Tuesday, October 30, 2007

My Cleaner

One huge advantage of living in Turkey is that labor, particularly domestic labor, is cheap. For me, this means that once a week I get to have a woman come to my house and clean it from top to bottom. It's not unusual for people to have cleaners-- sometimes even the cleaners have cleaners. And even though I'm pretty uncomfortable with the idea of this 'servant' coming over to scrub out the toilet, it's way better than scrubbing out the toilet myself and this easily outweighs any discomfort. I recognize that having a cleaner is a wonderful luxury. She's totally worth the $45 or so a week I pay her, not only because it leaves me lots more time throughout the week to sit around and play with LE, that $45 a week completely ended the arguments BE and I used to have every weekend about housework. See, his idea was that I should work full-time and also keep the house on the weekends, leaving him free to sleep all day, hang out at the barbershop, and play video games. As you might imagine, this didn't sit well with me.

Finding a good cleaner isn't easy. Sometimes they're just not very bright, and you have to follow them around every time they come, telling them what to do and how to do it. Some of them do really stupid things, like my friend's former cleaner, who hosed off her balcony table, candles and all, and who opened a new package of dishtowels to use with bleach rather than use the rags from the drawer she'd been using for months. Other cleaners take it upon themselves to rearrange your house-- cupboards, furniture, knick-knacks. Once my mother-in-law came to my house with her cleaner. They chased me out of their way and I came back to find the whole living room reversed, and my entire kitchen re-organized in such a way that I couldn't find anything. It took me about three weeks to get everything back in order. Needless to say, I'm wary of letting my mother-in-law loose in my house unsupervised since then.

In my old house, my roommate's mother referred us to her old cleaner, who was the kapıcı's wife in her old building (a kapıcı is like a superintendent-- he keeps the building and grounds, but also will do stuff like run to the shop for you, or stand in line at the bank to pay your bills). That cleaner wasn't very good. I mean, she did a better job than we did, but not much. She brought her young son over with her, and both of them were terrified of me (sometimes people here are really scared of foreigners). She was Kurdish and her Turkish wasn't very good, but since her son was too scared to speak to me, communication breakdowns were common. Her son was also terrified of our kitten, and would scream and run away whenever it came near him. I assumed from his size, shyness, and his fear of the kitten that this boy was about 8, and was shocked when the cleaner told me he was actually 12. Since she'd been referred to us by my roommate's mother, we assumed she was trustworthy and left her in the house to clean while we were at work. One day, she apparently took her time going through all my stuff and just helped herself to money, jewelry, a portable CD player, and whatever else struck her fancy (though she didn't take even a kuruş of my roommate's spare change he left lying around). We fired her, of course, and confronted her about the stealing. She and her husband came to meet us at the school where we worked, the cleaner in tears and both of them swearing up, down and sideways that she hadn't stolen anything. They were afraid we'd tell the police, or the building manager where the husband was the kapıcı, which would put them out of both job and home (kapıcıs usually get free rent). They were both very tiny people, and very poor, and even though I was furious about the stealing it made me sad to have that much power over someone. In the end, after reaching an impasse (she wouldn't admit to the theft and we wouldn't rescind the accusation), they asked if we'd give her the cleaning job back.

The cleaner I have now is great. She doesn't need to be told what to do (and even scolds me for stuff like mixing white and colored laundry), and she puts everything back where she found it. She takes initiative about stuff like cleaning the windows every other week (which involves dangling out the 7th floor) and scrubbing the carpets. She's Alevi, like my husband, and very proud of that. She's also Kurdish, and is one of the few Kurds I've met who is openly proud of being Kurdish and speaking Kurdish. LE adores her and she lets him grab her face and hair while bouncing him on her knee and singing Kurdish wedding songs to him. The only bad thing my cleaner has ever done was shove a spoonful of jam into LE's mouth when I wasn't looking. He was about 4 months old when that happened, but it was easily cured by just not serving jam anymore with our breakfast.

It seems that my cleaner is sick every week with something new. She's a few years younger than me, but looks 10 years older. If she's not sick herself, someone in her family is, or they're having some new crisis or other. One week, her father's house got broken into. Another week, her youngest sister "ran away." I used the quotes because I can't really consider it running away when the girl is 20 years old. She's never asked for money or anything like that, but all of these sicknesses and crises, plus her son's school expenses, cost a lot, and reminds me it's really expensive to be poor in Turkey, too.

My cleaner is somewhere in the middle of 13 brothers and sisters. Kurdish families are usually huge like this. They've always had big families, so about ten years ago the Turkish government sent some nurses out to the villages to educate women about birth control. The local leaders got wind of this, and told the villagers the government was just trying to reduce their population to get rid of them, and encouraged them to make even more babies, not fewer. While I was pregnant, my cleaner and I talked a lot about birth and babies. She told me that her mother only lost one baby, a twin, and she had all her babies at home. She also told me that the village midwife was only available or affordable for a few of the births, so the rest her mother delivered by herself, including a footling breech and a set of twins that lived. My cleaner herself was married at 15. She was engaged the year before that, but they didn't marry her off until she'd started menstruating. Her first and only baby, a son, was born when she was 16. He weighed 10 pounds, which is astounding because I'll bet my cleaner barely weighs 100. She's about five foot two.

Her son is now 15 and just starting high school. I'm really impressed with this woman for a lot of reasons. She's marginalized in so many ways-- poor, Kurdish, female, and uneducated, yet she found the one way of taking some power in her world, which was to have only one child. She's quietly proud of herself for getting away with this (her family still pressures her to have more, to which she answers by wincingly touching her belly and claiming female sickness, though I suspect she's lying), and she's fiercely proud of her son. She cleans houses as part of her mission to get him to be someone (she's had to pay bribes all along to get him into better public schools than the ones they're zoned for), and to make sure he doesn't end up cleaning houses like her, or doing mindless labor in a factory like his dad. Like most teenaged boys, her son sounds like he's a bit shiftless and he doesn't do well in school (though he is quite handsome), but she's not giving up and I do hope one day he really is able to understand what his mother did for him.

