Thursday, January 6, 2011

'You're Marrying a Kurd!'

Today, in my seventh grade class, the usual band of giggly girls peppered me with ‘relationship questions.’ The conversation went like this:


Girls: Mr. Gibbs! Do you have any kids?

Jeff: Not yet.

Girls: Do you want any?

Jeff: Well, I used to have a son actually. But I traded him for an iPod.

Girls: Mr. Gibbs!

Jeff: It was a brand new iPod.

Girls: Seriously! Are you even married?

Jeff: Not yet. But I will be after this summer.

Girls: Who are you marrying?

Jeff: A street cat.

Girls: Do you have a girlfriend?

Jeff: Of course I have a girlfriend. Who else would I marry?

Girls: What’s her name?

Jeff: Delal.

Girls: Dilal?

Jeff: No, Delal.

Girls: Is she Turkish?

Jeff: No, she’s Kurdish. It’s a Kurdish name.

Girls: EEEWWWWW! You are marrying a Kurd! What’s wrong with you?

And this is where I start to regret being such a smartass, because they think I’m kidding. They decide that me saying I am marrying a Kurdish girl is a lot like me saying that I traded my son for a nifty piece of electronics and was engaged to a hobo street animal. There are shouts of ‘stop joking!’ until finally, from my angry, nasty, cutting remarks, they realize I am not kidding. The funny thing is, we have just read The Diary of Anne Frank and studied the Holocaust and are chock full of useful and pertinent vocabulary. It becomes a bit like an oral exam.  And there were doubts among the teachers about whether these words would be useful among seventh graders!

‘So you guys are racist, basically. Hey, that will be on the test, by the way. Just like prejudiced. Are you guys both racists and prejudiced, or just one or the other?’

‘No!’

‘Maybe you support discrimation. Remember that word?’

And the odd thing is half of this class is a hodgepodge of Turkish minorities—Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. One of the girls grilling me is Jewish. I don’t bother to tell her that one of my ex-students thought they she and her entire race should be wiped out of existence. He said this in class, ‘Hitler is my hero and it’s too bad he didn’t finish job he start. (sic)’ But then, unexpectedly, things take a bit of a different turn.

‘So can she even speak Turkish?’ one girl asked.

‘Better than most Turks,’ I answer. ‘Her father was a Turkish teacher.’

‘Can she speak Kurdish?’

‘Not as well as Turkish. Kurdish was forbidden. People were arrested for speaking it or having books in Kurdish or listening to music in Kurdish. So really, no, she never had a chance to learn her own language as well as Turkish.’

‘But that’s not fair.’

And then one of my boys pipes up, ‘It’s just like it was under the Nazis.’

‘And on that note,' I say after I let the remark sink in.  'Let’s get back to the past perfect tense.’

I was pissed off all day, preparing lectures I would harangue them with the next day, but then I thought about it—they are all thirteen. Maybe this past six weeks has been a sort of sowing period. I have planted the seeds. We’ve watched a film and read a book about a girl their age get hauled off to a death camp by her own people. We have talked about prejudice and racism and discrimination and segregation. Now that they have the language to discuss them, they can start to recognize when it happens around them. The concepts are starting to sprout--and they can apply what they’ve learned. My boy's comment came out of his own brain, I didn't tell him--Inception!  And after all, these kids for the past 7 years have stood up every morning and recited their own version of the Pledge of Allegiance. Some of the choicer lines include ‘I am a Turk! I am right! Let my Turkishness be a gift! Happy is he who calls himself a Turk!’ And on and on, which of course, is odd when you consider that thousands of the kids reciting this poppycock aren’t Turks (the Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds) So what do they think about themselves?  I am not a Turk!  I am not right!  My Non-Turkishness is not a gift to anyone!  Sad is he who can't call himself a Turk!'  So after all these years, someone is kind of introducing a new idea to them and how the hell can I expect them to just suddently become just and fair?

Min fam kir?

The language did indeed used to be forbidden. No books, no records, no cds, no magazines or TV shows. Things have been opening up recently--just in the past year. There is a Kurdish channel. A second Kurdish channel coming from outside the country is no longer blocked. There are Kurdish books coming out, music is thriving, and out East where most Kurds live, people are putting up signs in Kurdish—using the forbidden letters X, Q, an W, which don’t exist in Turkish. It is kind of funny, but as a kid these were my favorite letters, and in the case of X and Q at least, I became so obsessed with them that I memorized every word that began with them, spending hours at night pouring over my grandmother’s dictionary. I was a dork. To think, in Turkey, those letters and my dorkish obsession could have gotten me arrested!  Of course, as Delal points out, all of this is well and good but unprotected by any constitutional law.  The next government could undo it all in a day with no legal repercussions.  Still, I insist, it's progress.

3 comments:

krisner said...

You have returned to post! It makes me happy you are planting these seeds into the hellions' minds over there... things are not hopeless...

Stephen Freer said...

What a powerful post Jeff. It's interesting how dependent we all are on language we need someone to teach the words before we can really see the idea in our minds. And the whole x q and w thing just shows how you and Delal were meant for each other. haha çok romantic!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the post.
Delal must be beautiful.(btw Delal means beautiful in Kurdish)