Wednesday, February 17, 2010


So one of the most popular people to hate and wish ill on in Turkey is the Jews. I have heard some statements come out of ordinary people's mouths that might make the most rabid bigot in the States blush (okay, just a little). At English Time--my previous school--a young man in his early twenties referred to Hitler as a "the most important leader in history" whose only failure was that "he didn't finish the job". Another student said he had a funny story to tell, and when I asked him to share it with the class, described through helpless laughter how a mob had nearly beaten to death a rabbi in Turkey after the attacks on Gaza by Israel. And at my new school, the illustrious zoo of spoiled animals called Fenerbahce, I walked into the teacher's room to this conversation between one of the foreign teachers--a New Jerseyite--and a Turk.

New Jersey Nancy: me, okay. And she just had to have that last four cents, you know? Those four pennies were suddenly the most important things in the world. Of course, she's a Jew. Now the other one, you know, she was Italian, so what's four cents to her right?

Turkish Tugba: Thank God they weren't both Jews!

So the other night in Taksim, some human rights organization was hosting a rather odd exhibition called "Yasayan Kutuphane" or Living Library. In this library, the books were people. And when you "checked them out", you went into the backroom and asked them whatever you wanted. There was a card catalogue at the front desk and you could choose from among a wide variety of reading material including Jews, Transexuals, Armenians, Greeks, Schizophrenics, the Blind, Kurds, Women in Head Scarves, Bankers (??), gays, lesbians, and bisexuals--a salad bar of Turkey's minorities. I asked for an Armenian first and was told he was "on loan" but the Jew was free.

The Jewish guy's name was Henri, pronounced in the French manner so that it sounds like "ornery". We repaired to a gathering of cushions in the corner where I and Delal peppered him with questions. He explained that life had been very comfortable for Jews in Turkey (he considers himself a Turk first) until the current government came into power. Their anti-Israel stance has led to a lot of anti-Semitism against Turkey's native Jewish population. People don't know the difference between Jew and Israel. His family have been in Istanbul for over five hundred years, since the first Jews came over in 1492 at the Sultan's invitation after Ferdinand and Isabella drove them out of Spain. He speaks Ladino--the Spanish the Jews brought with them at that time--but is one of the last to do so. I asked him if he was ever afraid in the current political client and he said, "Hell yeah!" There are another class of Jews in Turkey called "donme", the apostates, who don't know they're Jews.

The story goes like this. Back in 1666, a guy named Shabbetai Levi decided he was the Messiah and massed a huge crowd of followers who believed they were going to overthrow the world's governments and bring about God's Kingdom. The Sultan let him have his way for a long time, but eventually called him to the palace and said, "Okay, look. If you're the Messiah, great. I'll follow you. But you have to prove it first. I'm going to order my soldiers to fire arrows at you. If they don't hurt you, I'll admit you are who you say you are. Otherwise, you must convert to Islam." Levi deliberated for a second and then said, "Okay, then, I think I'll convert to Islam." Of course, his followers could not understand why their king shrieking about Revolution had caved so easily. So they decided it was all part of the plan and converted in mass, while still practicing secretly at home the old Jewish rites. There are apparently Muslims to this day who practice Judaism at home and don't even know it.

This library thing might seem a little strange, but remember, this is a country where most people do not admit the existence of minorities. (Turkey has no gays, I was told. They are imported from America). I have had over three hundred students here and only one open Armenian. So this was a unique opportunity to meet Turkey's "underground". Not just for me, but for Turks of course.

(One guy at Delal's work made this comment: Okay, they have all those minorities. They should have a Turk, though!--Hmmm.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know a man who hung the Turkey's flag over the front seat of his car. He did because his driving license was taken by the traffic police for some reason. And the flag was/is his new driving license, it's been more than a year, he hasn't been stopped by any officer, yet!
I mean, of course, that is a good evident for Turks being minority in their own republic!!