For my part, it's not just the fresh-smelling and spotless house that makes me look forward to having my cleaner come each week. I like the chats we have over breakfast and I'm more than happy to hand over the $45 each time. I give her everything I can that I don't use, as much as she can carry-- clothes, baby things, kitchen things, bedding-- and I know it's going to good use in her huge family. But, like anyone from my background who's not used to a servant class, I always wish I could do more.

Friday, October 26, 2007


In Turkey, everything is a crisis. People are so easily whipped up into a frenzy, and the news media here blurs the line between news and entertainment even more than in the US. Newspapers are full of luridly colored pictures that make USA Today seem like downright heavy reading, and TV news footage is often accompanied by a soundtrack. Wherever there are wailing mothers to be found tearing at their hair, the Turkish news media finds them.

I've seen a lot of these crises in the 6 years I've been here. Some were quite real, like the bombing of HSBC and the British Consulate. Some were less pressing, like when Ecevit's coalition all resigned on him, causing a brief economic crash. That day at work, we tuned into a live online currency converter and watched our lira salaries drop 30% against the dollar in a few hours before heading off to class. Then there are the fears that always lurk in the back of your mind, like Fear of Earthquakes and Fear of Bombs. They're there, but you get used to it. Fear of Getting Hit By A Bus is much more salient on a day-to-day basis.

A couple weeks ago, the crisis was the US House of Representatives preparing to vote on a bill labelling what happened to Armenians here at the beginning of the century a 'genocide.' There's a lot to be said on this, but I'll refrain from straying too much from my topic. In Turkey, The Armenian Thing That Didn't Happen is highly sensitive, and threats were thrown all around. I saw a press conference in which American leaders were urging the Turks "Don't overreact!" which is a little like telling a bear not to shit in the woods.

Now, of course, the crisis is the Turkish assault on PKK troops in Northern Iraq. Last weekend, the PKK killed 12 Turkish soldiers, so the retaliatory slaughter has begun. By the end of the next day, the Turks had killed 34 PKK soldiers, and BE and his family were watching the news tally up the deaths and cheering like they were scoring goals. The Americans tried to stop the Turks from invading Northern Iraq, but there's no stopping the Turks when the chance to kill Kurds arises. Again, I'll refrain from spouting my opinions on the Turkish/Kurdish issue because it's not really what I want to get into right now.

The Turks have been whipped into their predictable frenzy. Already there are reports of Kurds getting beaten on the streets. There are protests and demonstrations everywhere, even out in the sticks where I live. The city hasn't quite incorporated this area, so the Jandarma (military police) do a lot of the law enforcement instead of the regular police force. Every night this week there has been a huge demonstration outside the nearby Jandarma base. The first night, I was home alone, and had no idea what was going on. It sounded like Turkey had come in 3rd in the World Cup again. I called BE, and he said they were protesting terrorism. The exact goal of this protest is unclear to me, as I doubt the Jandarma like terrorism either, and it's not like they sit on their butts and let it happen. BE says it's about people's psychology, which is one of those catch-all Turkish explanations for a lot of things that can't really be explained.

The second night of the protest, I went out on the balcony and saw lights flashing on and off in many apartment windows. Again, I was home alone, and again, I had no idea why that was happening. Already feeling unsettled with recent events plus some unpleasantness with the in-laws the previous day, I assumed the lights were some kind of secret signal and that everything was sure to come down at any moment. A low-flying plane didn't help, but it woke LE and gave me an excuse to pick him up and hold him. I couldn't bring myself to put him down for an hour, sitting away from the windows just in case. BE later explained that this was a 'light protest,' and apparently the news had urged people to do this. I don't understand the point of this either, but it's apparently also related to people's psychology.

So Turkey's gearing up to enter the war with Iraq, and some preliminary border assaults have already begun. Every night, what sounds like hundreds of people (mostly young men with nothing better to do, I'm sure, from the sound of all that male barking) gather outside the Jandarma base to honk their horns and yell and whistle, and people (including BE) turn their lights on and off. It reminds me that it doesn't take much to make a place like this to return to a 3rd world mess. At the moment, the Friday ezan is being drowned out by a parade with lots of banging drums. Turkish flags fly from every apartment window, and the upcoming Cumhüriyet Bayramı (Republic Day) on Monday is feeding the flames.

Before I had a baby here, this kind of excitement was fun. It made me feel adventurous and energized. It felt good to take calls from family, and assure them that yes, things were happening but it was far from me and all was well. Now that's all different, with the baby. Now I just hate the PKK for being terrorists, and I hate the Turkish government for provoking them. I hate them equally and I don't give a shit about any of their reasons or justifications. Right now, Turkish nationalism is just a bunch of annoying noise and flags and words and oft-repeated stock phrases and I wish they would all get over themselves and shut up. LE is a helpless, smiling, perfect little being cooing in his crib, and I'm in charge of caring for him and protecting him, and all I can think of is the buses and trash cans and unidentified boxes that are going to start blowing up everywhere.

It's times like this that I'm reminded how much I'm an outsider here, and how I'm free to leave whenever it gets ugly. I'm reminded of how little feeling I have about Turkey and the Republic and its position in the world. I feel that I care nothing at all about anybody here except my son, and all the rest of them can go to hell for doing anything to threaten him. All of this has nothing to do with me. LE is as innocent as anyone can be. I don't care who's responsible. I don't care why it's happening. I just want it to go away.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Open Letter To Turks Dealing With Foreigners

We look funny. We talk funny. We just don't understand your wonderful culture and we don't think Turkish food is the best on earth. But you have to deal with us sometimes, so here are some helpful tips to make those crazy interactions with foreigners go a little more smoothly.

1) First and foremost, foreigners are not all alike. There are 193 other countries besides Turkey and they're all different from each other. I'm not talking about avoiding stereotypes, like claiming English people are cold or German people are loud. I'm talking about starting a sentence with 'Foreign people are X,' or 'Foreign people do X,' or 'Foreign people eat X' or 'Foreign people think X.' Just avoid doing this at all times. It just makes you look stupid. Remember, my friends, that's 193 other countries outside of Turkey. It's not one big country that isn't Turkey where all the foreigners live and get up to their wacky shenanigans.

