Learn another language, become another person

There is an interesting Turkish saying: “One language, one person; two languages, two people.”

I think it’s true. I spend a lot of time speaking Turkish, and I’ve absorbed a host of common everyday phrases that oil the machinery of social intercourse in this country.

There’s the phrase you say to your fellow diners when you sit down to a meal, and when you rise from the table;

Tayyip from God

Follower of a 21st century prophet

There’s one you address to someone who’s been to the hairdresser, or is emerging squeaky clean from a bath or shower;

There’s a friendly wish you express when you enter an office or other workplace where others are working; a standard expression of condolence to people who have lost a loved one; an utterance of admiration for the beauty or handsomeness of a new baby; a polite phrase that passes responsibility for future uncertainty to the Almighty . . .

In Turkish, you need never be at a loss for the right phrase to employ in one of the many human interactions that transcend cultural boundaries – but which tax our creative conversational powers in English-speaking countries. When I go back to New Zealand I sometimes find myself tongue-tied, with a Turkish phrase dying on my lips.

And then there is the reverse situation. Turkish people are generally sociable, and especially keen to interrogate a new acquaintance. Questions like, “How old are you?” and “How much is your salary?” tend to crop up rather earlier in a relationship than we Westerners are accustomed to. I used to struggle with the well-meaning inquiry, “Why did you come to Turkey?” In fact, it’s a rather long story, as you can imagine – and not one I am ready to share with everyone on short acquaintance.

Recently I’ve come up with a brief formula that seems to work. “It was fate,” I say. “God took me by the hand and led me here.” In New Zealand, such an answer uttered with straight face would probably be considered an indication of borderline insanity. In Turkey, my new friend will very likely nod wisely and consider the matter satisfactorily explained.


In former times, a long white beard seems to have been a key indicator of prophet-hood – but times change

So I wasn’t at all surprised when I read in this morning’s newspaper that the chairperson of a local women’s branch of the AK Party in Ankara had said that Turkey’s controversial President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was sent by God. In fact, what she actually said (translating from the Turkish, of course) was something like, “Our president is a person so divine, he is a human being sent by Allah and a hope for the global Muslim community. Is there any way other than to follow him, to serve him on his path?”

Now, ok, I have friends in New Zealand (well, one friend, actually) who used to express great admiration for former Prime Minister and unabashed capitalist finance big shot, John Key; and clearly Donald Trump couldn’t have got himself elected president of the world’s greatest democracy if he didn’t have a few enthusiastic fans. Even Robert Mugabe, Prime Minister of Zimbabwe for thirty years, probably had a few sycophantic hangers-on willing to say nice things about him for the favours he might bestow.

But “sent by God”? “Divine”? “Serve him on his path”? I don’t think so. That’s a Turkish thing. Something definitely gets lost in translation when you try to say it in English. But the interesting thing is, a lot of people here will be nodding their heads in agreement.


Triplets in Turkey named after President Erdoğan – Today’s happy news!

Came across this article in today’s newspaper. I’m giving a translation for readers who don’t know Turkish. The original is a bit repetitious, so I’m abbreviating it a little:


Little Recep, Tayyip and Erdoğan with mum, dad, big sister and the president

“President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with three-year-old triplets named Recep, Tayyip and Erdoğan at the office of the governor in Sivas [a historic city in the east of Turkey].

“President Erdoğan had met them for the first time during a visit to Sivas in 2015. After the meeting, the father and mother of the triplets, Dilek and Kemal Akıncı said they were very happy. ‘We met Mr Erdoğan for the first time in 2015 and afterwards we spoke on the telephone. We’re grateful that he visited us in Sivas. We met up at the governor’s office. We’re so happy,’ they said.”

Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan Minik Adaşları İle Görüştü

Cumhurbaşkanı Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, 3 yaşındaki Recep, Tayyip, Erdoğan isimlerini taşıyan üçüzler ile Sivas Valiliğinde bir araya geldi.

Cumhurbaşkanı Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, ilk kez 2015 yılında ki Sivas ziyareti sırasında tanıştığı; 3 yaşındaki Recep, Tayyip, Erdoğan isimlerini taşıyan üçüzlerle bugünkü Sivas ziyaretinde yeniden bir araya geldi. Sivas Valiliğindeki ziyaret sonrası üçüzlerin annesi Dilek Akıncı ve babaları Kemal Akıncı çok mutlu olduklarını belirterek, “İlk kez 2015 yılında görüşmüştük. Daha sonra telefonla görüştük. Sivas’ı ziyaret ettiği için kendisine çok teşekkür ediyoruz. Valilikte kendisi ile görüştük. Çok mutluyuz” dedi.

