Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ben, AKP, Istanbul and me

The Gulenists had built beautiful, well-functioning hospitals and schools on the Asian side. AKP, Erdogan's (pronounced "Ehr-do-ahn") party had financed the canal projects along the Bosphorus for hundreds of millions of lira.

In the summer of 2011, when Vera and I came back to Turkey, there was so much money in Turkey. Every sector was growing, from tourism, to commercial businesses, to education, and a better educated, more multilingual workforce was changing the impression of Turkey in Europe and in other nearby parts of the world.

So why was there also so much uneasiness? Many of the smartest, the best, in the country had left or were planning on leaving. The police officer Hakkan had passed his foreign service exam and was now working at the Turkish embassy in Cuba. Begum, one of my best former students, was doing everything she could to go abroad. "The way things are going, there's no place for us," she had said.

I thought about that after she left. Who was "us"? I knew she was an adamant supporter of CHP, the opposition party to AKP, as were most of my literature students. I also knew she had spent a year in the Midwest and her English was impeccable. 95% of my students, when asked who their biggest hero was, in a survey I distributed, answered Ataturk. But Ataturk, with his pro-European stance on Turkey and his alleged drinking, was becoming another AKP target (even if they couldn't directly attack him because of the laws set up after the founding of the Republic.).

The Mavi Marmara incident the summer before had polarized relations between Israel and Turkey, and AKP had done nothing to stop this polarization. They had even agreed to put money behind a museum to memorialize those who died on the Mavi Marmara. Nine Muslims were killed when Israeli soldiers boarded the Turkish ship on its way to Gaza. A PR disaster followed when Israelis found only humanitarian aid on the ship. It was a staged event and a provocation, but it had dampened relations between Turkey and Israel to such a degree that apparently in the year that followed almost one-third of the Turkish Jews remaining in Turkey left for Israel.

A map of the results of the referendum the previous August showed a country as politically divided as the red and blue states in the United States. Only AKP was steadily gaining and there was no viable opposition to control their power.

The Erdogans behaved more and more like untouchable royalty. Tayyip's daughter even demanded that a theater performance be halted because she claimed one of the actors tried to flirt with her. She also objected to a scene in which two actors on stage, a man and a woman, kissed. The performance was stopped so that she and her entourage of security escorts could leave the theater.

(to be continued)

Friday, August 1, 2014


Ben: I lost his friendship for good when I became a mother. I had not anticipated that that experience of being a mother would change my perceptions as much as it did. After the birth, I viewed everything through the lens of this tiny creature. What if the future came, Vera were 24 instead of 3 months, and what if she were dating Ben? Would I want her happiness to be entrusted to such a person?

Ever since graduate school, I have had at least one close friend who wrote. It comforted me to occupy a private writing space and to know that someone else I was close to was engaged in the same kind of enterprise. Ben wrote constantly. He wrote poems while teaching, at committee meetings, at bars. He was more prolific than any other writer I knew. In his poetry he was precise, engaging, whimsical, and romantic. In his real life I never quite trusted him. He seemed to be playing a great cat and mouse game with his wife that had turned him into a cynical and even somewhat dangerous person. He once likened his social machinations to those of George W. Bush's campaign strategist Karl Rove. He could employ "scorched earth" policies with those he no longer needed or trusted.

There were frequent purges of his Facebook friends (he rarely had more than 130), purges of the most innocuous people, students, some of whom had re-friended him after being purged once before. Who goes to such lengths to purge students? A drastic kind of person does such dramatic and final things with people who are younger and who are in a weaker position. But Ben did such things frequently. His behavior baffled me.

We had a completely platonic relationship. We sent each other our work, we lamented our disappointments --writing, romantic and otherwise--and we were like family. In a foreign country, having family nearby is like having one's sanity within arm's reach. Speaking the same language, growing up in the same culture, with the same cultural references, he reminded me of a familiar old friend, the kind of friend with whom too much time has passed to ever become romantic. "If we had wanted to hook up, we would have done so by now" would have been our response to the prospect.