2) This is a little like tip #1: If you met a foreigner one time, or if your friend or relative once met one, or even if you're lucky enough to know a foreigner yourself, do not get surprised when other foreigners you meet are not exactly the same as the one you know.

3) When a foreigner comes into your shop, do not get 6 inches behind him or her and follow him or her around pulling random things off racks and smiling hopefully. When he or she tells you nicely to go away, just go away. If the foreigner needs help, he or she will ask for it.

4) I know Turkish is a beautiful and complicated and amazing language that only Turkish people could ever manage properly, but when a foreigner speaks Turkish, do not squeal with delight and say how nice or sweet it is. Do not say in amazement, 'Oh, you speak Turkish! Say something in Turkish! It's so cute!' We are not trained monkeys.

5) Allow me to offer a more general piece of advice that doesn't apply to just foreigners. You know in your car, on the right-hand side of the steering wheel there's that stick? And when you push it up or down some lights flash, and there may even be a delightful clicking or pinging noise? That stick is there for a reason. It's to let people know you're going to turn. It's there because pedestrians and other drivers can't read your mind (not even foreigners!), and since you all always have the right of way and can't be bothered to slow down before you make turns, we would like to know ahead of time so we can avoid going in front of your car.

6) Please, please, please, just stop jumping out of your place of business when a foreigner walks by and shouting 'Yes, please!' It makes no sense. It's disconcerting. It's the best way to insure that the foreigner will run away from your restaurant and buy nothing in your shop.

7) You know how you don't like it when virtual strangers ask you really personal questions like how much your rent is, or how much money you make, or why you don't have children? Well, foreigners don't like that either.

8) Sitting and giggling with your friends and saying things like 'How are you I'm fine thanks' or 'I love you' in English or any other foreign language is not a good way to attract foreigners of the opposite sex.

9) I can't generalize this to all foreigners, but I know it's true of many: Stop touching our babies! Get your fingers out of their mouths! Refrain from grabbing their hands and kissing them! I don't know where your hands have been. For all I know, you could have been cleaning gas station toilets or inseminating racing camels before you came and stuck your hands all over my baby's lips. I don't know if you have some nasty, contagious weeping sores in your mouth. Babies are cute, I get it, but they're not public property. If you really must do something to our babies, the polite thing is to at least interact with the mother first. Seriously, doesn't it freak you out to turn around and see your baby's hand in some stranger's mouth?

10) Last, most foreigners do not hate Turkey or Turkish people, and way fewer of them than you think hate Muslims. To be honest, most foreigners probably haven't even thought about Turkey or Turkish people enough to even form an opinion about them. Many foreigners have not thought about Turkey or Turkish people at all. Really. Before I came to Turkey, I'd discussed Turkey and Turkish people with my friends and family approximately... never. So when something baffling happens in the world, it is rarely related to Turkey and foreigners' negative feelings about Turkey or Turkish people.

I do hope I haven't upset anyone with these ten helpful tips. For the most part, you Turks are a good bunch to hang out with, and you do a bang-up job of making people feel welcome. If you could just overcome these last little hurdles, we can learn to understand each other a little better, and things might just get a little nicer here for everyone.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Save The World...

... and feel smart at the same time: http://freerice.com/index.php

Friday, October 19, 2007

Politically Correct

Political correctness an odd phenomenon that hasn't really gone beyond the borders of the West. The feelings behind it are starting to, maybe, for some things at least. Educated Turks try to swallow their racial bigotry in conversation (though they might still stare at foreigners of any race and find them delightful), but they're still disgusted by homosexuality. Brokeback Mountain was released in Turkey as İbne Kovboylar (Faggot Cowboys). Under-educated Turks are unabashed about their prejudices. A dear friend and his partner came to visit Istanbul, my friend anxious to show off the place he'd left after living here for seven years. His partner,S, is Black, and we were followed by open-mouthed stares and barely concealed whispers and giggles everywhere we went. Passing some crowds on a narrow stairway, a few girls squealed and jumped away from S, and a few steps down we had to slap away some villagers who were trying to touch his hair. S is a really striking guy, and well-built, and because he was wearing a soccer jersey we tried to convince ourselves everyone just thought he was a famous footballer. But really, my friend and I were ashamed, both at the behavior of people in our adopted city, and at ourselves for recognizing that doing or saying anything would have been futile and so doing or saying nothing. Mostly. We told off a few people and were laughed at for our Turkish.

Political correctness is a linguistic quagmire. As an American, all the correct words have been pounded or shamed into me. When I was a kid, 'Negro' was as acceptable as 'Black', even polite, given the other choices, but at some point I learned to catch myself and say 'African American.' 'Handicapped' took the place of 'crippled,' then even 'handicapped' went away in favor of 'disabled,' though I really did have to draw the line at 'differently abled,' because not only is it confusing (isn't everybody differently abled from everybody else?), it seems somehow patronizing, like calling mentally retarded people 'special.' I'm sure 'retarded' is a word I'm not supposed to use either, but 'mentally disabled' is just too vague. 'Latino' became a convenient way to avoid lumping everyone south of the border into the same label of 'Mexican,' and also to avoid the taint of slur the word 'Mexican' had acquired in Southern California where I lived for awhile, the way 'Jew' is a slur in some contexts but not in others.

But since I've been in Turkey almost six years, a lot of this linguistic self-training has gone out the window. Euphemism and avoidance doesn't work for non-native speakers. It's a huge trap for teaching English, and will be met with blank stares in everyday conversation. My students usually picked up and used the word 'nigger,' probably from American films and TV, and really never could quite get why they shouldn't use it. I don't know any bad words for Black people in Turkish. The word I know, 'zenci' seems to be as bad or neutral as the speaker wants it to be, depending on the accompanying intonation and facial expression. 'Crippled' is another word learners often come up with. Colloquial Turkish uses 'sakat,' so 'crippled' is the word their dictionaries tell them. Same for 'backward' to mean retarded, as they usually hunt for 'geri' to describe retarded people. I have to use 'geri' in Turkish to describe my uncle with Down's Syndrome because I don't know another word, but 'geri' seems unnecessarily cruel. Turkish does have 'engelli' for disabled or handicapped, but it's very general. It's mostly used in official contexts (like on the rare handicapped toilet) and has a sound of official euphemism to it, and so isn't used very often in everyday speaking.

