrier – with the Turkish course over, it’s back to the good old-fashioned technique of one man and his dictionary - together with a collection of short poems by Ahmet Ümit.

Sokağın Zulası (The Street’s Secret Cache) was published last year by the writer, famous mostly for his police novels and theatre, including the very intriguing-sounding period police piece, Killing the Sultan (2012). In fact, Ümit began his development as an artist by writing poetry in the mid-1980s, The Street’s Secret Cache being his first published work in 1989. However, in an interview with CNN Türk, where Ümit comes across as nothing but an exceedingly nice man, he refutes the idea that the book was simply a re-release in 2011, as there were many additional poems included from later in his life.

Ümit’s poetry covers a large period and deals with many themes, including the turbulent politics of the 1980s and 90s, leaving his hometown for the city, love, and some poems written for his young daughter. In the writer’s words, the book is simply “an adventure into humanity”.

Below I have attempted to translate İlkbahara Doğru, a nice descriptive poem containing the beautiful line, "What if I should remain a bud? But, what if I were to bloom?". I haven't got into the fuller meaning of Ümit's spring, but I guarentee this poem is not a one-dimensional ode to the seasons. 

Poetry is an odd thing to translate, and without having a native speaker over my shoulder I feel like there is a great deal that I’m probably missing, but this is a first attempt. If you could improve this poem then place a comment at the bottom. I have written the Turkish original underneath.

On the Way to Spring

The sun's beams bounced off the leaves,
Dried up have autumn’s rueful droplets,
In the dawn lay its first summer love.
Rising just to go crazy,
Waiting for a sign from above.
Life was prepared to explode
On the path to spring.
What if I should remain a bud?
But, what if I were to bloom?
From your hair glistened an opalescent light,
That swept away the danger of the shimmering steeps,
Before it a stary eternity
A bit stale now, it can’t be turned back,
Her heart overflowed,
Stirring with the arching waves:
Suddenly,
Covered in blander tones,
Remembered as an average flower on a bland tableaux

İlkbahara Doğru

Güneş ışıklarıyla yapraklarında yansıyan,
Kurumuştu sonbaharın hüzünlü damlaları,
Şafağında ilk yaz sevdasının.
Çılgınlaşmak için doğa,
Bir işaret bekliyordu gökyüzünden.
Yaşam patlamaya hazırlanıyordu
Bahar yollarında.
Tomurcuk mu kalsam?
Çiçek mi olsam? Derken,
Saçlarından yakalayıp rengârenk bir rüzgâr,
Sürükledi ışıltılı uçurumun kıyısına,
Baktı ki önü yılıdızlı bir sonsuzluk
Arkası geri dönülmeyecek denli bayat,
Taştı yüreği,
Karışıyordu ki yalımlanan dalgalara,
Ansızın,
Siradan renklerle donanmış,
Sıradan bir tablonun
Uysal bir çiçeği olduğunu anımsadı.

20/07/2012

Ramadan in July: Shit Got Real.

So it's that time of year where the writing gets a little revealing: The month of Ramadan.

The holy month has crept up once again. For the last few years it has straddled August and September, thus delaying school start-dates for up to a cool two-three weeks. However, all ain't pretty anymore as the lunar calander, spinning as it is, away from its Gregorian counterparts like a pair of cogs in a great Victorian machine, has deemed fasting this year to fall right in the middle of summer in the northern hemisphere. 

With a little overlap here-and-there, I have always fasted at home in England. England has longer sunlight hours than Turkey (even if they are shielded behind a grey vomit sky), but those days are not accompanied by blistering heat such as that in Marmaris and Adana last week. Those cities saw temperatures as high as 57C! I take my hat off to anyone who can go out in those temperatures without water.

Luckily Istanbul won't see heat like that, but the difference will only be slight. Anyway, the challenge to disipline my body in the difference between what is neccessary and what it craves, in the name of God, is noble and fulfilling enough to make a pansy out of the sun's burning rays... Although, we'll see long that attitude lasts...

One advantage to fasting in Turkey I refuse to count however, is the oft-commented notion that I won't be alone in the struggle. Fasting in England was perfectly fine, and being surrounded by people who are not fasting has never upset me in the slightest. In fact, I have always seen it as a great advantage in itself, heightening your awareness and increasing your resolve, plus nulifying the arrogance that can infiltrate your mind and make you fell 'holier than thou'.

Such sentiments can lead to events such as those last year in Erzurum, where one woman was attacked in the street by two people for smoking a cigarette. Although if you read the story, it sounded like what it was - a snobby, self-declared modern, Turkish couple knowingly grinding the gears of a snobby, faux-sensitive conservative one, we have to take into account the fact that this event occured one week into Ramadan. I expect to miss smoking a hell of a lot in the next week, and they say the crux point occurs between 3-7 days sans fumer. So please don't judge me wrong if you read of a similar altercation occuring between a westerner and a Turkish national somewhere in Bakırköy this week, I swear I'm not the Islamist nut-case the media will unjustifiably paint me, I just needed a smoke!

At three o' clock this morning the muezzin began the call. I took a last sip of water, dosed out my cigarette and emptied the gin onto the lawn. Yes, I've not been good in the run-up to the month. 

