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.


Let’s learn Turkish – Why not?

Further to an earlier discussion about whether learning another language confers a different personality – Here’s an interesting item from the website of the Turkish Cultural Foundation about a middle school in the USA that has started offering its students a course in the Turkish language. According to one student, ‘the course shifted our perspectives about Turkey and its role in the world.’
TCF Supports Turkish Language Education in the U.S.
Billings Middle School
Middle school students from Seattle, USA
visit Aphrodisias, Turkey
In 2012, TCF awarded a grant to Billings Middle School in Seattle, WA to support a pilot year of teaching Turkish as a foreign language. The project was spearheaded by Rebecca Timson, Dean of Faculty of the school and an alumnus (2007) of the TCF Teacher Study Tours to Turkey.

After a successful completion of the pilot year in which sixteen 8th grade students took the class or participated in conversation classes, the school decided to contiue offering Turkish in the 2013-14 academic year, in addition to Spanish. Currently, fourteen students are enrolled in the year-long class and more are anticipated to join for the conversational class next semester. Read more . . .

Who’s Funding the Islamic Revolution? Will the real Muslims please stand up (Part II)

‘Ekmek var mı?’ It’s the title of the first unit in my old Turkish language course book, ‘Teach Yourself Turkish’. ‘Have you got any bread?’ It’s a useful structure to learn when you’re living in, or even just on holiday in a non-English-speaking country. ‘Have you got bottled water? Camera batteries? Have you got any of those little masculine or feminine essentials I am desperately in need of?’ 
As usual at this time of year, we are in Bodrum for our summer vacation. Bodrum is a popular getaway spot, not only for urban Turks, but also for foreigners, particularly English, who in recent years, attracted by the climate and tempting property prices, have purchased holiday houses in the area. My morning exercise is a cycle ride to the local village to buy simits for breakfast and a newspaper. The other day I was in the bakery and the baker was patiently trying to serve the gentleman in front of me who clearly knew not a word of Turkish. ‘Have you got bread?’ He was asking, in his distinctive north country accent, and the transaction continued with sign language and the baker’s limited stock of English.
My next stop was the hardware store down the road. As I was leaving, another customer entered, and I caught the beginnings of the conversation. ‘I need a pump.’ ‘Ok, but today is Sunday.’ ‘Yes, but I’m flying home tomorrow.’ The last I heard was the hardware guy getting on the telephone to a plumber trying to organise something for this foreigner who was totally dependent on his goodwill and knowledge of English.
‘So what?’ you’re saying. ‘You want to sell your product, you do what you gotta do. The customer is always right.’ But let’s just reverse the situation. A guy from Turkey goes into a shop in England, the USA or New Zealand. He can’t speak a word of English (not a single word, not even pleaseor thank you!) but he’s got a problem, or he wants to buy a few things. How much sympathy or assistance would he get? Maybe I’m wrong, but I think, not much.
Now I don’t know much about those guys, the baker and the hardware store guy – but I suspect they are good Muslims, because in Turkey people of that class usually are. They go to the mosque to pray at least every Friday, and probably more often. They very likely fast during the month of Ramadan. They take seriously the Prophet’s requirement to show hospitality to strangers, and feel uncomfortable if they can’t give a positive response to the question, ‘What have you done for God today?’ People like this make up a large proportion of Turkey’s population, and when they cast their vote in elections, they naturally want it going to someone they feel is sympathetic to their particular world-view.
Not everyone in Turkey feels that way, however. The fear of Islamic fundamentalism and extremism is almost as strong among secular middle class Turks as it is in the United States – and perhaps with more reason, considering the nearer proximity of scary neigbours given to stoning adulterers, denying a drivers’ license to women, and publicly whipping citizens for drinking a beer or other alcoholic beverage.