The lexicon of political correctness represents a type of avoidance, but what to avoid and why to avoid it is very much culturally bound. It's partly an issue of politeness, but it also is tied to how we label each other, and our feelings about how we want others to see us based on the labels we use. The first time I heard a student say 'nigger,' I really jumped. She was an intelligent, genteel, and well-educated young woman, and I had to remind myself that she wasn't aware of the cultural baggage of that word. 'It's a rude word,' I explained. 'It's argo.' Argo, I should note, is used in Turkish as a general word for slang, but slang carries a different weight here, in that it's bad or low language, used often by men and rarely by women, and rarely by men in front of women. So this explanation was enough to keep this young woman from saying 'nigger' again, but what about the men in the class? Calling it argo is hardly a way of discouraging them from using it, especially given the context they learned it in, which was likely a slick American film with cool Black guys calling each other 'nigger'. Not only does it look to them like a cool bit of American slang, it looks like the proper thing to call Black people, since that's what Black people appear to call each other. To Turks, it doesn't make a bit of sense that Black people can use a word with each other freely, but White people are forbidden from speaking it, and everyone gets really shocked and offended to hear anyone but a Black person say it.

To say that 'nigger' is rude hardly covers the problem with the word, but explaining the history and cultural context of it is just something you can't really do well with a lower-level English class in a 50-minute lesson. You're just asking to place yourself in a minefield you can't explain yourself out of. Once I told a class that it was a word only stupid people use, like George W. Bush, which earned me a laugh, but still didn't explain why only White people can't say it. A more authoritarian approach, like "It's a very, very bad word and you should never, ever use it no matter what," might work for some students, but one or two are always bound to ask "Why?" It's a good question. 'Nigger' is bad, but it's not a swear word. And as they've picked up from Hollywood, it's only bad for some people.

Then, of course, there's the inevitable follow-up question of how to refer to Black people. As I mentioned before, at some point in my life, probably around high school, I learned to say 'African American' instead of 'Black,' because 'Black' can be seen as a slur in certain contexts, and it's not always clear what those contexts are. However, outside of America, this fails. 'African American,' to me, refers to a very specific group of people, that is, Americans descended from Africans who were brought over as slaves 200 years ago. It can be extended to refer to more recent (Black) African and Caribbean immigrants to America. It refers to a very specific genre of literature, art, and film. Outside of America, though, it's very confusing. Obviously, you can't refer to Nigerian immigrants in Turkey as 'African Americans.' Nor is it appropriate for Black British people, or Black Turkish people descended from Africans who've been here since Ottoman times. And since 'African American' is a way of avoiding saying 'Black', it can't be used in America to refer to White immigrants from Africa, or even North Africans.

In an ESL classroom in America, students would probably be taught to use 'African American,' and that's fine. Inside of America, teachers would probably be discouraged from telling students to say 'Black,' because it's too slippery to know in which contexts it's okay. But here, I do teach them to say 'Black' and I do my best to make them understand why they shouldn't say 'nigger.' In the end, there's a very Western notion of political correctness, and the complicated processes we have of labelling ourselves and other people in order to avoid using labels, or in order to avoid using labels that can be thought of as rude or offensive even when the people who might be offended aren't around to have their feelings hurt. To a Turk, though, this process of avoidance labelling doesn't make any sense at all, and I have to admit it's starting to make less and less sense to me the longer I'm outside of America. Obviously, I know what's a slur and what isn't, and I know I'm not a bigot, but when talking to non-native speakers and wanting to be understood, being too delicate, or using culturally-bound linguistic delicacies undermines what you're trying to say, causes confusion, and in the end, is best abandoned.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Protection and Equality: Part II

When I wrote my first post about Turkey's proposed constitution, I was surprised to find that it went a different way than I'd originally planned. I'd planned to express my fears that Article 10, which states that men and women have equal status by law, was going to be removed. I'd wanted to share my dismay that, instead of equality, women were going to be given vulnerable and protected status, along with children, the elderly, and the infirm. Instead, I think I ended up concluding that it hardly matters whether women are considered equal by law in Turkey, because culturally, their status is on par with children, and that unpunished crimes like rape, forced marriages, and honor killings mean women in Turkey, in fact, could probably use more protection by law.

That's what happens sometimes when we write, I suppose. We start with one idea, but another and perhaps conflicting idea falls out. As a student of writing and as a teacher, this is something that should be dealt with in the revision process, but as a shiny new blogger with less time to write than I'd like, a lengthy revision process is something that just can't happen, unfortunately.

But that doesn't mean I can't have Part II. First, I think that I, and the English language press in general, made an assumption about how they're drafting the constitution. We assumed that Article 10 was being replaced with the clause giving women protected and vulnerable status. It's sort of logical, right? One thing about women disappears and another appears. However, I'm not sure that this assumption is exactly correct. I don't think it was a simple matter of lawmakers downgrading women's legal status here. Nor do I think it was a simple matter of devoutly Islamist lawmakers changing womens' status to better reflect Islamic thinking and Sharia law, though it's not impossible there was a conscious or unconscious influence of religion in the process. There are certainly other areas of the draft constitution where the political face of Islam rears it's head, and it's an issue of great contention here. But in making the assumption that one thing was being replaced with another, I think that I fell right in with the Western press in vilifying Turkey. I'm so often infuriated with the daily sense of exclusion I feel not just from being foreign, but from being female, and although as a foreigner I'm a thousand times better off than most Turkish women, I do get easily riled. The Western media tends to show Turkey's uglier sides too; for example, some of the BBC's stock footage of Turkey is shot near the Blue Mosque in Sultanahmet (the tourist center of Istanbul), and it shows several black burka-clad women when in fact, head-to-toe covering is pretty rare here and the women in the footage are probably tourists from Saudi Arabia.

