I beg your pardon… but I am a...Turk!
The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the year I started to work as a junior diplomatic reporter. Turkey recognized all the newly independent states. Delegations from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan started to come to Turkey I would cover their visits. In many instances, either a Kazakh or a Kyrgyz would look at me and say I am probably from their lands.
Well, at the end of the day, we Turks indeed came from Central Asia, so I was not surprised by their comments.
Then wars started to erupt following the fall of the Iron Curtain. During the Georgian-Abkhaz war, I realized the presence of both Georgian-origin Turks and Abkhaz-origin Turks, as both sides tried to lobby for the government to take their side. I recall vividly how a cameraman was proudly saying he was an Abkhaz, despite the fact that he and his parents were born in Turkey.
The three sisters that lived across our apartment were Circassian. They were tailors and my parents even sent me for a brief internship to their house, a futile effort to get me out from the top of the trees. But at that time that did not mean much to me. I became more consciously aware of the presence of Circassians and Chechens in Turkey, after conflicts erupted in the Caucasus.
Through the war in Bosnia, I found out there are more Bosnians living in Turkey than Bosnia itself. The expression “Albanian obstinacy,” probably came from those who emigrated from Albania and Kosovo. The expression “being from the other side of the water,” means being a migrant from the Balkans. All this coincided with the ugly war in the southeast. From the days of “Kurds are mountain Turks,” we came to talk about Kurds consisting of 20 percent of the population.
All this made me think of my background. What was I? I asked the question to my father. Being a historian, he had traced the family tree back through a long period in history and, to my disappointment, told me that both his and my mother’s side were Turks from Anatolia. I was left by the boring option of saying “ehgg... I am [just] a Turk.”
I am an ethnic Turk, but I’d like to think not a typical one. Not a typical one because a typical Turk is raised to like only Turks and be suspicious of everything that it sees as the other.
Let me explain how.
I went to a Turkish primary school, where I was taught Islam is the best religion. To prepare for French high school, my parents had asked their friends a Turkish-Lebanese couple to give me French lessons. I took French lessons from Monsieur Haddad (free of charge by the way) for two months once a week. One day, as we were having tea after the lesson, I told them how Islam was the best religion in the world and there were no better religions than Islam. I was expecting some kind of an appreciation, but feeling a cool wind in the air, I came back home and recounted what happened.
My parents told me I had done something wrong and it’s then I realized that Monsieur Haddad was a Christian. To this day, I feel ashamed of what I had done, though I am confident they don’t blame me, but the system. I’m hoping that the non-Muslim minority in Turkey that have been subjected to a lot of prejudices have understood by now that there is a systemic problem when it comes to Muslim Turks’ attitudes toward them.
I am writing all this following the Turkish prime minister’s recent comments during a TV interview.
“They have also said a lot of things about me. One of them came and said I was a Georgian. Then another came up and, I beg your pardon, called me uglier things, saying I was Armenian,” he said; as if being Armenian is something ugly and to be ashamed.
I was ashamed that he said these words. I am sure there are many who feel like me. But how many are we? Unfortunately only a minority.
When Turks are left to their own, as individuals, they are hospitable people. But the system turns Turks into highly suspicious people of anything it sees as the “other.”
Religion is the main determinant shaping our national identity a recent survey has shown. When I asked what this meant to Professor Ali Çarkoğlu, who conducted the survey, this is what he said:
“It means this is a very homogenous country. People are not used to this idea of religious minorities. We just don’t have it or we don’t want to talk about it. Numbers are predominantly in favor of one group and that group is not aware of the fact that other groups exist and that they have rights.”
I beg your pardon, but this is really ugly and something to be ashamed of.