I have been hearing, since first coming to this country, that some of these neighbours, resentful of Turkey’s secular democracy, channel a portion of their petro-dollar wealth into undermining that hated system by, for example, paying Turkish women to wear head-scarves and even to cover themselves from head to toe in that particularly unattractive black garment that Turks call çarşaf or sheet. It may indeed be so. Despite the fact that their ruling classes love to holiday in the liberal atmosphere of Turkey’s classy urban streets and beach resorts, those Arab elites do not show much sympathy for the aspirations of their own people to greater social freedom.
Nevertheless, they are Muslims, when all’s said and done, and we might expect them to show more tangible support for Islamic brothers and sisters in other neighbouring states when the opportunity arose. The media in Western nations was greatly excited when the so-called Arab Spring that blossomed in 2011 seemed about to bring secular populist governments to power in the benighted lands of Islamic oppression. The excitement turned to dismay, however, as grass roots movements seemed in danger of installing Muslim Brotherhoods in place of previous dictatorships, particularly in Egypt, one of the larger, more powerful countries in the region.
Well, you can understand that. Western Christendom has had a fear of, and antipathy towards Islam since conquering Muslim armies spread through North Africa and into Spain from the 8th and 9th centuries. When Muslim Turkish tribes entered the region at the beginning of the 2ndmillennium CE and began pushing back the boundaries of the eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire, the Pope in Rome felt obliged to unleash legions of crusading knights to combat them. As the Ottoman Empire grew in the Eastern Mediterranean and assumed leadership of the Islamic world, it required a determined union of previously quarrelling Christian kings and princes to turn them back from further encroachment. More recently, there’s been the business with al Qaeda and New York’s World Trade Centre, so it’s not surprising that the Muslim religion and its followers tend to get a bad press in the West.
However, I confess to some confusion when I read in my newspaper yesterday that the governments of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait were providing a $12 billion aid package to the newly installed regime in Egypt – the one taking over after the Egyptian military overthrew the supposedly Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi. According to an Associated Press correspondent reported on Yahoo News, The Saudi king praised the military’s move, and Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, wrote in a commentary posted on Foreign Policy’s website that “the rejection by Egyptians of their Islamist government marks a turning point — not only for that country, but for the entire Middle East.”
So now I’m totally confused. The West supports democracy in the Middle East region (and everywhere else, of course) as long as it doesn’t throw up elected governments sympathetic to the aims and aspirations of the predominantly Muslim populations. In that case, they prefer to support military dictatorships – which have a tendency to get out of control and start oppressing their people and attracting unwelcome attention from Western civil rights organisations, which then pressure their own governments to intervene.
Arab states with autocratic governments oppress their people with draconian shariah laws involving public floggings, executions and amputation of body parts, but are on the whole supported by Western states whose economies depend on their oil and natural gas, and their readiness to purchase military hardware.
Arab states with autocratic governments rule their people by means of hard-line Islamic clerics and shariah law, and are accused of funding groups aiming to undermine the secular integrity of democratic neighbours (especially Turkey). On the other hand, when a military dictatorship with close ties to the United States and Israel is overthrown by a popular uprising, and the people show a willingness to elect a government with Muslim sympathies, they give no support. On the contrary, they provide financial aid to ensure the success of a regime imposed by another military coup.
Make what you will of that! And when you’ve finished, answer the following questions:
Who loves who?
Who hates what?
Who are the real Muslims? 