American professor says United States behind failed military coup in Turkey


Good work, prof!

Yes he did! Professor James Petras, according to his bio on Amazon, “is a Bartle Professor (Emeritus) of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York. He is the author of 64 books published in 29 languages, and over 560 articles in professional journals, including the American Sociological Review, British Journal of Sociology, Social Research, Journal of Contemporary Asia, and Journal of Peasant Studies. He has published over 2000 articles in media such as The New York Times, the Guardian, the Nation, Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, New Left Review, and a winner of the American Sociological Association Lifetime Achievement Award.”

Wow! That’s impressive! You’d have to take a guy like that seriously. I was directed the other day to an article he’s had published here, there and everywhere, entitled “Erdoğan’s Turkey Seven Deadly Sins”.


So who’s lurking behind Fethullah Gülen?

Well, as I’m sure you know, the learned professor is referring to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In fact, Prof. Petras doesn’t have a good word to say about Mr Erdoğan, and his incriminating statements about the United States are buried deep in the 1,389-word paper – but there they are:

“Fethullah Gülen, who was conveniently self-exiled in the US and under the protection of the US intelligence apparatus.

“A Gülenists-led military coup was launched in July 2016, with the tacit support of the US military stationed in Turkey.

“The Gülenists coup was authored and led by its supremo Fethullah Gülen, ensconced in his ‘secret’ private estate in the United States. Clearly the US was implicated in the coup and they rejected Erdoğan’s demands to extradite him.

“Erdoğan backed the brief government of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood after its electoral victory in 2012 following the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising in Egypt of 2011. This led to a bloody US-backed military coup led by General Abdel Sisi in July 2013 — a lesson not lost on Erdoğan.”


A book I heartily recommend. Check out the subtitle

Well, Professor Petras doesn’t include any references or sources – unusual for an academic – so we have to take his word for those assertions, as for all the others in his “paper”.  And by the way, the US denied any involvement in the Egypt coup – or even that it was a coup at all! Nevertheless, I’m led to believe Petras is, himself, a reputable source, so we must assume he has evidence to back up his accusations.

I’m hoping, in the interests of fair play, natural justice and journalistic integrity, that Professor Petras will publish a paper providing a little more detail on the United States government’s involvement in these attacks on the elected governments of allies and sovereign states. Many people in Turkey would like to read it.

The President of Turkey – another side of the story

Last week I asked the students in one of my English classes to write a short essay about a person they admired. The most frequent response from students in Turkey is a rather dull piece about the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. So I was very pleased to find this one among the papers I had to mark:

“Many people don’t appreciate what they have until losing something or someone.

recep-tayyip-erdogan-in-nurlu-yuzu_624428“I really like and admire Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the President of Turkey. He loves his country. He always tries to do good things and improve the country. He is not afraid to say what he feels – about a person, a topic or anything else. He is clever. He knows how to manage his assistants and the public. When he talks on television or face to face, people feel strong because of his strong personality.

“Everyone can make mistakes in their life. We are not perfect – we never have been and never will be. Some people love to criticise everything and everybody. When someone makes a mistake, it doesn’t mean he/she is bad, or an unsuccessful person. The President can make mistakes too. He has many things on his mind: the public, other countries, war, peace, the economy . . . He may not always make the best decision. The important thing is his character. Does he love his country and his people? Does he care about people’s lives? Does he take an interest in every problem? Does he meet and listen to people from every part of the country? Can he answer the questions of other countries? We can ask or compare many things.

“To sum up, I like our President so much because I believe he always wants the best for our country.”

What’s Going on in Turkey These Days?

The following piece appeared in today’s English edition of Zaman newspaper. I’m not commenting – just putting it here with a recommendation that you check it out:

Normalcy, but how?
Markar Esayan

Turkey fell into a crisis right at a moment when no one was expecting it. While it was clear that the run-up to local, general and presidential elections might see some political turbulence, no one thought the country would boil over so thoroughly, moving a hair’s breadth from civil war.
The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government must also have been unprepared; it was seriously shaken by the crisis. What’s clear now is that Turkey can no longer shoulder the politics of polarization, and that the manipulation of said polarization has become riskier than ever. Many say — and it’s apparent — that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tends to handle the politics of polarization with mastery. This is true.
At the same time, claiming that this polarization is what Erdoğan wants is skewing the truth. Since the end of 2002, when the AK Party came to power, the party has been the focus of constant harassment, its agenda the target of endless attempts to raise tension. The years 2003-04 saw a series of coup plans that were known to both the military’s General Staff headquarters and the government. The generals behind these coup plans used military and civilian tools to keep the national agenda as infused with tension as possible and to try to portray the AK Party as opposed to secularism. Read more

BBC Interviews Turkish Citizens about Protests

In Turkey tens of thousands of people have taken an active part in protests, voicing their anger at what they see as the increasingly authoritarian government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But he won a landslide at the last election and still has high levels of support across the country.
This weekend there are expected to be big rallies backing the prime minister.
Here, some of his supporters give their views on the current crisis. Read more . .