In January, I declared that this year would be the end of drinking for me, but I've fallen prey about ten times, including last night, blasphemously enough. I didn't plan on becoming single with the holy month in mind, neither did I deem it culturally obligatory to drink after a lost relationship. Ramadhan cuts right into whatever else is going on in your life, and never waits for you to get stuff out 'of the way'. In the end, you are happy it came in and shook you back into reality, showing you what aspects of your life were neccesary, and what were just things you craved.

06/07/2012

The Frustrations of Working Life in Turkey

Picture courtesy of Demotix
It is one of those curious cultural-linguistic ironies that Turkish has no direct word for "frustrating".


Before you say it, yes, sinir bozucu - literally "nerve-shattering"  - is a close fit, but that doesn't count because it is an idiomatic expression, stupid. Nevertheless, working in Turkey is probably one of the most frustrating things in the world most of the time. Be it payment errors, late payments, mis-information, changing contracts, broken holiday promises or sneaky bosses calling each-other to guarentee you have no-where to run, everyone has a story.

Many a Western diplomat from the days of yore, even, constantly complained in their annals about the 'dastardly Turk'. Alfred Dwight Foster Hamlin, an American architect commenting on the Treaty of Lausanne once famously snubbed Turkish independence as "worthless and the Turks untrustworthy." 

That might be rich, given the imperial powers spent most of the hundred years leading up to Turkish independence pulling the empire apart through stealth, by being worthless and untrustworthy. In fact they were so good at being worthless and untrustworthy that by the end of the First World War they had pulled Istanbul itself right from under the "untrustworthy" Turks' pointy slippers. But I disgress...

This attitude has not, unfortunately, been completely erased. I've often heard statements such as, "I love the Turks, but I would never do business with one". Whether looking for a plumber, or starting a company - people who have been burnt here have readily retreated to primitive stereotyping, but what they don't understand how "political", in terms of human relationships, everything is here - whether it is business, friends, politics or anything else, and it has taken me a while to come to terms with this fact, but life can be pretty serious, and no part of life is more cut-throat than business. 

However, before going into the implications of this, allow me to indulge you on another piece of linguistic irony: The word "naive" had to be imported to the Turkish language, but even then, it retained none of the same implications it has in European languages. Rather than "easily beguiled", it means sensitive or fragile.

In other words, niavity is simply not a luxury available. In fact, being unaware is such a faux-pas that Elif Shafak once observed the sentence "I don't know" as being a taboo statement in Turkey. 

My advice to foreigners here would, simply put, be "be street-smart", but I must follow that up by saying (equally) "don't be a prick". I have learnt the joys of being frank about problems, but at the same time, being patient and understanding of employers is a must. Others fail to combine their directness with patience or sympathy and make bitter enemies - which is particularly dangerous for further employment, not to mention their personal reputation. 

Observing foreign teachers when I first came to Istanbul, I was repulsed. They attended staff meetings and job interviews with all the attitude and unabashed arrogance of a seasoned tourist (or "traveller" as they would insist on being called) screaming down the price of a five lira coffee-mug at the Grand Bazaar

In a way, I get it, and I've been told a thousand times. A Persian friend of mine once laughed at my readiness to sit down for a cup of tea with anyone who invited me into their shop, saying "This is the East, Liam - when people are nice to you, they always want something in return". Turkish friends say similar things to me at work. In fact, on my first teaching job, I was told to be careful about being to nice and taught a powerful expression: "If you give them a hand, they will take an arm". However...

Things could be worse

Things could be worse, and they are worse - for Turks that is. This is something that should not be forgotten by those foreigners quick to re-live some good old-fashioned Orientalist racism.

The workers at my local bakal often don't have change for twenty liras, and they work twelve-hour shifts. My local barman back in Izmir worked 10am - 1am every day. Private school teachers, and female teachers in particular, can expect to make only three-quarters the average wage of a foreign teacher at the absolute most. Every teacher is contracted for only one year, meaning that when asked "are you staying on next year?", the reply from a Turkish teacher is almost always "we'll see what they say in July" - otherwise they are on their own. The state can only take as many as are needed to fill school places in the Titantic evacuation that is the Ministry of Education's annual quota announcement. 

As for blue-collar workers, the situation is even more dire. They are handing out leaflets all over Bakırköy square and many other places right now, to protest against the recent Turkish Airlines scandal. After a parliamentary commission just voted in favour of a law to abolish aviation workers' right to strike, the aviation workers' union called for a general slow-down of work in airports, causing delays and cancellations in protest of the outrageous move. In return, the administration fired 150 of the strikers. This is just a sign of things to come. As the BBC's Turkey correspondent Johnathan Head rightly pointed out a few years ago - "Prime Minister Erdogan is more of a Margaret Thatcher than an Ayatollah Khomeini" - and that would be a pretty dud election indeed.

So furious and total is Turkey's drive for privatization, that resources are hard fought over. The West is currently in a slow state of recovery since its economic crash a few years ago. Turkey has crashed three times in the last twenty years, and thus, in the words of automobile company Ford Otosaniye's boss in a recent interview, has as such, learnt to be frugal with its resources. Let's hope this attitude has not caused it to be frugal with its working rights too, or the mistrust and deceit will only increase.