What Makes Turkey Different? – and why Turks love Atatürk

There are perhaps reasons why Turkey today might be just as happy not to join the European Union. However, membership of that club is less important than gaining moral acceptance as a people to be taken seriously and accorded equal status in the modern world. Why should this be such a problem? Because clearly, in the minds of many in the West, it assuredly is.
In the first place, Turkey’s population is predominantly Muslim – a fact that sits uncomfortably in the European mindset, in spite of shrinking congregations in mainstream Christian churches. At the same time, Turks are not Arabs. Their brand of Islam is far removed from the bullying, female oppressing, adulterer stoning, alcohol prohibiting joyless world of the Wahhabi Saudis and others of their ilk. Nevertheless, however much, or little, Western Europeans identify with Christianity, the very word Muslimcategorises Turks as ‘other’.
Another aspect of their ‘other’-ness is the origin of the Turkic people in Central Asia. Their language is linguistically problematic in the sense that it belongs to the Ural-Altaic family – i.e. neither Indo-European nor of the Afro-Asian group that includes Arabic and Hebrew. The average tourist to Turkey, wishing to say ‘Thank you’ to his waiter or bellhop, on learning that it requires a six-syllable phrase, rarely recovers his initial enthusiasm for learning the language, and consequently never discovers the later joys of suffix agglutination, vowel harmony and reverse syntax that bedevil the more persistent student.
Getting back to religion, the European Dark Ages coincided with the spread of Arabic Islam. There wasn’t really a major clash until Catholic Christendom began to seek temporal power from the 10th and 11thcenturies, which also coincided with the beginnings of Seljuk Turkish incursion into Asia Minor. Turks were not historically Muslim. Their original religion was shamanism, and they fell under the influence of Buddhism on their westward journeying. Islam was a later adoption, and Turkish Islam bears the stamp of earlier cultural influences. Nevertheless, it was the Turks who were the target of crusading Christian knights.
Those Crusades (the four main ones, from 1096 to 1204 CE) pose problems of interpretation. The traditional Western view is of Christendom fighting to free the Holy Lands (read ChristianHoly Lands) from the grip of infidel Muslims (Saracens or Turks). The implication here is that Christians had some right of ownership to those Middle East territories that in fact contain sites sacred to all three of the great monotheistic faiths. Well, first let’s be clear about one thing: at the time of Christ those Holy Lands were in the hands of the pagan Roman Empire (and to a lesser extent, the Jews). Second, from the 7th century they were under the sway of the Muslim Arabs, as was all of North Africa and much of the Spanish Iberian Peninsula. Some historians suggest that, had it not been for the existence at that time of the Eastern Christian Roman/Byzantine Empire centred on the impregnable fortress city of Constantinople, Europe itself might have been overrun and Islamicised. Third, and in spite of the foregoing, as we have noted before, the Fourth Crusade in 1204 never actually made it to the Holy Land, detouring instead to Constantinople, besieging, conquering and pillaging it, and subjecting it to sixty years of Latin rule from which it never fully recovered.
Subsequently the Byzantines reconquered their imperial capital and held it for a further two centuries. Their territories, however, gradually shrank as the power of the Seljuks and then the Ottomans grew – until the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II hammered the final nail into their coffin with the conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
Again, though, there are problems of interpretation here. Who exactly were those people that the Ottomans defeated? In their own view, they and their empire were Roman, having existed continuously since the Roman Emperor Constantine in 330 CE founded the city as capital of the Eastern Empire. Their claim was strengthened after the fall of Rome itself to the ‘barbarians’ in the 5th century. However, from the viewpoint of Western Christendom, there were several difficulties with this. First, with Rome gone, how could you continue to have a Roman Empire?  Second, somewhere along the way, their language had ceased to be Latin, and become Greek. Third, although the fall of Constantinople has been seen as a tremendous blow struck against Christendom by Turkish Muslim infidels, Catholic Christendom at the time barely lifted the littlest finger to help their Eastern cousins. Some historians have even suggested that the Muslim/Turkish conquest actually saved the Greek Orthodox Church from being subsumed into the Western monster, since the Ottomans permitted the Greek Patriarch to continue his tenure in Istanbul and minister to his flock pretty much unmolested.
Then there is the question of who those Ottomans were. The so-called Ottoman ‘Turks’ had been in Anatolia for four centuries, intermarrying and mixing with the Greek-speaking Christian inhabitants and others, and adapting their culture to those influences, as well as Persian and Arabic – so how Turkish were they?  After conquering Constantinople and finishing off the Eastern Roman Empire (which had lasted for eleven centuries), their Sultans began to consider themselves heirs of Rome and call themselves Emperors thereof. At the height of Ottoman power, the Empire extended as far as the gates of Vienna, some 1100 kilometres from the present border of Turkey – greater than the distance from Vienna to Paris. In terms of longitude, Istanbul is marginally further east than Moscow (around 200 kilometres) but there doesn’t seem to be a problem considering Russia part of Europe – despite wide ideological differences, not to mention forty years of Cold War hostilities.
