Sometimes anonymous people relate their entertaining experiments at Starbucks by sharing photos of their cups to show the way their not-so-western names being horribly misspelled. That is perhaps a good, contemporary gauge of displaying who is white, and who is not. It is also harmless as it does not involve any violence at all. If one’s name is sort of “complicated” then one also can come up with a nick. Instead of “Aydın” I can become “Ike” on a moment’s notice the way the sailors coming out of a U.S. Navy frigate that I was tasked to accompany during my military service at a naval base in southern Turkey named me –on a moment’s notice. This is not forced assimilation. This does not show lack for self-confidence. It’s just about practicality. After all, who cares?
Well, “I do” some of us may be tempted to reply. Like the correct spelling of an “unusual” (read not Christian) name, it is perhaps more complicated than it appears at the first glance. The other day I was casually listening to the radio* while cooking and washing dishes in the kitchen. Writer Susie Morgenstern was answering questions with a perfect French spoken with a heavily aromatic American accent. She appealed to me when explained how she sort of refused to perfect her accent in order to blend in her adopted community. Not that she was not capable of doing it. She had all She simply did not care about it. Although a renowned writer she also laughingly confessed that she still did not know the differences in conjugation of French verbs.
Ms. Morgenstern, underscored the difference between being adopted in the US as opposed to France. Proper French accent is not a luxury but a must even for a writer like her. Unlike, Ms. Morgenstern, notwithstanding the obvious fact that I am not a talented writer, I myself never lived in France. Yet, I inhabit a French universe too, from my perch in the Anatolia side of Istanbul as I listen to France-Inter et al, watch French movies and read French novels. We, as human beings, speak different languages and inhabit various worlds and times. But to even start an intelligent conversation about Turkish history, identity, society, one needs to make each time a long detour explaining the largest background. Instead, if one rejects an outright stupidity then one is promptly labelled as a schoolyard bully.
The first time I was in New York, for example when buying a subway ticket, I was intrigued by the question “How you doin’?” superficially but kindly asked by the clerk behind his desk. I cringe remembering how I had struggled to respond with a “I am fine sir, how are you?” which in turn was met with “Are you OK?” kind of worried looks. When I related this, to me an awkward experience at that time, to the archetypal Brooklyn Jew friend of mine he had burst into laughter with tears in his eyes. Then he had patiently tutored me that either I should not respond at all or, at worst, I could also reply with a “How you doin’” of my own. Next day, back in the subway, I had put my recently acquired knowledge into good use and was satisfied with the result.
Now, being Turkish, one is expected first to apologize for being Turkish. For all that matter, even Turkishness is debatable as we have two terms in Turkish proper: one is Turk, the other stands for being from Turkey. Would a French citizen by the name of, say, “Mehdi Ben Larbi” proudly say that he is French if and when asked? It depends, one may say. If asked at the London Heathrow passport control, perhaps. Would anyone take their time, get into a lengthy and unasked for explanation of her/his family history and identity instead of breezing through to collect her/his luggage? That would sound like my green behind the ears answer to the subway clerk’s “How you doin’” just to be polite. Still, it is politically loaded for some to say that one is outright Turkish, understandably so.
Our common past is not by default our history. No one can claim that Atatürk was a political thinker equivalent of, say, even a Lenin. Yet it is also an undeniable fact that Atatürk IS the founder of this secular republic, as it did not pop out on its own. It is still also a fact that we, the citizens of the Republic of Turkey could not manage to write a “seminal” biography of Atatürk until today even though we decorated all our classrooms, offices, town squares etc. with his effigies. The best biography to date is Andrew Mango’s. (By the way, Mango is more Turkish than many others probably but that’s another discussion.) So, it is not to say that Atatürk’s heritage is beyond debate.
Nevertheless, living under an Islamist “taquiyyah” and oppression regime since two decades it should also be clear a renewed gratitude for Atatürk. A staunchly communist friend of mine had half-jokingly uttered one day over drinks that she was considering having “K.Atatürk” signature tattooed inside her left arm –all the way from her wrist to inside her elbow. Oh, lo and behold, barbarian Turks fall back to their ultra-nationalistic factory settings. They are mind-bogglingly ignorant of their own republican or imperial history. One either has to provoke them to wake them up, or adopt a pedagogic approach as the conquistadores did with the south American natives –to gently accompany them towards humanitarian civilisation.
Subtlety, humility, sincerity, empathy is in short supply, I am afraid, in academia as well as in politics. The Olympian moral high-ground is forever forbidden territory. If the Starbucks barista jots down “Aidan” on my paper cup, I should be grateful for my new found Gaelic identity and thus seize the unexpected opportunity to blend in. Or, take an imaginary Turkish diplomat who thinks he is funny when he imitates the accent of an Indian colleague not pausing one second on the fact that Indian colleague is perhaps an Oxbridge graduate. Or, why an Afghan refugee who travelled on foot from Hindukush to Calais braving countless risks on his life, does not stop there but still pushes forward to take an even more perilous journey across the Channel? There, we can imagine Susie Morgenstern smiling.
When we listen to a song by one of the most “French” of all singers Serge Gainsbourg about the most American of all muscle cars, a Ford Mustang; what do we make of that? Novels like “Boussole” by Mathias Enard or “Les Désorientés” by Amin Maalouf leads us re-think our understanding of East and West –us and them. On the other hand, modernism can also be quickly identified as being disoriented or un-oriented oppression. Me have no history or identity lesson to take from the (“fork-tongued”?) white man. Me as proud as the white man. Me can read. Me spend an entire lifetime of half a century to properly understand my own country. White man is most welcome to join in. But please spare me the moral lesson. And don’t expect me to apologise first each time I open my mouth. And don’t expect me to explain first historical and political context in detail each time I chime in a debate. As you read, if you bared with me, we couldn’t even get into the foreword anyway.
* May 7, 2021, “Popopop”, Antoine de Caunes, France-Inter