Second, I didn't mean to imply that having legal equality for women is pointless given the cultural inequality, or that making women 'vulnerable' by law is a step in the right direction given their cultural vulnerability. I posed this issue of the draft constitution on a foreign wives forum I read, and MTW, a fellow Istanbul poster, raised some important arguments (I'm not providing the link, as access to the forums is members-only):

"In no present-day society do women have equality with men, but isn’t it the case that where one finds the ideal of equality enshrined in law is also where one is more likely to find that the gender is gap smaller?
If that’s true, I think it’s is one reason why we (I mean we who live here) should be very worried if the constitution is changed in Turkey.
It's not, I think, that women might not require laws that are specific to them, such as we find with regard to issues such as rape within marriage, the right to access to birth control and to abortion; but that is not incompatible with equality before the law, as I understand it.
That, to me, is what is alarming about the change that’s being proposed in the Turkish constitution, that it’s not additional protective law, but a removal of the ideal and ideology of equality in favour of constructing women as a somehow more feeble group, equivalent to children or the less able-bodied."

Yes. Thank you, MTW. 'Equality' and 'protection' need not be mutually exclusive. Having equality for women as part of the constitution is a step towards positive change, however slow that change may be, and however outlandish those changes may be considered at this time. Guaranteeing women equal status by law does not preclude other laws protecting them from violence and the patriarchal treatment by their male relatives and male counterparts. And women need not be perceived as vulnerable or 'feeble' by law in order to deserve or need this protection.

At the moment, the Turkish press is all in a dither about the Armenian resolution in the US, and the possibility of invading Northern Iraq. Rightfully so. But I do hope this doesn't mean women's equality has slipped under the Turkish public's radar. For the most part, this current government has been making a lot of noise about getting Turkish law more within the standards of the EU's constitution, so I'd honestly be surprised if women's equality were left out. However, guaranteeing women's rights in the constitution in order to impress the EU, and guaranteeing these rights in practice are not the same thing, so as usual, there's nothing to do but hope for the best. We'll see what happens.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Last Day of Ramazan

It's the last day of Ramazan, and I must admit I'm relieved. And not just because there's a short holiday (two days plus the weekend) and my husband is home.

Ramazan is a bad time to be outside here. However horrible Istanbul traffic is, and however insane and inconsiderate the drivers are is compounded by low blood sugar and sleep deprivation (people who are fasting get up before sunrise for a big meal before the fast begins). Traffic accidents abound, and when you look at them you can tell they were usually due to a driver getting mad and slamming on his accelerator. Even the most minor accident causes a huge traffic jam because, by law, the drivers must leave the cars where they are until the inspector gets there to determine the nature of the accident, so fender-benders sit and block the road for an hour while traffic is blocked on the other side by people stopping to have a good gape.

Going to the market during Ramazan is just stressful. The market is always packed, everyone grabs and pushes, and the bread and produce are sad and abused. A couple weeks ago I stood around for ages politely going 'Excuse me,' then finally giving up and shouting it at the butcher counter because the three workers were all too busy yelling at each other. Mahmut had decided he wanted to leave early because he was hungry, and the two women who would have had to pick up his slack weren't happy about it. They were hungry too and the argument had degenerated into name-calling before one of them huffed over to hack at the meat I wanted. And getting to the market on foot is harrying enough because drivers can't be bothered to stop or slow down for pedestrians-- they're in much too bad a mood-- and a terrible thing about LE's stroller is I'm forced to push it out in front of me. A few times I just couldn't deal with the market so I sent BE instead, who came back cursing and muttering 'Animals! Cannibals!' and 'I didn't get any spinach because they killed it.'

I used to teach at a very conservative university, and teaching during Ramazan was extra difficult. My job was mostly about keeping the students awake and getting them to stop griping about how hungry they were. Sometimes they grumbled at me that I was going to hell because I wasn't fulfilling my duty to God, though usually some of their classmates would come and apologise to me on their behalf, looking crestfallen because they knew I wasn't Muslim and so wouldn't be joining them in heaven. During Ramazan, out of respect, I refrained from drinking my usual coffee while teaching, but I usually started sneaking sips of water after the first week because my voice couldn't hold up from shouting over their whining and increased inattention for four hours.

It's not supposed to be this way, that Ramazan is everyone's excuse for turning into an asshole. It's supposed to be about peace and blessedness and thinking about God and those less fortunate. When they feel a pang of hunger, people are supposed to remember the religious significance of why they're doing this. At my old job at the conservative university, my co-workers seemed to understand this. They didn't feel good from the hunger and thirst, yet they all went around with pale faces, smiling and encouraging one another to get through they day. It got a little Bible Camp-y around there during Ramazan, but at least they seemed to get a spiritual benefit from it.

Not so for the average guy on the street. He fasts because he's supposed to, and damn anyone who gets in his way. In Istanbul at least, not everyone fasts. In some places you wouldn't even know it's Ramazan, except for the traffic and maybe your waiter is a little less obsequious. Restaurants and bars stay open, though an increasing number of restaurants won't serve alcohol. Smoking on the street is considered bad form during Ramazan, but people still do it. Many people don't fast at all, while others may just give up drinking or smoking for the month. A lot of young women seem to regard the fast as a way to lose weight.

Don't get me wrong-- this isn't an anti-Muslim rant. I try to respect their practices as best as I can. This is more of a rant about religious hypocrisy. This is more of a rant about selfish idiots. If people fast just because it's time to fast, but with no feeling behind it, then it's really just for show, and it's pointless. If someone wants to run over me because he's hungry, or lean on his horn and scare LE and make him cry just because he had to wait an extra ten seconds for us to cross the street and he was in a bad mood, then his fast is meaningless because all he's doing is making himself miserable so his neighbors will think more highly of him.

I get fed up with empty religious practice, and people who don't know their own religion. I heard a few really annoying stories in the news about this over this past month, all related to people knowing less about Islam than, apparently, I do. Islam doesn't make unrealistic demands on its adherents. For example, travelers are exempted from fasting and praying while on the road, where it might not be possible to do what needs to be done. Nonetheless, it was in the newspaper that some people on a coach made the bus pull over so they could pray. Other people on the coach didn't want to stop (they stop every two hours anyway, and the rest stops all have mezcits, which are like little mosques for travellers or workers for when there's no real mosque nearby), but they were argued down with accusations of being unbelievers. In another story, some passengers on a Turkish airline made a stewardess go ask the pilot to turn the plane towards Mecca so they could pray. The pilot refused, and they all got mad. Islam does not require people to risk their health for the fast. Old and sick people don't have to fast, nor do children, and nor do menstruating, pregnant, or nursing women. Still, I heard a story about a guy who nearly killed himself and his family, plus a few other people because he went into a diabetic coma while driving, and went off the road and crashed. He knew he was diabetic but fasted anyway. Clever. I'm sure God was very impressed by this.