Yet I was a witness to his unraveling private life. Aida followed Nurtan: Nurtan followed Meryem. Aida was petite, like Meryem, but she did not quite have Meryem's mischievous sense of humor. Aida took life more seriously. For one thing her father was not a prominent judge in Istanbul, and she did not quite have the sexy, playful hair and body that Meryem had. Meryem had magnificent, voluminous hair.

Everyone, including his wife, knew he was madly in love with Meryem. In fact, he had lost his job teaching literature at Izmitkabasa after someone sent photographs of Meryem sitting on her professor's lap on a park bench in Moda. There were photos of them kissing and laughing, and they were sent out to the department head, the judge (Meryem's father), and Ben's wife. I think it was right about then that Ben and Meryem disappeared and everyone said that they had driven to the border to elope. I never did ask why they needed to marry in another country. Perhaps because Ben was already married and there was already documentation in the Turkish records office indicating as much.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Meryem: Minus one

She was not like the other Turkish female students. She was not recalcitrant, not defensive, not insecure, and she didn't oscillate disconcertingly between obsequiousness and arrogance. She had charisma, and her own sense of style. She wore a driver's cap, a vest, Converse sneakers, and the tightest stone-washed jeans I have ever seen. Her sense of style veered toward tomboy and in the pouting expression, she even echoed James Dean. Yes, there was something of the James Deanette about her -- especially in the pouting expression and the attitude.

"Do you find us aggressive?"

"We're used to being afraid. Our primary and secondary school teachers made us like this. We're afraid of the dark.

"I still sleep with my little brother, you know?"

I did not realize the fury with which they hated her, not until a few days before that afternoon when her detractors came to me, demanding that I fail her presentation for plagiarism, insisting that she had insulted them, and should be punished for this. Once again it had become clear to me that I was no longer teaching at an American university. Allegiances and antipathies ran deep and shunning fellow students publicly was not unusual. "Wasn't it too long?" one normally truant student had piped up when I had asked for questions at the end of her classmate's presentation. To me what was unacceptable hostility, to them was an innocent question related to length.

The previous semester, before I knew anything at all, she had waited until the last day of classes, timing it so that other deadlines might shrink the class size to four or five, to give her presentation. To build herself up, she had visited me every day in my office for a week to talk about the presentation. Yes, I had defended her against them, but that was because the noise levels grew and grew until she could no longer concentrate.

"What is a 'doofus'? What is 'obnoxious'?"

These were the words she tripped over when they asked for their meaning.

"Oh Miss, I will miss you so much. You don't know how much."

I wanted to talk to her about the students, about how they came to demand that I fail her and to tell her that I thought she was right to ask them to be quiet, but I also heard in the back of my mind the cynical words of her ex-boyfriend, now abandoned, now betrayed.

"10% chance she wants to see you just for the grade. She has to graduate, you know. How'd she do on the midterm?"

"She didn't write the essay questions. She answered all ten ID's and didn't write a single essay question. She didn't read the directions."

"Meryem, what is she doing? At least write the essay questions."

That was my feeling as well. She needed to graduate. She was taking anti-depressants and seeing a psychiatrist. More than that, she needed to get away from those who hated her and whose hate fed off each other. In John Stuart Mill's words, she constituted a majority of one, and they - they who would destroy her -- constituted everyone else. And did they really believe their rhetoric, at night when they closed their eyes and thought about their days, did they really believe they were right? "We're 100% right," this they had told me, and in saying so, they had proved that they had gained nothing from four years of studying literature. Theodor Adorno once called the mark of an authoritarian one who "could not accept ambiguity," but they were all terrible with ambiguity. Ralph Ellıson called the blues “an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstances, whether created by others or by one's own human failing.” This art of ambiguity was lost on them as she was lost, and as I watched her drown and did nothing, I felt a tremendous sorrow for all that we had all lost in doing nothing.