According to Daniel Goffman[1], by the late 17th century, the Ottoman Empire had become increasingly integrated into Europe as Europeans lost their fear of it, and greater numbers of them visited for one reason or another. Certainly, it played an important role in European politics until its dissolution in 1923. One can’t help wondering, if the Greeks had been successful in forcibly annexing Aegean Anatolia at that time, would that have precluded Greece from joining Europe, or rather, conferred honorary status on Asia Minor?
Undoubtedly, since becoming an independent, democratic, secular republic, Turkey has played its part in the defence of Europe, as the second largest military contributor to NATO during the Cold War, even allowing the USA to site on its territory nuclear missiles targeting the USSR.
Still the problem of Turkey’s identity persists, and Europe continues to find reasons for excluding Turkey from its club. After the First World War, the victorious Entente Powers attempted to force on the Ottoman Empire the ‘peace’ Treaty of Sevres. Under this treaty, much of the Middle East was taken over by Britain and France and a large independent Armenia was established in the east of Anatolia. The Italians were to inherit the Mediterranean coast, the Greeks, the Aegean and its hinterland – and the Ottoman government would retain a more or less landlocked rump in Asia Minor. Shortly afterwards (and unauthorised by the treaty), the Entente Powers occupied the Ottoman capital of Istanbul, where they remained for five years, taking over control of the Empire’s finances, ordering the disbanding of its army, and reducing its government to little more than puppet status.
The occupation of Istanbul, and the Entente-sponsored Greek military invasion of Anatolia were the spark that ignited the flame of national resistance. After a four-year war, led by the charismatic leader Mustafa Kemal, the Republic of Turkey was established on 29 October 1923, and soon after, despite bluff and bluster by the British Government, the occupying forces quietly left Istanbul, taking with them the now pretty much irrelevant Ottoman Sultan.
Well, one point I want to make here is that Britain and France were undoubtedly immensely upset at having their plans for the eastern Mediterranean so frustrated. Not only had a new independent state established itself, in defiance of the Sevres treaty, on that geopolitically crucial patch of earth, but also those Entente Powers, particularly Great Britain, had been badly humiliated by having to quit Istanbul without firing a shot. Perhaps that’s another reason for continuing to keep Turkey at arm’s length.
Now you may or may not have noticed that I took pains to avoid using the words Turks and Turkish in the preceding three paragraphs, and I want to explain why. First, as discussed above, it was now almost nine hundred years since Turkic invaders won the Battle of Manzikert and entered Anatolia – a similar period to Anglo-Saxon residency in the British Isles at the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and even the hardest-headed Gaelic nationalist must have given up hope of their ever returning to Germany whence they came.
Second, Turkishness was a latecomer to the stage of militant nationalist movements. Gossman notes that after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453,  ‘. . . Armenian, Greek, Jewish, foreign and Muslim Turkish settlers soon had constructed a polylingual, polyethnic, and polyreligious metropolis that existed and thrived in striking contrast to non-Ottoman cities in the Mediterranean and European worlds.’ Some of these groups during the 19th century, encouraged and assisted by the European powers, broke away and established their own nationalist states. The Ottomans, however, despite earlier European use of the term, did not consider themselves Turks. It was Mustafa Kemal, later to become Atatürk, who fostered and then exploited the concept of Turkish nationalism in order to unite opposition to post-World War I invaders, and lay the foundation of a new nation-state.
This is the first reason, then, that modern Turks love Atatürk. It was he who gave them a national identity, bonded them together and led them in the fight to establish a free and independent state in their long-standing historical heartland. Without him, the present-day Republic of Turkey would not exist.
Definitely worth a look!
Another reason is that, in his second role as political leader and statesman of the republic he had founded, Atatürk established the ground rules of, pointed the way to, and gave his people the tools to build a state which could take a proud place in the modern world. At the same time as he encouraged pride in Turkishness, Atatürk did away with the Arabic alphabet for writing the Turkish language, established a secular constitution and laid down guidelines for dress which would allow Turks more easily to integrate into the European world.
Turkey continues to have problems of identity, not only with the outside world but also within itself. As a modern secular democratic republic, its Muslim religion sets it apart from its potential peers in terms of political constitution. On the other hand, its very status as a secular democratic republic makes it an outsider and a threat to other members of the international Muslim community, whose governments, for the most part, incline towards paternalistic autocratic governments based on religion.

