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.


Walk a Mile in My Shoes – Are you sure you’ve got all the facts?

1459045849572I read a shocking news item in my Turkish newspaper today: people in my home country, New Zealand, are slaughtering rabbits – and the government is doing nothing to stop them! According to the report, while the rest of the Christian world is celebrating the death and resurrection of its first martyr and founding prophet by hunting for chocolate rabbits and Easter eggs, hundreds of hunters in New Zealand’s South Island have been participating in a competition to see how many rabbits they could kill in 24 hours. The report goes on to say that 27 teams of twelve hunters each accounted for a total of 10,000 rabbits, with the winning team on its own bagging 889.

Well, of course I checked it out on the New Zealand news, and yes, it’s true. The Easter bunny hunt is an annual event in its 25th year – but this year the kill was down on the previous record of 23,000.

However, don’t think those 10,000 bodies will be wasted. Most will be buried, apparently, but some will be used as fertilizer, some processed as dog food, and a few will even end up on human dinner tables.

rabbit_istock_620x310OK, now before you jump to hasty judgments, I want you to know that we New Zealanders are very kind-hearted people who love animals, and really just want what’s best for everyone. You may think of a rabbit or two as lovable, furry, floppy-eared, harmless, hippety-hoppety creatures that wouldn’t harm a fly, and add a dimension of cuteness to a pastoral landscape – and that’s exactly what our well-meaning but stupid ancestors from England thought when they imported them to Australia and New Zealand back in the 19th century.

Unfortunately, in a country with a more benign climate, and an absence of natural predators, the introduced bunnies bred like . . . well, rabbits. Before you knew it, there were quadrillions of the voracious little cotton-tails wiping out the pasture on which depended our young countries’ main industry – sheep and cattle farming.


Rabbit with myxomatosis tumours

Various methods of control were tried – especially the introduction of a nasty rabbit disease, myxomatosis. According to Wikipedia, ‘It was introduced into Australia in 1950. Affected rabbits develop skin tumors, and in some cases blindness, followed by fatigue and fever; they usually die within 14 days of contracting the disease. In Australia, it was devastatingly effective, reducing the estimated rabbit population from 600 million to 100 million in two years. However, the rabbits remaining alive were those least affected by the disease. Genetic resistance to myxomatosis was observed soon after the first release, and descendants of the survivors acquired partial immunity in the first two decades. Resistance has been increasing slowly since the 1970s; the disease now kills about 50% of infected rabbits. In an attempt to increase that rate, a second virus (rabbit calicivirus) was introduced into the rabbit population in 1996.’

So, you may actually think that shooting the little guys is preferable to letting them die a slow death over 14 days.

Anyway, what I want you to understand is that we New Zealanders and Australians are really very nice people. It’s just that we see rabbits differently from the way you do in the Old World. Please try to understand our position.

Well, I don’t expect any serious repercussions from that article in today’s ‘Hürriyet’. I’m not expecting to hear that hordes of Turkish animal rights protesters have been picketing the New Zealand Embassy in Ankara. Nor do I think the Turkish Ambassador in New Zealand will be organising his diplomatic colleagues in Wellington to engage in public protests. They’ll probably just put it down to another example of Western barbarity, and move on. Turks are like that.