So today I breathe a great sigh of relief. Ramazan is over. BE is home to complain at me for hogging the computer. The roads will be packed for the next few days as people go visiting friends and relatives, and then traffic will return to its normal crawl. The market will continue to be crowded and people will still think doorways are good places to gather and they'll still be unable to stand in line properly, but it'll all be a lot less ill-tempered and pushy. LE and I will go back to having at least one brush with death a week while crossing the road, instead of daily or twice daily narrow escapes. Things are looking up just a little bit here.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Protection: The New Turkish Constitution

The Turkish Parliament is toiling away in secrecy drafting a new Turkish constitution to replace the one created by the military following a coup in 1980. Naturally, the AKP sees this as a chance to lift the headscarf ban (in the interest of preserving secularity in Turkey, women are forbidden from wearing religious headgear in schools, universities, and other public institutions), causing a great deal of media and public outcry. It's as though poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, institutional corruption, and outdated, low-quality, overcrowded schools and hospitals (among other things) don't exist at all for all the importance this headscarf issue is receiving. Whether or not women can wear headscarves is largely symbolic, but at the same time, a highly emotional and divisive topic for Turkish people.

But I'll leave the headscarf issue for another post. Frankly, I'm quite sick of it at the moment, and, like many foreigners, I fail to see what the big deal is. A far more important issue in the proposed draft of the constitution is to eliminate Article 10, the clause guaranteeing equality for women (added in 2002 after a long struggle from women's groups), and instead include women with children, the elderly and the infirm as vulnerable people needing "protected" status (read more about this here and here). Legally, I'm not entirely sure what this means, but alarmist warnings claim that this can mean, for example, that a woman would need a man's written permission to work, drive a car, or open a bank account.

Shortly before I got married, I was chatting with a female co-worker about the impending nuptials. She said, "Won't it be nice to have a man to take care of you?" This threw me. A man to take care of me? What did she mean by this, exactly? Who was taking care of whom? At that time, I was earning three times the amount of money my husband was. Getting him to participate in even the smallest bit of housekeeping was already a battleground, as his mother had been like a magic fairy his whole life and it had never occurred to him how dirty cups made it into the kitchen to become clean cups. Despite working full time, I also kept the house clean, washed his clothes, and made his food. Now that I'm not working, these responsibilities fall even more squarely on my shoulders, though it's much better after getting a cleaning woman. If I don't put his socks or pajamas into the laundry, BE will wear them for weeks on end, apparently enjoying the smell, much like a dog who has rolled in something unpleasant. If I left my husband alone in the house, within a week he would be wandering around wondering where all of his clean underwear was, and within two weeks, he likely would be dead from starvation. That is, unless he went to his mother because without a woman around, he's pretty much helpless. After three years of marriage, he's almost learned how to make pasta by himself.

I'm going somewhere with this anecdote, bear with me. I asked the co-worker what she meant by needing a man to take care of me, and it turns out she was talking about something completely different. In Turkey, regardless of their current legal status, women are very much culturally considered vulnerable and in need of protection. Women do go out alone (in Istanbul, at least), but going out alone at night, even with a group of other women, is frowned upon and considered very dangerous. Women out alone can expect catcalling, and being followed, groped, or otherwise harassed, and generally, most people will think it is their own fault for going out without a man. When I got married, I felt like I had a sudden change in status in that men rarely bothered me when I was alone (because of the ring on my finger), and when I was out with my husband, men stopped even looking at me or talking to me directly, including waiters, shopkeepers, and even some of my husband's friends, as this would constitute an affront to my husband. At the same time, at 32 years old and after living here on my own for two years going wherever I wanted, drinking and dancing and doing whatever the hell I felt like (not to mention having come to Turkey by myself and finding housing and a job, and having lived independently since I was about 21, and having seen much more of the world on my own than my husband ever will), I suddenly had to fight my husband to go out with friends at night without him, as he didn't want to be seen as the kind of guy who let his wife go out without him. In his mind, this would make him some sort of 'wife pimp.' Also, he didn't want me to be seen out with my friends by any of the millions of members of his extended family, as it would cause them to gossip because apparently they have nothing better to do.

So culturally, women being 'protected' by men is the norm. More specifically, what I consider a great inequality of men being able to decide what their womenfolk can and can't do, seems to be thought of as 'protection' by a lot of Turkish people. Turks tend to live with their parents until they get married, meaning they're often at home well into their 30s. While young men are pretty much free to do as they like as soon as they're 16 or so, women remain subjected to their parents' rules until they leave home, only to then be subjected to their husbands' rules. I've known single women over 30 with curfews (and they don't break them), or who really aren't allowed to go out at all unless a brother or male cousin or whatever joins them. 30 year old women living at home aren't allowed to have boyfriends, while their 16 year old brothers have 3 different Sim cards, one for each girlfriend, to prevent misunderstandings.

If you ask male Turks about women in general, they seem to embrace the Muslim idea of them: namely, that women are sacred and fragile and beautiful jewels that need to be carefully watched over and protected from the envy of others. It's a double-edged sword though, being a jewel. I guess on one hand it's supposed to be a compliment they find us so valuable, but on the other hand, I think this is an underlying issue behind things like the desire to keep women safe at home (whether the woman wants it or not), considering women as property, forced marriages, and honor killings (which still happen here, and only in recent years have they started treating this as a proper crime). Women are expected to be virgins, and I've heard tales of nurse practitioners making cash on the side by sewing up broken hymens of women before their weddings. Free birth control is only available to married women. Women are expected to obey men. BE's mother will do what he tells her to do, and at home, she's expected to do things like greet her husband at the door, even when he comes home drunk at 3am wanting a cup of Turkish coffee, which she makes without complaint and then sits with him while he drinks it. Men's and women's roles are very clearly defined, and a woman's place is definitely in the home. This can be considered an advantage for me, as I had the freedom to decide to quit working and stay home with my baby, a decision that in the West might be looked down upon. However, in the West I'd be free to go back to work when it suited me, which is something that might be looked down upon here.

