For the people of Turkey, April 23rd is Children’s Day, a holiday given by Mustafa Kemal, founder of the Turkish Republic, to the Children. It commemorates the day that the Turkish parliament was opened in the new capital Ankara and is celebrated by forcing children through months of dreary rehearsals for dance recitals and choral performances, that, once trudged through, is not rewarded with games or a carnival or, at our school at least, anything really fun at all except a Blues Brothers looking clown on stilts with patriotic balloons. (Stifle that yawn, traitor!) One unpatriotic little eight year old girl in the Radikal newspaper even said that her teachers had transformed Children’s Day into Torture Day! The anniversary of the founding of parliament was heralded by the banning of seven Kurdish politicians from June’s elections on the grounds that they had ‘records’. (One had been sentences to 10 years for merely speaking Kurdish). Taksim square was decorated with tear gas bombs and water canons, and police danced like strung-out members of an ultraviolent Lords of the Dance, kicking to death two boys in Bismil and even beating down a protester in a wheel chair in their holiday zeal.
For the people of my English office, April 23rd commemorates the day that we have to come in on a Saturday and sit through hours of saccharine shows about peace and chemical warfare. We celebrate by the finding of excuses to avoid going to school—someone has visitors, another person has stomach surgery, another decides to be a Jehova’s Witness for a day. In the middle of all this plotting, I get a call from the principle. ‘Jeff, would you mind reading something in English for Children’s Day tomorrow?’ Every the complacent tool, I said yes, sure, and then hung up the phone. My always-a-step-behind brain then whispered, ‘Ever consider what kind of thing you’re going to be reading?’
Down in the principal’s office, I am met by the Turkish Literature teacher, a very sweet, soft spoken woman who keeps telling me how astounded and grateful she is that I am doing this for her. When she finds out I speak Turkish, she claps her hands in delight. ‘How wonderful!’ We discuss Turkish authors for a bit (she herself once fancied being a writer) then she gets down to business and hands me the ‘text’ I am too read.
Kim Jung Il and Mao Tse Tung could have looked lovingly into each others’ eyes and said, ‘How small the world be to bloody dictators such as we.’
To wit, it begins thusly...‘The three harbingers of Spring descend, first on the air, then on the ground, then on the waters. The air, for Nature’s sake, diverts the bitter cold away and the Earth opens up her bosom to let the little beings greet the sun. The waters meander and flow forth, cleansing the willows and giving life all around. Without expecting anything in return.’
Pretty heady stuff. Biblical. Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony sort of rhetoric here. Does it come from the Psalms? The Turkish equivalent of an imitation Shakespearean sonnet? Reverently cliched, spiritual, mythical. It goes on.
‘The voice of Mustafa Kemal was the first harbinger of Spring that fell on the fertile Anatolian ground. He shaped the earth into a figure and she sprouted with Republic and Democracy, without expecting anything in return.’
I smirked and then tried to hide the smirk. Seriously? Mustafa Kemal is like the eternal gods of Spring?
‘Mustafa Kemal pronounced the contribution of man to the rhythm of nature. Without expecting anything in return!’
Huh? So he controls nature now? Like Storm in the X-Men or just Jesus. No, he is just pronouncing its rhythm. What in hell does this mean?
‘Sometimes he is the voice accompanying the song of Spring or a brush transforming the yellow of the autumn onto the canvas, or at times, the delicate white attire of winter. In the heat of summer, it becomes a rhythm that brings the shore and the waves together, and a duet begins for those who witness and cannot get enough. This is the duet of man and nature! The duet of Mustafa Kemal and the children that pierces through the ages to become a reality.’
O Sweet Christ.
When I finish, I am grimacing gleefully. I feel strange, naughty, like when you bring up some biting little gossip about someone you don’t like in particular—but you’re not sure it’s even true--and then you hear that they have done something horrifyingly ridiculous, beyond your wildish dreams, like raped kittens in front of kindergardeners or ripped apart rabbits at an Easter ceremony. There’s the utter horror, yes, but then there’s this monstrous kind of self satisfaction. I knew it! I imagine it’s the same schadenfreude I saw in my students’ eyes when they ran in the other day with a viral video of what appears to be a Chinese man eating a fetus. ‘See!’ they exclaimed in gleeful horror. ‘We were right! Chinese people do eat babies!’ Yayyy.
The next morning, in anticipation of my promulgating Fascist art, I make sure to buy a copy of Özgür Gündem, a Kurdish focused leftist newspapers that most dedicated Ataturkist consider a traitorous mouthpiece for the PKK. I fold up the hymn to Mustafa in the Gündem and march into the auditorium.
‘Oh,’ says one teacher! ‘You’re reading Turkish? What is that? A newspaper? Which one is it?’ Her face suddenly assumes the look of a woman who’s opened a particularly rank diaper.
‘The Gündem,’ I answer. ‘It’s being published again after, like, 15 years. There’s a film out now about how it was shut down in the 90s. One of my old students is the main actor. Something like 60 journalists were assassinated, probably by the state, brutally, until the government finally closed it down.’
‘See the movie. It’s good. It’s called Press.’