Hakkan reassured me that he and the entire Beyoglu police would come immediately and protect me if the Big Bad Wolf came to attack me on the dark streets behind Kumbaraci Street. But before this happened: SNOW. It had snowed. The streets went empty, my internet connection was lost, and I had gone out in search of those pills. Yes, that was it.

No, that wasn't it exactly. The Swiss Turkish man with the scratches on his bald head, what had happened with him? I sat down at a table at the coffee shop and took the pills, and not long after that, he seated himself a few tables from me and asked for a pen and then he started talking and kept on talking, always in German, so that no one else in the coffee shop could understand. In German he had confessed to killing a man the night before and losing his passport.

If only his fingernails hadn't been quite so dirty.
If only he hadn't told me that he had beaten in the door of his sister's trailer
In the name of her honor
Because he had bought the trailor to keep her safe,
and now she held onto a man fifteen years her junior
by putting him up in her trailer.

Then, there was the talk of religion and the Holy Koran and its Suras and the unbelievable fabrications about his daughter at Oxford on scholarship.
In which program, he didn't know?
In which college, he didn't know that, either.

That was the day I found out about Mustafa's calls to Ayşe. He was in love with Ayşe, not me, despite her repeated rebuffs, or so she claimed, but could I trust her? Could I trust anyone in this place? But, yes, of course, it was true, it had to be true. Why would she tell me this if it wasn't true? She could push for him but apparently by her own words, they were not together. She didn't care for him. So it was true. That morning I had gone out in search of a pharmacy because even I was not stupid enough to have Mustafa's child. And with this conservative government in power, wouldn't I be humiliated or dressed down by the pharmacist? I had no ring on my finger and no man by my side and it was snowing and cold and there was no one on the street. But in Istanbul I could expect only and always to be surprised. Not even a flicker in the eyes when I asked for the pills, no moral condemnation, no price gauging of the embarrassed sinner.

Did they know who I was sleeping with? Could they see it in my eyes? No, the blonde hair and blue eyes protected me. A little fun between Europeans on holiday, no one would bat an eye to that, as long as they're dropping Euros in the country, who cares what they're getting up to in their hotel suites, right?

"The weather's nasty today, isn't it?" the pharmacist said, smiling.
"Yes, it's terrible," I answered. "Really cold and wet."
"You will take all of these pills at once. You will not take one now and one later, yes?"
"Yes," I answered.

I called Ayse to tell her the story about the Turkish Swiss man speaking in German about his capital crimes. The streets were crowded again, just like before, just like a normal holiday. I thought of calling Mustafa after talking to Ayse to tell him I had gotten the pills and it had gone well enough, but his line was cut and his work number had changed. Maybe she had his work number among her things - this was how it started. He was one who who set up our first meetings and she was the one who had been on the other end of the line when he had called for a translation of what I was trying to say that first day when I had needed the verification of residency.

"He doesn't know how to keep a distance, Mustafa. I told him to think of you, not me. I'm not talking to him anymore. Look to Natasha, I said."
"What exactly did he say about me?"
"Not much, he doesn't talk about you."
"No, I mean at first. How bad was it?"
"He doesn't say much. He's not right in the head -- it's not your fault. He's just not right."

Fifteen minutes later she called me again. "Jonathan's coming," she said. Jonathan was her English ex-boyfriend. "He's bringing Aysun. Hang on, he just texted me....they're there already," she said.
"In Taksim."

But what could they do? How could they help? This was an emotional, not a physical problem. If Mustafa did not love me, what could I do? Hiç bir sey. Nothıng. My only consolatıon was my rıght to moral indignatıon. When all else failed, I still had outrage. Yes, I had gained the privilege of shrewishness, the tired whining swan song of the unloved. I could break out my Tori Amos albums and holler into my Ipod about romantic injustice.

