Turks have a saying that when you learn a second language, you become a new person – and I can confirm that living in Turkey and learning the language has given me an alternative way of viewing the world.
I am constantly having to explain to my students at the university that many of the things they want to say in English are unfortunately untranslatable from their native language. Take for example, the phrases that roll comfortably off a Turk’s tongue to grease the wheels of everyday social intercourse: the phrases you utter when sitting down for a meal, or rising from the table; or when someone else is picking up the tab, or when someone else has done the cooking; the words you address to someone emerging from the shower, or the hairdresser’s salon; the sympathetic phrase directed to people who are working when you arrive on the scene, and a host of other everyday situations that require creative inspiration from a native English-speaker, or an a-social silence.
And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. I am reminded of words I wrote in my first post when I began this blog six years ago:
“Historical events, dates and personages are one aspect of the construct of the world that we all carry with us. But there is another, less overt, perhaps more powerful force shaping our judgments of other peoples and races: the proverbial wisdom, folk knowledge and cultural assumptions that we inhale with the air of the society in which we grow up and receive our education. So Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun have such a basic existence in the consciousness of Western minds that no knowledge of history is necessary to conjure up images of marauding barbaric hordes sweeping out of the Asian steppe, laying waste all in their path like an invasion of killer bees.
“When I learned that the principal of my school, a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman of scholarly bearing was called Genghis, it required in me a shift of mental gears. Hearing also that Attila was the name of that polite, hand-raising, homework-doing young lad in my year 9 class was a further surprise for which my Euro-centric upbringing had not prepared me.”
Whose interests does it really serve to keep these racial and ethnic stereotypes alive? The government of Turkey has taken a good deal of stick in the media at home and abroad recently because one of their pilots shot down a Russian military aircraft. Of course it’s not a nice thing to do to a neighbour, and some are calling it a gratuitous act of aggression – which is absolute nonsense, even if it were possible for any act to be truly gratuitous. I am as sure as I can be that the government of Turkey has no desire to start a war with Russia – or anyone else for that matter. I am equally certain they wouldn’t have taken out that Russian plane without getting the go-ahead from Uncle Sam.
Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Republic of Turkey, had this to say on the subject of war:
“[It] can only be just or justified if it is fought out of sheer necessity or for reasons of national defence, or pursued by a people awaiting their sovereignty, their very lives depending on it.” And the nation he founded has done a pretty good job of following that creed in the 92 years of its existence.
The United States government makes use of a military base, Incirlik, in the south east of Turkey. George Dubya Bush was desperate to use it in his 2003 invasion of Iraq, and to have the active participation of Turkish troops. After his initial talk of a ‘crusade’, he quickly realized the whole nasty business would look a lot better if a Muslim country was involved in the ‘Coalition of the Willing’. Unfortunately for him, the Turks didn’t cooperate – and I’m prepared to bet there are a few others who now wish they hadn’t been so willing.
In fact, when the current AK Party government came to power in 2002, they pursued a foreign policy they were describing as ‘Zero Problems with Neighbours’ – for which they were roundly mocked and criticized in certain circles. Unfortunately Turkey has now been dragged into the chaos embroiling several countries on their south-eastern border, particularly Iraq and Syria. While attempting to do their NATO duty and assist their Western allies in the struggle against ISIS/Daesh, Turkey’s leaders are also obliged to look after their own country’s interests. In this case that means conducting operations against Kurdish separatists taking advantage of the chaos to further their own cause. Again, certain sections of the international media are slagging off Turkey for this.
Well, I’m not going to delve into the question of what American forces are actually doing in this part of the world; nor to inquire what right Vladimir Putin’s Russia has to be carrying out bombing raids in Syria right next to Turkey’s border; nor to speculate on why the supposedly radical Islamic ISIS/Daesh people have so far avoided acts of violence against Israel.
What I do want to focus on here is my curiosity about why, given that very little of the chaos in the Middle East region is of their making, Turkey seems to have become the target of just about everyone’s criticism. Many of the critics claim they actually love Turkey and Turkish people – it’s just their president, Tayyip Erdoğan they don’t like. The talk is starting to centre on the need to get rid of him. ‘He’s got to go’, I keep reading.
I came across an article online the other day headlined ‘Turkey needs Israel, says Erdogan’. It sounded as though the president may have been regretting his haste in condemning Israel for its aggression against Palestinians, and was crawling back on his knees. Read a little way into the article however, and you find what Erdoğan actually said was that the two countries need each other. Turkey, and before them, the Ottoman Empire have a long history of friendship towards the Jewish people. Turkey was one of the first countries to officially recognize the new state of Israel, an act which assuredly put them offside with their Middle Eastern Muslim neighbours. Whatever rabble-rousers are saying about Turkey, it remains the only genuinely democratic, secular state in the region, despite its 99 per cent Muslim demographic.
Turkey needs Israel and Israel needs Turkey. The USA needs Turkey – which is why US administrations are careful not to upset their only reliable Muslim ally. Europe needs Turkey also – and it goes without saying that Turkey wants to be recognised by the USA and the EU as a modern, secular, democratic, progressive nation.
Another news item I chanced upon the other day bore the headline ‘Russians Find Favored Holiday Destinations Suddenly Off Limits’. I’m sure Russia must be a lovely country, and no doubt its people are proud to live there – but the climate must get them down sometimes. In recent years Russians have been flocking to holiday resorts on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, and others on the Red Sea in Egypt, and who can blame them?
Now, all that’s off limits. The ISIS/Daesh people brought down a Russian airliner full of holidaymakers returning from Egypt; and Turkey’s air force shot down a Russian bomber invading its airspace – so the poor Russians have to stay home, or find somewhere else to go for the summer. Well, for sure it’s a dangerous part of the world to be flying over these days, and I can see why you might think a flight to the Red Sea too much of a risk.
I have to say, though, there’s a big difference between a passenger plane carrying tourists and a military aircraft on a bombing mission, especially when it’s a long way from home. The simple facts are that life will be a lot more pleasant for many Russians if they can spend a few summer weeks in Antalya or Alanya on Turkey’s southern coast, and make shopping expeditions to the retail and wholesale commercial paradise of Istanbul. Turkey, for its part, paradise though it be, is energy-poor, unlike its neighbours to the east. 75 million Turks are happy to heat their homes with Russian natural gas, and the income is undoubtedly a welcome boost for the Russian economy.
What’s my point, you’re asking? Simply this: planet Earth is an increasingly shrinking ecosystem. There’s nowhere else to go. We all need each other if we’re going to survive into the 22nd century, and the sooner we figure out how to get along, the better it’s going to be for all of us.