Thursday, May 29, 2008

Teaching In Izmir, Turkey

Turkey is a young country; its borders were fathered by Ataturk in 1922. It was after World War I and the country had had enough of its invaders and conducted its own cleansing. The Turkish language, spoken today, was also established by "The Father of Turkey"; Arabic script was replaced by Latin, and families were asked to choose a surname for the first time in their lives. Ataturk is as loved and as cherished as our own George Washington. You will see his likeness in every corner of every city and region.

In its 80 years, Turkey has known a great deal of economic hardship while successfully maintaining its complex and rich history of being the most misunderstood nation in the corner of Europe and Asia Minor. Jan Morris wrote, "Neither quite this nor altogether that; terrifically itself yet perpetually ambiguous, Turkey stands alone... formidably on the edge of Asia surrounded in the universal mind, as always, by an aura of mingled respect, resentment, and fear... One treads carefully in Turkish presence. Turkey is no joke."

Hassan owns three kebab shops on the pedestrian zone of Serinyer -- my neighborhood -- with his brothers. I've stopped there for 硹 (chai) twice now. The traditional Turkish tea is served in flute glasses and is also called Rabbit's blood for its deep, red color. Hassan speaks English quite well and has begged me to come to the cafe each and every time that I am bored..."24 hours a day!" I intend to take him up on his offer, but only on occasion, as genuine kindness and a desire for foreign (and female) friends by men tend to be a delicate balancing act. Too eager, and the woman will find that her innocent "companion" is awashed in lustful affection. This is not my first time around the block and I know the signs. Such a friendship ended bitterly and horribly in Ireland and I wish to avoid being put into such an uncomfortable position again. Even if I am bouncing off the tile walls of my flat...

Anyway, the last time, Hassan and I talked about Turkey and its progress or lack thereof. I remind him that it is a young country and that it will take some years before it operates cohesively. I was told gravely and passionately that "Turkish hearts are very good, very warm and very kind." This I know, I tell him, from my experiences in the last week. Even The Fool from Anatalya -- an old men who's lost his teeth and babbles incoherently, which translates to "you are beautiful" -- is gentle and kind, even if he's not "all there". The whole street of shopkeepers makes certain that he is cared for, somehow.

Hassan continued as the Fool wandered away, bored by our discussion. "But, Chrystyna, Turkish government is very, very bad. They are -- how do you say? rotten?" Hassan further explained that the gap between the rich and the poor is excrutiatingly huge. "There is no balance," Hassan expounded.

"No middle class?" I asked.

He wagged a finger at me, his face still very serious and pained, "Exactly." Then, with a sudden flash of a smile and lightened mood, he called to Niger - my favorite waiter -- and ordered more

Neco and I met the first time I came to the cafe. He is sweet, young, strikingly handsome, and a professional server who follows the tourists. He plans to go to Bodrum as soon as the season is ripe. "Very good money!" he nodded as if confiding a big secret to me. But, I have given up waitressing for a lifetime.

Neco also was the first to clue me into the cleverness of wearing rings on my fingers. The first time I sat down to my 硹, he immediately asked where my husband was. When I laughed -- quite surprised by the question --he nodded, again conspiratorially, and said, "Very smart girl. But you are engaged?" I have two gold bands on my wedding finger; one plain and one with a sapphire in it. I was warned about the men by Arzu (who is my director at the school). "They will look," she explained. "But that's it. And if they accost you in the street you tell them you are a teacher at Bilmer. They will leave you alone then. Nobody wants trouble..."

But, I was rather confused that nobody was doing anything really. Until I raised my eyes from the ground long enough to become more aware of my surroundings (the Muslim religion is an enigma to me and I don't know how direct I can be; who will I offend by looking at them. Charms against the evil eye are everywhere in shops too.). When I finally got enough courage to take a look around, they were indeed staring as I walked by. Every one of them. Some made kissing noises, but I have learned the Turkish way of saying the final "No!" You nod your a head a little, click your tounge on the roof of your mouth once and say, "yok!"

That, the rings and my constant appearance on the streets between Bilmer and my flat have kept me out of trouble...