And just because the old constitution contains Article 10, let's not kid ourselves and pretend there is anything like equality for women here. There are the obvious inequalities of women in the workplace and in men's and women's salaries. A majority of professional, white-collar jobs are held by men, and that ceiling isn't made of glass for the women who've managed to break with the norms and have professional careers. This is the least of Turkish women's problems. Girls as young as 15 are more or less sold off into marriage, and honor killings are often treated as justifiable 'crimes of passion.' Spousal abuse is hardly considered a crime at all, and the police would rarely involve themselves in such a personal matter anyway. A few years ago, the government tried to change the law to punish rapists by forcing them to marry their victims, thus restoring their victims' honor, though fortunately that law wasn't passed.

Of course, I'm all for women's equality and rights being a part of Turkey's constitution. But realistically, within this culture, women are very much a vulnerable group in need of protection. Even though article 10 has existed since 2002, it doesn't seem like many other laws have changed to support the article, and if there are laws designed to punish those who perpetrate crimes against women, it seems like they aren't being held up by the courts, if these cases even reach the courts in the first place. It's one thing for Turkish women's groups to fight to get the laws changed to be more in line with UN Human Rights conventions, but it's altogether something else for women to take control of their lives and stop accepting the everyday conditions of inequality and vulnerability inherent in Turkish culture.

An Interesting Website

Watch the world tick by: http://www.poodwaddle.com/worldclock.swf

Friday, October 5, 2007

The Teletubbies

There's enough information on the Internet about parenting to make your head spin. Same for anecdotes about parenting. So for that reason, on this blog I'll generally try to refrain from cooing about my boy and how wonderful he is, and I'll try to spare my readers the trials and tribulations of LE spitting food at me (baby rice with breast-milk is the grossest) and how it feels at 1am when he decides the next 5 hours are Super Happy Baby Party Fun Time.

But sometimes things weigh on me, and sometimes I just don't get out enough. Specifically, I don't get out enough around people whose English is good enough for me to speak normally about whatever I want. And frankly, Turks aren't the greatest listeners anyway. They can never sit still until the punchline, if there is one. So in the interest of reducing the number of conversations with myself, or with LE (who spits food at me and thinks that's the punchline), I will occasionally witter on about a parenting thing here. I promise a more serious topic in the next post.

Most days, we wake up together, me and the little one, and have breakfast. He's almost over his fear of the coffee grinder, bless him. After his breakfast, I still have some of mine left, and the only way I'm going to get to eat it is if LE has some sort of Mommy's hands-off diversion. I hate to admit it, but most mornings this means Teletubbies. There's not a lot of English-language TV here, and I can't stand the sound of the dubbed Turkish kids' shows-- it's always women speaking in high-pitched children's voices and it makes my skin crawl. Plus, I'm already pretty ambivalent about letting the kid watch TV in the first place, and BBC Prime (one of two English language non-news channels on regular cable, and the other is Turkish financial news until 5 or 6pm) doesn't have the really brain-rotting types of commercials.

So Teletubbies it is. LE sits riveted and silent with his mouth hanging open. The only time his attention wanes is when they show those little films in their bellies-- I guess he likes the music and high voices and primary-colored things dancing around. I like it when the rabbits bound away in terror, and I try to guess if the baby in the sun is a boy or a girl. LE is almost as old as the baby in the sun now, but that baby has two teeth.

In college, we used to get high and watch Teletubbies, but really, no matter how high you are, it has limited appeal. It becomes disturbing, how the Teletubbies live. Their Mylar blankets really bother me, but worse, even though they bounce around joyfully and play and have custard and big hugs, their lives seem to be ruled by two cruel taskmasters: some telephone thingies that rise up from the ground and tell them what to do, and a pinwheel that sprays pink sparkles that alerts them to gather and then chooses one to have it's TV belly show something. They don't seem to mind the pinwheel too much, but they never want to say bye-bye when it's time, yet for some reason they're compelled to do so. It troubles me that they have to obey these objects, and even moreso that they so vacuously go along with their oppression. I think it sets a bad example.

But sometimes I like the little films they show. Once there was a very odd boy called Phillip who had stick bugs. He was about five, and seemed somehow precocious. His stick bugs had names like Harold and Diedre and Blanche. In the end, he said slowly in his in his calm and intonation-free voice, 'I like stick bugs because they look like sticks.'

Events on the Teletubbies repeat three times, and they're never very interesting. Perhaps this is why it was never that great to get high and watch it. A couple weeks ago, I got really angry with the Teletubbies. They were having Tubby Toast, which is round, slightly burnt, and has a smiley face. They have a special machine that makes the toast. Lala passed the toast around, and Tinky-Winky took everyone's toast and put it into his bag (this was the same bag that Jerry Falwell referred to when he questioned Tinky Winky's sexuality). Naturally this had to happen three times. By the end, Tinky Winky's bag was so full of toast that all the toast exploded out. But why, I wondered angrily, do they keep giving Tinky Winky toast if he's just going to put it into his bag? Why do they let him do that? And why the hell does Tinky Winky need a bag in the first place? It offended my sense of justice. A friend of mine whose daughter also loves the Teletubbies told me I was over-thinking it, but I couldn't bring myself to watch them for a few days, and poor old LE was stuck watching the news.

I still don't care for that Tinky Winky. There's something really off about that guy.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Plug: Following the 9th

My former teacher/mentor and friend, Kerry Candaele, is working on a documentary about Beethoven's 9th Symphony, and he is gathering stories about the 9th from around the world.

