Tuesday, October 23, 2012


It’s Friday. My sixth graders and I are going out to the football field. Their eyes are full of colors.

We’re going to write poetry.

‘I hate poetry,’ a girl announces. ‘It’s stupid.’

One of my clever boys smirks and asks, ‘Why are we going outside to do this, I mean, I’m not complaining mind you, but we could have done it in the class room just as easily.’

I gather them together and tell them to look up.

For a second there’s complete silence. You’ll never see such a sky, such Fall blue, not in Istanbul. It’s like we’re on a mountain in Bingöl, in Arizona—far from every house and car and smokestack in the world. A thousand white gulls pass in a swirl of wings.

‘Run,’ I tell the kids. ‘We’re going to run until we can’t run anymore and then we are going to sit down and look around and write about what we see.’

They write magic.

Some never sit. There’s a little blond girl who runs and runs, let’s her maroon jacket fall down to her elbows. She’s exhausted but won’t stop. Sometimes someone chases her, sometimes they don’t. A boy shows me a poem he’s written about her.

‘I see a girl running. Running and running and running.  Now she runs like a tired zombie. Falls. Her yellow hair on green grass.  She gets up. Red leaves on green leaves. We are lying on green grass. Green trashcans, green notebooks, green pines.’

Their heads are full of Carl Sandburg and Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. (They all agree Williams has a stupid name.) On the play ground, one girl writes while hanging from a rope swing. ‘The sky is blue, I hang in the air and I just don’t care! I just don’t care! I just don’t care!’ One little boy says, ‘I think I’ve written something strange.’ I read what he’s scribbled diagonally across the page, ‘My white sneakers run on green grass, like the white birds on blue sky. White shoes running on heaven.’

 Another boy, the smallest of all, writes eleven poems in a row. About the red maple, about the yellow sycamore, about the sky, about the Fall, about the service busses, about us running around and around and laughing and falling and writing, about how boring school is. He’s on fire.

‘I know why we’re out here!’ the girl who hates poetry says. ‘When you’re outside like this you’re feelings just bubble out! You can’t stop writing!’

Or running. The blond girl still can’t stop.

Whatever they do this coming week, we’ve had a burst of joy today. The 23 of them and me.

The school is getting ready for the October 29th holiday. The administration has selected a theme, ‘The eyes of Atatürk.’ In various places around the school hang pictures of the eyes of the Republic’s founder. Only the eyes, big and blue and staring at you wherever you go.  We will have a ceremony celebrating those staring eyes and none of the students will come (but not because they’re not learning to worship this man—simply because they’d still rather play). We teachers will come because we have to. Songs will be sung in his honor, dances danced, purple prose speeches made.

October 29th marks more than the anniversary of the Republic’s founding. It’s the day that Delal and I took a ferry to the Emniyet (the national security office) to find out if we could see her father. The police. The paranoia. The undercover agents. A black day. He’d just been arrested. We had no idea what would happen. The red Turkish flag was everywhere. No one questioned. The right wing papers were screaming ‘TERRORIST!’ It was the first time I really understood,  gut understood, why my in-laws found it so threatening.

The hunger strike that started weeks ago is on its 40th day—63 people have been striking since the beginning, 420 more have joined—political prisoners all, and not just in Istanbul, but all over the country.  The 63 are growing weak. Some are starting to vomit and show signs of disease.  An article in the Radikal say it’s no longer a hunger strike but a death watch.  And strangely, the government is taking notice. They are allowing stories about it in the papers (the Hürriyet says, ‘President Gül is unsettled by the direction things are moving’). People debate it in talk shows on TV. President Gül says talks with the strikers are possible. Even talks with the PKK are possible.  They may consider the strikers demands which include an end to solitary confinement for Abdullah Öcalan, being able to defend themselves in Kurdish, and general education in the mother tongue. (We don’t know the details because the prisoners are boycotting visits—strangely, the journalists are too. Not one paper, it seems, has sent anyone to find out first hand what is happening inside. Rumors are flying about Kurdish being allowed in the courtroom.)  There are signs for hope.

And yet at the same time, the random repression continues. A journalist, Hatice Duman, is sentenced to life in prison. Never mind that Necati Abay, tried in the very same case, was released. And the prime minister promises no compromise during a speech in Elazığ. He says, ‘We will not negotiate with terrorists! We will even talk to Yezidis (a Kurdish sect) as long as they are not terrorists.’  ‘Even’ with Yezidis.  Notice the wording. And the very same Radikal newspaper devotes three pages to a historian named ‘Ismail Küçükkaya’ who says that Turkey has never been multicultural, and then goes on to insult Kurds in particular.

‘Turkey is not a mosaic,’ he writes, ‘Because those other elements have never developed themselves. When I say this, you might counter with ‘The fascist Turkey never opened schools!’ But actually the problem is not with schools but with the elite. Kurdish leaders are not real leaders. They are not Iraqi Kurd. Put one of those guys across from them and let them see what real governing is!’

Never mind the extrajudicial killings, jailings and legal executions of hundreds of Kurdish intellectuals. How can you develop anything from a grave?

But at the same time, things are being discussed that have never been discussed before. For the first time since I’ve been here. On TV the other night, a commentator said the words ‘Armenian Genocide’ without the hitherto obligatory ‘so-called’.

At night, the smell of livestock and manure wafts through our apartment. The feast of the sacrifice is fast approaching when Muslims celebrate the sparing of Isaac by God. Instead of his son, Abraham kills a lamb.

The papers are full of people arguing one way or the other for the holiday. Editorials, articles. ‘How can we explain this to our children?’ City folk find it cruel and barbaric, this sacrificing of animals. I don’t see it—maybe I’m not used to the blood flowing right in front of my eyes, but it’s done behind the scenes every day. We like our meat already cut and packaged—no reminders of where it comes from. But so what? What, really, is the big deal?  But nothing is without political import here. The old guard does not like the reminder of religion or blood. The new boys in power want everyone to know that this is a MUSLIM country with MUSLIM holidays. The faithful will perform the sacrifice and give away the meat—ideally. The non-believers will go somewhere and have a drink just to show they can. We non-Muslims might hit the streets just to see what’s going on—or head to the beach while the warm weather lasts to take advantage of the days off.

I helped sacrifice a goat last year. It was in Dede’s dream—with his grandchildren he would sacrifice and animal at a holy place and give away the meat. They painted blood on our foreheads to mark as belonging to his house—Mala Memli.

All I know is that the goat meat kavurma we ate on Mt. Silbus tasted good.

That day the sky was blue too. Like the spirit of the mountain named for an Armenian saint of light had cleaned it just for us. We danced the halay with strangers and lit candles to the gods.

The better question to ask at this Kurban Bayram is this:

Many of Turkey’s own sons and daughters lie on the altar now—are they going to strike or spare them?

1 comment:

Ed Webb said...

Thank you for this quite remarkable post. May the AKP elite see reason soon, step back from the authoritarian temptation.