Seventy-five years ago, a young Turkish journalist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina sat down to write a newspaper column about Christmas in Turkey. After explaining to his editor that Turkey did not celebrate Christmas, he was told that exceptions could not be made for non-Christians: journalism demanded one be “topical at all costs.”
“So, here I am,” Bülent Ecevit explained, “writing about Christmas in a country where Christmas is not observed.” As Ecevit told his Carolinian readers:
“Nothing seems more phenomenal to most Americans, as far as my limited experience goes, than an acceptable stranger being a non-Christian. If a stranger appears to be a reasonably normal specimen of the human race, it is taken for granted that he is a Christian.”
After meeting a number of Carolinians who were “politely shocked” to discover that their new NATO allies were Muslim, Ecevit gamely laid out Santa Clause’s Anatolian origins before concluding that “Turks, whether one likes it or not, are not Christians...”
In 1954, Ecevit, then a writer for the newspaper Ulus, was sent to Winston-Salem as part of a U.S. State Department-sponsored internship program. The U.S. government’s goal in bringing him was for Ecevit to “witness at firsthand the functions of the American press in our democratic society” and make “the United States better known to…his reading public in Turkey.” Ecevit, his State Department sponsors, and his colleagues at the Winston-Salem paper all thought the visit was a huge success. Ecevit made “a very excellent impression both as an individual and as a newspaperman,” the government concluded. Or, as the title of his editor’s farewell article put it: “Tarheels Liked Friendly Poet.”
As with many of the pieces he penned during his months in America, Ecevit’s Christmas column stands out as a tribute to the promise and limits of international understanding in the 1950s. Most of his work was fun or earnestly informative, although at the same time he did not shy away from offering some pointed criticism of mid-century American society.
Among his more serious topics, Ecevit discussed Turkish poetry, Middle East Defense, and Turkey’s transition to democracy, describing Ataturk’s rule as a "dictatorship to end dictatorship." On a lighter note, he proposed that Americans adopt the dolmuş, praised America’s love of ice-water (“Turks are among the few water-drinking people of Europe”) and described reading the cartoon Dogpatch while at the Reserve Officers’ School in Ankara. He also joked about the tameness of American political rallies (“Coming from a Mediterranean country, I personally don't care so much for rallies without any fist-fighting”) and the slow pace of football (“I did my best to look most excited whenever I found myself most bored”). In one column he declared himself “mighty glad” to get the chance to hear “hillybilly music,” which reminded him a little of Turkish folk songs. In another, he described a recurrent nightmare with “huge loaves of bread growing out of proportion and giving me a sense of helplessness and insignificance.” This, however, may have been the editor’s doing. As Ecevit scrawled across his clipping of the piece “entirely rewritten by the journal – not mine any more than a novel by Caldwell.”
Ecevit saved his most pointed work for his final article, however, a front-page piece that appeared on the eve of his departure from North Carolina. Below the headline “Visiting Turk Says of Americans: Even Angels Can Go Wrong” - and a Peanuts cartoon for illustration - Ecevit offered an excruciatingly polite but unflinching indictment of American racism and cultural conformity. After waxing eloquent about his experience in Winston-Salem, he went on to say that not all his impressions had been favorable:
“The dark side of the town is generally referred to as "segregation" or the "color bar" —two terms that I shall not use except in quotation marks, since I regard them as sham, as terms intended to protect tender ears from a more appropriate, yet uglier, term: Racism.”
He wrote that he could not “take seriously all that well-meant ‘gradual integration’ and ‘give us time’ stuff either,” for ‘[o]ne does not need ‘time’ to grant that a human being is a human being.” Moreover, he concluded by explaining why he felt “entitled to poke my nose into an affair which many a racist would regard as solely his own.”
“This so-called "segregation" or "color-bar" business is not merely America’s own business. It is my business, too, and the business of hundreds of millions of other people like me all over the world who are looking up to America today as their only hope. But an America with a "color bar" cannot fulfill their hopes.”
Not surprisingly, readers had different responses to Ecevit’s criticism. One D. M. Stanley wrote in to say of “[o]ur invited guest, the ‘Turk,’” that “knowing his social origin and national history – how they have massacred the White Christians – I am not surprised when he allines [sic] himself with the negroes and attacks the people who invited him here.” Others, however, were more appreciative. Praising the “brilliant journalist” for his “penetrating analyses” of the country, another letter-writer declared: “His last article did what no local person could with objectivity, that is to see us as we really are.” Several days later, one more letter writer weighed in on the debate, noting Ecevit’s “objectivity and lack of bias” before adding “let me remind Mr. Stanley that the Turks, like you and I, are considered by anthropologist to be members of the white, Caucasian race.”
Read seventy-five years later, Ecevit’s take on intercultural exchange seems at once endearingly naïve (particularly coming from him) and at times all-too familiar. The language and jokes are more earnest than we would expect today and Americans, if nothing else, are now slightly more familiar with Turkey than Ecevit assumed in 1954. The politeness, especially in the context of US-Turkish relations, now seems sadly dated as well. Ecevit was certainly impeccably civil, while even his racist respondent was more restrained than most people in the comments section of a contemporary paper.
At the same time, the slight hokiness that surrounds these intercultural interactions has endured, as has America’s commitment to gradualism and euphemism in the face of racism. What’s more, if in the 1950s some Americans really did assume that any reasonable person must be Christian, now they know better, and yet prejudice somehow endures.
Santa, according to Ecevit, would not stand for this sort of thing. As he concluded:
“So, a Merry Christmas to you all, from the country of Santa Claus, where he is still regarded as a saint and loved by the children, for, in his acts of generosity, that kind-hearted man did not discriminate between religions and nations.”