If you have a story about Beethoven's 9th, or have heard an interesting version of it from your part of the world, please take a moment to share it on the website: http://www.followingtheninth.com/home.html

Here's my story (which I've already offered to Mr. Candaele, but unfortunately he can't use it as I don't have a way of making a digital recording): It's safe to say I have Beethoven's 9th stuck in my head a good part of every day. My brother calls a snatch of music stuck in one's head an 'earworm.' I find this fitting. But why the 9th? Schools in Istanbul generally don't use bells to mark the periods. Instead, they use bits of music. The primary school near my flat uses the main chorus from Beethoven's 9th as their 'bell.' It's slightly off-key, totally lacking any proper syncopation, and sounds like it's being played on a synthesizer from the very early 80s. The reason it's always stuck in my head is that it plays through the first few measures, then suddenly cuts off in the middle. All day. Every day. It's maddening.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Black Sea Folks

One of my former bosses told me this story:

She was teaching a lesson where she was asking students to talk about people from different regions of Turkey (when teaching in Turkey, talking about Turkey and Turkish people and Turkish food and Turkish culture, etc. is about the only thing guaranteed to keep students interested; any straying from the topic of "Turkey and how wonderful everything about it is" means you'll lose your class's attention within minutes). One student raised her hand and said "Karadeniz (Black Sea) people like to fuck." Shocked, the teacher asked her to please repeat that. "Karadeniz people like to fuck," said the student again. Guessing that this probably wasn't what the student meant (women in Turkey rarely swear, for one thing, especially in a classroom), she questioned the student further and realized the student was trying to say "Karadeniz people like to folk," meaning folk-dancing. Stuff like this happens when you're teaching-- it's really hard not to laugh. Once I was asking some elementary students what their parents' jobs were. Invariably their mothers are "house-women," but usually their fathers have jobs. One student said "My father owns a sex factory." I blushed because this student was an attractive young fellow (of Black Sea stock, no doubt, as they often have that strapping, corn-fed farm boy look), and I was a newish teacher, unsure if he was trying to flirt. I asked him to repeat that, and he said it again. So I started to move on to the next student, figuring someone had to own factories where sex toys were made outside of China, and it was expected that owner of such a factory's son would be frank about it. But the student started motioning towards his feet, and what he'd meant was "socks factory." Well, someone has to do that too. Judging from the quality of the student's cell phone, his father wasn't doing too badly at it, either.

In one of my MA courses, Cultural Linguistics, we conducted an informal poll of the American accent that sounds nicest to native speakers of American English. The preferred accent was Northern Midwest, particularly that of people from Michigan. People thought this accent sounds the most honest and the least annoying, and that one tends to make good judgements about someone with this accent. Personally, I like the long "o"s of people from Michigan-- nicely rounded, but not as pronounced as a Canadian's.

I've conducted informal polls like this with Turkish students, and generally they all think the Black Sea accent sounds the nicest, with the Aegean accent as a close second. They cite similar reasons-- the Black Sea accent is honest and unpretentious and makes the speaker sound likeable. For me, I find the Black Sea accent nearly impossible to understand. Even Kurdish and Southeastern Turkish accents with their swallowed vowels and gutteral, almost Arabic "h"s, "k"s and "g"s are easier for me than Black Sea accents. Black Sea people are pretty easygoing about their vowels, and kind of use whatever ones they feel like, plus they soften hard consonants, so, for example, a hard "g" often sounds like "j." And moreso than most Turks, they get really excited and animated and speak a million miles and hour-- even Turkish people often say they have a hard time understanding Black Sea folk.

As for liking folk dancing, who can blame them? Black Sea music is great. Tinged with a Slavic quality, the drums gallop along with a clarinet-like instrument of increasing insanity. Some people hate it but I love it. Outisde my old flat, some neighbors were doing a traditional Black Sea wedding, where the family and others come to collect the bride, and along with the carts and half a billion family members, they brought along a small band playing Black Sea music. It was shortly before I got married. I told BE I wanted a Black Sea band to come collect me for the wedding, and he stuck his nose up scornfully and said, "Oh my god, I'm marrying someone who likes Karadeniz."

Turks may like the Black Sea accent the best, but in general, Black Sea people are the Polish joke of Turkey. There's a recurrent character, Temel, in these jokes ("temel" in Turkish means "basic," but said of a person it connotes more of a moron). I only know one Temel joke: Temel got himself a flea and was conducting experiments on it in his laboratory. He cut off one of the flea's legs, and ordered it to jump, and it did. He cut off a second leg and ordered it to jump again, and it did. Eventually, Temel had cut off all the flea's legs. He ordered it to jump, and when it didn't, he dutifully recorded the results: "If you cut all the legs off of a flea, it can't hear."

Are Black Sea people stupid? I wouldn't go that far. They are said to have a quality, however, of stubbornly pursuing ill-conceived notions to sometimes bad endings for themselves. The Turkish press often reports these Black Sea mishaps in the newspaper. One that I read myself involved two brothers in Trabzon who were moving house. The apartment was on the second floor. They wanted to move the refrigerator, and decided it was a good idea for one brother to drop the refrigerator from the balcony and the brother on the ground would catch it. Both the brother and the refrigerator were killed. Another story, reported to me by BE, was again in Trabzon: A fly went into a guy's mouth. Wanting to get rid of it, he sprayed bug poison in there, killing himself and, presumeably, the fly. In this third story, no one dies, fortunately: During Ramazan, people gather around their food-laden tables and eagerly await the sundown ezan so they can break their fast. An imam in Trabzon made a mistake with the time, and accidentally called the ezan several minutes early for a week or so, causing the faithful to break their fasts early, which is a no-no. Realizing his mistake, he asked the elders (or whoever imams ask in these situations) what he should do, and they told him to make up those minutes by calling the ezan several minutes later for a week. This story made the international press, and a guy from Trabzon living in Germany (a different time zone) called into a religious radio show wondering if he, too, should break the fast later, because he was from Trabzon.

Still, Black Sea pide is the best. For those in or passing through Istanbul, go to Karadeniz Pidecisi in Bakırköy on the corner across from the Evin Cafe. Even BE agrees this is really great pide. Trabzon bread is much tastier than the kleenex-flavored baguettes one usually ends up with here. Akçaabat köftesi is spicy and unashamedly garlicky, which is rare in a culture that gets grumpy about garlic breath. For Black Sea music, though the guy is a complete idiot and is said to only have gotten a recording contract because his father is big in the industry, I recommend Davut Güloğlu, who sets Black Sea music to dance beats.

Black Sea folks. You gotta love 'em.