This is a question I get asked pretty much every time I leave the house. It’s okay. I don’t mind. I even appreciate people’s curiosity and need to categorize. And it’s not like anyone can tell from looking at me, or even from hearing me speak English—few people can identify accents.
But it’s a loaded question, in its way. So recently, in those dark days when Bush was president, this was a question I answered with care. I mostly told people the truth, but not without taking pause and trying to guess what sort of person they were, and if their vitriol against Americans was more than average. I think in the seven years I’ve been here, I’ve told maybe five people I was Canadian. Once I told a guy I was German, but he started speaking something like German to me so that was a mistake.
I hope Canada doesn’t mind that I’ve been a sometime fake citizen of that country. It’s just that no one has anything against Canada. Canada is nice to everyone. They offer gravy with their fries. The only time I know of that Turks were mad at Canada was a few years ago, when there was a flurry in the media about baby harp seals being clubbed in there. Suddenly everyone was indignant about Canada and this unspeakable cruelty and I just defended the Canadians and held my tongue about how street animals are treated in Istanbul.
But when I said I was American, about half the time someone had something nasty to say about Bush. Everything from, “He’s an idiot,” to “He’s a baby-killer.” I never minded about joining in with a few choice comments about Bush. I don’t think of him as being my fault, though I often felt like apologizing for him. And I can’t disagree about the mess he’s made of everything. “Just three more years,” I kept saying. “Just one year left.” It’s not so much that I was ashamed of being American as I was ashamed of the things being wrought upon the world in our name.
And then came Obama. Wonderful Obama. Handsome, debonair Obama. Obama who promised to keep his nose out of the Armenian thing. Obama who hasn’t even pissed off the Turks with a position on Israel. Obama whose wife hugged the Queen of England and got away with it; even the BBC was gushing and dribbling about that one. Obama who’s a full foot and a half taller than Abdullah Gül, and Gül is always the tall guy sticking out amongst the people who usually surround him.
Obama whose middle name is Hussein. But let’s just say it’s Hüseyin, okay? That Fox News rumor from early on in the campaign that Obama is Muslim took root here. While the Turkish media tried to dispel the rumor that he was Catholic after they’d reported it, they left the Muslim rumor alone. In America, that rumor was meant to be Obama’s undoing. In Turkey, it makes him a god. He’s one of us. He’s on our team. He’s greatness itself. Turks even congratulate Americans on finally electing a Black president, because as everyone knows, there’s no racism in Turkey.
A lot of people have heard that Obama isn’t really Muslim. They just let that go. While the media doesn’t outright say he’s Muslim, newspapers still have headlines like “The Obama Church Mosque Issue,” where the article talks about how mad the Christians are because Obama visited mosques in Turkey, but didn’t visit any churches. Not that he’s a Muslim, but we’re just saying is all.
Religion, in places where people care about religion as a way of identifying and categorizing people, strikes me as similar to football teams. You’re either on our team or you’re not, and it’s better if you’re on our team because then we can be friends. In my early months here in Turkey, three friends insisted that I choose a football team to support. It couldn’t be any other way. I couldn’t live my life sitting on the fence about this, never mind that I don’t care about football. I had to choose, and I had to make the right choice: Fenerbahçe, Galatasary, or Beşiktaş. So I chose Beşiktaş because I like their colors the best. Here and there people have come along and tried to convince me to become Muslim. The conversation was very similar to the football one. You should be Muslim because it’s the best religion. All of us are in this religion so you should be too. Then there was that whole class of students at the ultra-conservative university who got very upset I’m not Muslim. Some of the girls looked ready to cry. On the break they came to my office and begged me to convert because they didn’t want me to burn in Hell.
The other day the greengrocer, in between bellowing for slow-witted Recep who never materialized, asked me if I thought Obama is Muslim. I couldn’t bring myself to say yes, and for an instant he looked so crestfallen I felt bad. So I quickly added that Obama grew up with Muslims, and he knows them, and he’s not scared of them like Bush. Obama doesn’t think Muslims are the enemy. The greengrocer seemed to feel a little bit better, then said sadly, “It’s going to take Obama a long time to undo what Bush has done, but America sure looks better now.”
And it’s true. For now, at least, telling people I’m American doesn’t lead to an angry rant. While I got pretty good at dealing with those in Turkish, I’m still relieved that I don’t have to.