She slinks away and I am maneuvered into the control booth. I will be reading from a microphone behind the scenes, a voice booming down from all directions—a la the Burning Bush. Before I can spew propaganda, I have to watch the various performances that the children have been rehearsing to celebrate the duet of themselves and Ataturk. Some little girls are dressed up like fish and writhe around to a rather slow Cuban dirge from The Buena Vista Social Club CD. Some other kids do some strange kind of interpretive dance to images of children caught in wars. There’s a giant picture of a dark skinned child crying among ruins. Slogans pop up as the first graders undulate over the stage. ‘Peace’. ‘No more bombs on children!’ ‘Get rid of mines!’ ‘Save the Earth!’ ‘End Chemical Weapons!’ The only light moment in all this dreary preaching is a group of saried girls doing a Bollywood number. And then its my turn. The lights dim, images of Ataturk flash across the screen to somber symphony music. I start reading the bit about the three harbingers when the famous picture of Ataturk and his adopted daughter Sabiha Gökçen flashes up on screen. She was Turkey’s first female pilot, renowned for such heroic deeds as bombing the people of Dersim into oblivion in what was one of the worst massacres of Republican Turkey. The Turkish teacher watches me beaming. She actually has tears in her eyes!
As gratifyingly silly as all this is, I am utterly aghast. And more offended as a lover of language than anything else. Here is this literature teacher—in a country where most people seem to have forgotten the value of their mother tongue—in love with her Turkish, refusing to surrender to the fad of English. Yet she uses its highest poetic register for the cheapest of all cheap sentiments—nationalism. And the worst thing is she thinks she is performing a service of some kind. But she is not lifting Ataturk to the lofty peaks of the words she uses, but rather dragging the language itself down to the level of the screaming fascist MHP party who believe that purity of blood is the most important thing in judging another human being. She’s ruining it. Ruining it. And it was a bit unbearable to think back on the first graders dancing to the vague moral bright-light terms like ‘Peace’ and ‘Justice’ and ‘Respect’! They are being conditioned to weep and feel smug at these ambigous niceties by the same people who teach them that the Turk is a special race, that they have no prejudice, that they are braver fighters than other peoples, that they are warmer, nobler, more honest and generous. This is the devil preaching the word of God—and feeling noble about doing it. They are poisoning the language with this schmaltz, shitting up its words, fouling its finer phrases. I think of Nazim Hikmet, ‘The earth will grow cold, a star among stars...you must grieve for this now! For the world must be loved this much if you are going to say ‘I have lived’.’’ Of Yaşar Kemal, of Neşet Ertaş, of Ahmet Kaya, of Aziz Nesin, of Mevlana (Come, whoever you are, come! Heathen, fire worshipper or idolatrous, come!
Come even if you broke your penitence a hundred times, ours is the portal of hope). Of Yilmaz Guney, Haci Bektaş, Yunus Emre, and the many other bards of humanity and dignity who have elevated their language on the wings of much more worthy topics than Volk and Heimat and Ataturk. Of course, most of them have been imprisoned, driven out, our assassinated by the nationalists who penned the treacle I just read. So we do not teach the kids the words of these men. They know little about the most dignified masters of their language.
What exactly are we teaching these kids? To worship themselves? To believe themselves so noble that they are above doing wrong? To be so self righteous that they can dance around to maudlin songs about war crimes as a lesson to the rest of us even as the government they celebrate arrests journalists, covers up assassinations of an Armenian writer, makes light of rape victims, blocks its Kurdish citizens from standing in elections, and beats to death protesters on the streets? Not for nothing, the next day is April 24th—the anniversary of the most punctuated genocide in history, that even the most leftist of rags in Turkey must call a ‘so called’—(‘genocide’). To their credit, a group of Turkish activists camped out in Sultan Ahmet to protest its denial. And they don’t even have signs behind them that say ‘Peace.’ (Maybe it’s like Faulkner said—the ones who have the qualities don’t need the words).
We are reading The Outsiders in the 7th Grade and I asked my students to think about outsiders in their own country and people who suffer at the hands of the majority. One of my brightest, most gifted girls writes, ‘There’s nobody that Turks hate. But lots of people hate Turkey.’ The irony is that she is a Jew and I have heard innumerable people tell me in adult night classes that Hitler is their hero and should have been allowed ‘to finish the job.’ Of course, her schooling backs up this opinion. The National Security class she’s required to take has two whole chapters on ‘The Enemies of Turkey.’ In addition to the Armenians who are trying to seize Turkish land and work nefarious plots in collusion with the traitorous Kurds, Iraqis and Iranians send in secret agents to sow chaos and foment Islamic revolutions. Meanwhile Israel’s Mossad is selling weapons to Turkey’s enemies, and internal cabals are trying to undermine the army. All the while, Turkey herself is trying to fight for the rights and happiness of the children.
But I think Sezen Aksu has more on the ball than the Turkish army.
‘Masum değiliz,’ she sings. ‘Hiç birimiz.’
‘We are not innocent. Not any one of us.’
PS: After a lot of tumult and hulaballoo--the ban on the Kurdish candidates was lifted, well, on most of them anyway