Artists, Protesters and Bare Naked Ladies

Perhaps surprisingly, and contrary to what some people inside and outside Turkey would have you believe, local newspapers and TV channels here are full of reports and comments criticising the government of Tayyip Erdoğan for its handling of the Taksim Square protests and pretty much everything else, from the actions of a 16th century Ottoman sultan, to the civil war in neighbouring Syria. Maybe the writers are being secretly thrown into prison, but you’d think their families might have got the news out somehow. My Turkish colleagues at work are all alternately crying and laughing over Youtube, Facebook and other social media postings, none of which have been closed down by the government. Still, Western media seem convinced that Turkey’s oppressed citizenry are rising against an autocratic dictator, along the lines of Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Gaddafi and Syria’s Assad. I’d like to comment on two of these articles.

The first is an interview, entitled ‘Turkish Artists Respond to the Wave of Protests Rocking their Country’ which appeared in an online artmag Blouin Artinfo (thanks Margie). The italicised lines are direct quotes. My comments follow.

Taner Ceylan and his fellow artists are supporting the democratic protests against unwarranted police violence. What makes them especially democratic rather than just ordinary protests, I wonder?

“The result of the last ten years has been a lack of respect for human rights, women’s rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of speech,” Taner explained. I have seen no evidence of this. On the contrary, I would say all these areas have seen considerable improvement in the last ten years. Generals and other military officers who presided over coups, killings and torture in the past have been brought to trial. Another group who were planning a coup to oust Erdoğan’s democratically elected government were caught and put on trial. It is now possible to discuss openly issues surrounding Kurds, Alevis and other minority ethnic and religious groups in a way that was forbidden when I first came to Turkey in the 1990s.
He [Ceylan] mentioned the disproportionate number of journalists currently imprisoned in Turkey. I keep hearing this. Journalists is an emotive word in this context. The Turkish mainstream media seem to publish criticism of the government with impunity as far as I can see – though there are issues where you need to be careful. Turks don’t like people slanging off MK Atatürk, the founder of the republic, or siding too publicly with expatriate Armenian pressure groups, for example. Incidentally, PM Erdoğan himself, while serving as mayor of Istanbul, spent four months in prison in 1999 after the parliamentary Islamic party, of which he was a member, was banned by Turkey’s Constitutional Court, and he spoke out about it.
Upper section of a Taner Ceylan painting.
No prizes for guessing what the lower section shows.
He said he and other artists had received death threats as a result of the content of his work in recent years. Well, you can’t really blame the government for that. I received a death threat once myself, as a teacher back in New Zealand. There are crazy people around in every country, I guess. Still, if you deliberately set out, as an artist, to challenge people’s religious beliefs, you can’t reasonably be shocked if you get the occasional extreme reaction. One of Taner Bey’s paintings features a veiled Ottoman lady juxtaposed with the work of French artist Gustav Courbet known as L’Origine du Monde. The interviewer coyly and somewhat euphemistically describes the female figure in Courbet’s picture as naked from the waist down. She certainly is! And no doubt Ceylan’s painting would upset some people – but I have to assume that was the point of the exercise in the first place.
“Cultural centers are being closed and censored,” he added. “Big projects, such as mosques and bridges, are being realized without asking citizens for input.” Ceylan said the government’s decision to replace a park in Taksim Square with a replica of an Ottoman-era army barracks was a breaking point for many citizens. In fact I see new cultural centres springing up everywhere, along with commercial and residential skyscrapers, shopping malls and, yes, mosques. There is a huge building boom going on all over Turkey, not just in Istanbul. In addition, there are major public transport projects completed, under construction or planned, aimed at relieving Istanbul’s and Turkey’s notorious traffic problems. The vast majority of ‘citizens’, I believe, are happy with these. Central and local governments have been building, and are continuing to build,  parks and recreation areas on a phenomenal scale, providing free open-air fitness centres, cycle and running tracks, picnic areas and sports facilities which are enormously popular. Should every project, public and private, be opened for public debate? It seems to me there is unrestricted opportunity for groups or individuals to express their opinions – the Marmaray underground project, for example, is years behind schedule because of the need to allow archaeologists access to the excavations. See my previous post for a picture of the Ottoman army barracks and a comment on the plans for Taksim Square.