Those letters written in fits of anger, for whom are they written? My angriest letters were more pathetic lamentations to myself, expressions of disgust over how I could be so very stupid. And when I was in the presence of kind good people -- people like Devrim -- I felt ashamed that I had allowed my anger to control me. And what was I angry at myself for? For my sexuality. Yes, that was unacceptable. If I were a Turkish girl, I would have kept that out of the relationship completely. We European and Americans, we were promiscuous they said. But was it promiscuity still after nine months, a year, ten years. How long before one became legitimate? Without marrying, and thus implicitly becoming Turkish and Muslim, one was always a promiscuous infidel. I didn't like the terms anymore. Actually, I had never much liked them, but now I felt personally wounded by them. Mustafa wasn't even a Sunni, but an Alevi, a curious sect which mixed elements of Christianity and Islam, and believed in tolerance and universalism and equality between the sexes. Oh fuck it, he just didn't like me. This had nothing to do with being an infidel or an unbeliever or being promiscuous; this just had to do with me. I couldn't piece it together.

Ayşe, huh? Well, even I liked Ayşe. She had a great sense of humor and a funny way of telling stories and she was a feminist and did interesting photography projects for her degree. Yes, ok, she was in her thirties and still hadn't finished school and never worked and lived off, what? I could never really figure this out, how did she live? How did she make money? There was the two year relationship with an Englishman making heaps of money in graphics and advertising; maybe he had paid for her housing and other expenses. I took care of myself, I always took care of myself, and that got me precisely where exactly? Walking through the snow on the coldest day of the year on the way to the pharmacist, I thought of that joke about the pigs.

"Why are European women so promiscuous?"
"Because they eat pork, and pigs are promiscuous animals."

Yes, it was a funny one. I couldn't stop laughing as I walked through the snow on the coldest day of the year on the way to the pharmacist.

the end of an era

and I locked
the door then
put out the
got myself a beer
sat there
in the dark

I liked that
that's the way
I continued to live
from then on.

there were no more
after that
the writing got much

everything got much

you've got to
get rid of
false friends and
bloodsuckers first
before they

--Charles Bukowski's "The End of an Era" (lines 160-199)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Dating a Gulenist is Confusing

One Sunday morning my friend Ben called. He had gone on a departmental picnic the day before and had many strange conversations. He wondered if we could meet so that he could talk out some of the weird experiences of the day before.

His American colleague, Dorothy, who had recently converted to Islam, sat next to him on the ferry, so that she could discuss the evils of the state of Israel and the merciless subjugation of the Palestinian people. He felt discouraged when his former student, Nurtan, showed up at the ferry station wearing a headscarf. She was in fact more than just his former student. They had been seeing each other for weeks, and she had never mentioned wearing the scarf. She worked at Ben's university and all employees of all universities in Turkey were banned from wearing the headscarf while at work.

Nurtan was old enough to have a relationship with Ben, and she was not his student anymore because she studied English literature and had chosen a major professor from that field. She had given a paper at a conference they both attended and had flattered him by remembering every word of their conversations almost two years later.

At the picnic they disappeared for a while and kissed in the more wooded parts of the island.

"But I can't look at her the same when she's wearing that thing. I'm just trying to ignore it, but I just can't get around it--it's in the way."

Then, on the way back, the entire group migrated to a nearby mosque to pray. Ben was overwhelmed by how many of his colleagues and students insisted on praying.

"Even Dorothy went up to the women's section and didn't come back for the next twenty minutes. I got the feeling that no one wanted to be caught standing outside the mosque - not even on the most beautiful spring day of the year!"

Ben's relationship with Nurtan became stranger and stranger. They began to see each other off campus. They would meet at a Starbuck's and then walk to Dolmabahce Palace or to Galata Tower or to have fish at some restaurant with a view of the Bosphorus. She wore the headscarf and even interrupted their dates to go to the mosque and pray.

"But she never says a word about the ring," said Ben. "I'm wearing my wedding ring. She's wearing her headscarf and she links arms with me while we're walking and the weird thing is, she's more submissive in the scarf. She doesn't want to choose her own dessert. She wants me to choose. Same with her drink, she'll have whatever I'm having. Why doesn't she care more about the ring?!"

Elegantly Dressed Wednesday: Christina Fallin of Pink Pony