Turks, free to dress as they like, walk hand in hand in public with their girl or boyfriend, attend or not attend prayers at the mosque, drink alcohol or not as they choose, and vote for the political party of their choice in well-organised transparent elections, are grateful to their first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who devoted his life to making these rights possible. Foreign visitors, free to drink without danger of whipping, to visit Muslim mosques out of interest, Christian churches for worship, and protected historical sites from a rainbow spectrum of ancient cultures and religions, should also be aware that they owe these freedoms to that Father of the Turkish Nation.
On 29 October, Turks will celebrate with parades and fireworks the 89thyear of their republic – and twelve days later, on 10 November, at 9.05 am, a Saturday this year, stop whatever they are doing to remember his passing – and give thanks for his life.

PS – A very nice thing about Republic Day this year (2012) is that it falls just as the Islamic Kurban Bayram (Sacrificial Feast) ends, which means a six-day holiday combining the secular and the religious. This is Turkey!

Debasing the Currency – Dismantling Turkey’s secular state

It seems the Turkish government has recently issued a batch of one-lira coins and the customary portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founding father of the Republic, is not on them. Clearly, some say, this is a further indication of the ruling AK Party’s hidden agenda to overturn the secular state and return Turkey to religious shariah rule. So, if not Ataturk’s, whose face will grace the obverse side of the new coin? An Ottoman Padishah’s? That of the current president, AK Party’s Abdullah Gül, or some historical religious leader?
Commemorative coin provokes debate
In fact, I gather that the new minting is to mark the tenth anniversary of an event which has been a major cultural success for the people of Turkey – the so-called Turkish Language Olympics. One side of the coin, a limited edition of one million, will bear the usual denomination of value, while the other will carry a special commemorative design. In addition, wealthy enthusiasts will also be able to purchase a sterling silver fifty-lira coin. Now you might wonder about the pretentiousness of such a grandiose title for competitions in a language that has no serious claim to lingua franca status, and furthermore, poses major challenges to would-be learners from other language backgrounds. I can personally attest to the difficulties English-speakers face. A language based on the principle of adding multiple suffixes to a root word such that a single word can require an English sentence to translate, and moreover insists that every vowel in attached suffixes must harmonise with the root according to complex rules that most Turks find difficult to explain, clearly has more in common with Martian or Betelgeusian than any terrestrial language.
Nevertheless, in the ten years since the first Turkish Language Olympiad was held, the number of participating countries has grown from seventeen to one hundred and thirty-five. Students from these countries compete in tests of grammar, oral skills, writing essays, reciting poems, singing songs, theatre and general culture. If I were a Turk, I think I would be pretty proud of this event, and the way it was raising the global profile of my language and culture. Evidently the government is, and its members made the decision to issue a commemorative coin. 
It’s not such an uncommon thing to do, in fact. Many reputable nations with democratically elected governments do it from time to time, without arousing the ire of, or even much interest among their citizens. Since 2004, for example, there have been 126 different commemorative two-euro coins issued by Euro-zone countries. The United States Mint has a similar programme producing quarter dollars for commemorative purposes. There is a branch of learning, numismatics, involving the study of coins, ancient and modern, and some people actually engage in it as a hobby.
Nevertheless, it is still possible that the present government of Turkey has some more sinister motive in its minting of the new coin. So I did a little digging, and here’s what I turned up . . .
Ataturk’s picture was put on Turkish money when he became the new Republic’s first president in 1923. Interestingly, after his death in 1938, a law was passed requiring Turkish currency to bear a portrait of the current president. Accordingly, for the next twelve years the face of Ataturk’s close friend and successor, Ismet Inönü, could be seen adorning liras and kurushes throughout the land. The change back to Ataturk occurred in 1950, when Turkey’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Adnan Menderes came to power. Sadly for Menderes, his support for the revered founder was not enough for at least some members of the secular Kemalist military, who ousted him in a coup in 1960, convicted him of violating the constitution and had him hanged along with two of his ministers.
When the AK Party government erased six zeroes and issued the new Turkish Lira in 2005, it was remarked by many that the previously grim face which had adorned the hopelessly devalued old currency (1,700,000 to the US dollar) had been replaced with a smiling Atatürk. Some saw this as a sign that the great man was pleased to see his nation’s money returning to credibility. Undoubtedly, wherever he was, he must have had serious misgivings about the competence of his political successors, who were powerless to curb the hyper-inflation that had turned the TL into a joke of Weimar German proportions by the 1990s.
I have observed before that I have a long-standing suspicion of politicians of all political persuasions. I tend to judge them by their actions and results rather than their words, which can be misleading to say the least. I have no loyalty to any political party, certainly not in Turkey, where I do not have the right to vote. I can say, however, that the last nine years have seen a period of political maturity and stability such as Turkey had not experienced for some considerable time. The AK Party was brought to power in polls whose fairness has not been questioned as far as I know; and has been resoundingly returned in two subsequent elections. In that time inflation has been reduced to internationally acceptable levels, and economic growth ranks with that of powerhouses like China, India and Brazil. The Turkish government has pursued a foreign policy which has reached out to neighbouring states in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, while maintaining ties of friendship with Europe and the United States. At the same time, Turks have resisted pressure to involve themselves in regional conflicts such as Iraq and Syria, despite strong pressure from Uncle Sam, and provocation from Bashar al-Assad.
Again, if I were a Turk, I think I would feel some pride in the way my country’s international standing had risen in recent years and in the manifest signs of increasing wealth and growing national self-confidence all around me. I might feel some misgivings about the continuing disparities of wealth distribution, and the obvious lack of a credible opposition party in the legislature. But I hope I might try to channel these feelings into positive political action, rather than constantly harping on about peripheral issues like headscarves and whose picture is on the back of my one-lira coin.