The whole affair represents the way in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has slowly strangled all opposition while making sure to remain within democratic lines. Sounds impressive until you try to figure out exactly what the sentence means.  As I often say, Turkey’s biggest problem is the lack of a credible and effective opposition party to provide a legitimate voice for protest and alternative proposals, without which a democracy cannot properly function. Once again, however, it’s a little unfair to blame the democratically elected government for that. Should they start up a puppet alternative party as Atatürk himself did once or twice in his day? You’d think it was really the responsibility of responsible, democratically minded citizens to do that for themselves, given that, as far as I am aware, there is no prohibition on doing so.
The second article I would like to comment on was published the other day in Foreign Policy Online, entitled How Democratic Is Turkey?
Under the AKP and the charismatic Erdogan, unprecedented numbers of Turks have become politically mobilized and prosperous — the Turkish economy tripled in size from 2002 to 2011, and 87 percent of Turks voted in the most recent parliamentary elections, compared with 79 percent in the 2002 election that brought the AKP to power.  Well, yes. So what seems to be the problem?
Yet this mobilization has not come with a concomitant ability to contest politics. OK, I see. But whose fault is that? See above.
Replying to criticism, Spokesmen and apologists for the AKP offer a variety of explanations . . . from “it’s the law” and the “context is missing,” to “it’s purely fabricated.” These excuses falter under scrutiny and reveal the AKP’s simplistic view of democracy.  They also look and sound much like the self-serving justifications that deposed Arab potentates once used to narrow the political field and institutionalize the power of their parties and families. Once again, it sounds good, but what does it actually mean? Why don’t AKP’s opponents get their act together and organise a party capable of providing Turks with a genuine alternative in parliamentary elections? There are plenty of issues of vital interest to citizens that such a party could address. And what, pray, is the relevance of deposed Arab potentates to a popularly elected and successful political party?
Turkey’s new alcohol law, which among other things sets restrictions on alcohol sales after 10 p.m., curtails advertising, and bans new liquor licenses from establishments near mosques and schools, is another example of the AKP’s majoritarian turn. I don’t know about your country, but New Zealand certainly has restrictions on alcohol advertising in newspapers and cinemas, and the sale of alcohol in stores late at night. I seem to recall some restrictions in the UK on selling alcohol on Sundays – no problem buying it from supermarkets etc on Fridays (or Sundays) in Turkey. There are certainly restrictions on the consumption of alcohol at large public gatherings in NZ and Australia. In Turkey there have always been limits on licensed premises near mosques – and why not, one might think? Schools too, for that matter. Majori-what? Is that even a word? If so, what does it mean? Maybe the writer would prefer minoritarianrule, as Turkey mostly had in the past.
Over the last decade the AKP has built an informal, powerful, coalition of party-affiliated businessmen and media outlets whose livelihoods depend on the political order that Erdogan is constructing. Those who resist do so at their own risk. Resist what? At the risk of what? Tell me Republicans don’t have such an informal coalition in the US, the Conservatives in the UK, and the National Party in New Zealand. It seems to me the AKP would be mad if they didn’t try to get business interests on their side. And if they didn’t, it’s very likely those interests would tend to coalesce of their own accord around a government as successful as this one (see the statistics above). Besides, I have seen no evidence of anything in Turkey resembling Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire in Italy, for example.
Turkey has essentially become a one-party state. In this the AKP has received help from Turkey’s insipid opposition, which wallows in Turkey’s lost insularity and mourns the passing of the hard-line Kemalist elite that had no particular commitment to democracy. Well, I think I dealt with this one earlier. However, I would go further, and say that, if Turkey has become a one-party state (whatever essentially means) the blame can be laid almost entirely at the door of the opposition Republican People’s Party and that hard-line Kemalist elite who ruled the country with insipid coalitions and military support before the appearance of AKP on the political scene in 2001.
The AKP and Prime Minister Erdogan might have been elected with an increasing share of the popular vote over the last decade, but the government’s actions increasingly make it seem as if Turkish democracy does not extend farther than the voting booth. What can you say to that? What percentage of eligible voters turn out for elections in the United States? And ask the ‘99%’ who occupied the parks last year what they think about post-ballot box democracy.

By the way, for a shorter and more balanced piece in the same online magazine, click here.