There is an oppressive air that hangs around me; it is heavy and thick in the stench of the dirty streets. It is the awareness of how women are viewed here -- so shallowly. I almost will a bit of a confrontation with a man just so he could get a spirited kick in the pants... but I control myself.

The oppression makes me feel even more confined in this city. Back home, I told a few friends -- half joking -- that I wouldn't mind doing a short, short stint in a jail "just to see what it was like and to write about it". I take that back now. I know what it would feel like...

I'm walled in by these cracking, peeling concrete walls. The tired, tiled floor in my apartment is chipped and residued with the sand and dirt cemented into the corners and along the walls. In summer, I know I will be choked by both heat and the already grimy, polluted air. Yesterday, against my anxiety to always have windows open (even in winter), I shut them all, curtained them, and was able to sleep through the night without hearing the screams and wails of starving alley cats (there's a whole underground of them), the arguing of children, the Tarzan-like cries from the mosques and the incessant honking of horns. I knew I had slept hard and long when the first noise that woke me was the exercise-announcing screamer in the schoolyard down the street. (Schoolchildren go in shifts with a recess every hour and a half and exercises done before the morning class and before the afternoon group).

I was walking down the street yesterday, kept from pulling my hair only because of the fear of being picked up by police as some crazy woman. "Shut up!" I was shouting over the din of traffic. A car was honking at me from six blocks away.

"It's a Turkish tradition," Arzu explained after I asked whether horns had just been brought to Turkey last week and installed into cars.

Turkish or Greek tradition, I don't know, but New York must have been invented by one or both of them...

This morning, as I had my coffee above the bustling boulevard (again, my house is located just a few meters from the school), I envisioned a terraced, green lawn surrounded by densely, grouped cypress. I would have breakfast to the mourning of turtledoves (which I love) and songs from birds rather than foggy radio in passing cars. And I would be in my pajamas and bare feet...
You know that saying, "Everyone should live in New York once and before it turns them hard"? I'm doing that duty in Izmir...

My Classes: Unbelievably polite, my students are. The younger ones, with shy smiles always tugging at their mouths, stand when I enter the room as if I were the Queen of England. It's almost embarrassing -- me, who tries so hard to get down on their level (believe me, it's not too difficult). They're shocked when I act out things, dance about, make funny faces and jokes. I believe, to them, I am unconventional as teachers go... I even pretended to slip and fall to illustrate a point (the word "foolish") and everyone got up, in stunned silence, not realizing that I was play-acting. When they realized what word I was trying to have them fill in from their choices on the board, they burst out laughing over being duped.

My teens --the boys especially -- are swimming in hormones. But they are less direct than my adult males: Whereas the latter just came out and asked me my age, 15-year-old Mustafa asked me what year I was born in. They guessed anywhere from 18 to 25 and would not believe me when I told them I would be 32 this year. My reply to that was, "I don't stand still long enough for age to catch me." The more advanced laughed and translated.

Laughter in my classes are common. And I am usually the cause of it. On the other hand, I sometimes succumb to the antics of the juvenile atmosphere and did so especially during one lesson with my largest class (of 10) who were all 13 years old.

The lesson was about Australia. My students had a cartoonish map in their books which included various points of reference: names of cities, landmarks, animals found there, etc. I had to play a tape during which conversations between two different characters occured. Based on those dialogues, the students were to tell me where the characters were and what they were doing. I pushed "play" and a woman's voice in the second example started. She was panting and breathing, groaning and moaning. The boys began to titter and I made motions to silence them. But as the noises continued growing worse, the woman groaned, "Oh! I'm sooo hot!" The boys fell out of their chairs, bursting with laughter and then the girls began because now I was beat red too and giggling uncontrollably.

Finally, at the end, the woman cries out, "Look! I'm on top!" The rest of the dialogue was lost in the screeching. I was ready to pass them all to a more advanced level...

Then, one very serious girl raised her hand, cautiously, as I wiped tears from my eyes and desperately tried to regain some composure. I finally beckoned her to say what was on her mind. She gave everyone -- including me -- a stern look. "Teacher, they are climbing Ayers Rock."

I didn't dare tell them that my boyfriend had just been there and that they could see picutres of it on the web...

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