FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Politics of Integration in Turkey

My friend Sema and I were sitting on the rooftop of her parents’ house. We overlooked the landscape of her little village called Aknehir, a name which in English translates into white river, and a suburb of the southern Turkish province of Hatay.

Focused in our view were two children playing football on a hill. It wouldn’t surprise me if one of them was pretending he was a striker for Real Madrid and the other a defender for Barcelona. It was here where the two of us reflected. How ironic, we acknowledged, to feel trapped in your surroundings while observing two children so free in creating their own.

Sema and her family are Arab Alawites who live in Akneri. This is a village that her lineage has inhabited for almost ten generations. And though Sema and her sister moved out of the village ten years ago, her family didn’t have the same opportunity.

Because of Turkey’s nationalizing ideology, people were deterred from openly speaking in a language or engaging in practices associated with an identity other than Turkish. Though circumstances are somewhat better now, the 1970s was a decade of great political strife. During this era, expressing an alternative identity was unthinkable.  Sema explains,

My mother was raised speaking Arabic. This was hard because there are no Arabic schools in this village. Actually there aren’t any schools at all. So if she wanted to go to school she had to go into the city. But she couldn’t because she didn’t know Turkish. It was a scary time. After she was married, she finally went into town but she had to rely on my father. When she left the village she always had to rely on someone else.

The inability for Selma’s mother to communicate in her mother tongue outside the village prohibited her from leaving without relying on somebody else. Consequently, she was prevented from an education. Because her mobility was restricted she was confined to the domestic sphere.

Sema’s mother was always accustomed to people relying on her rather than being the one depending on others. She was the oldest of eight children and subsequently anchored the family. She sacrificed a lot to take care of both her aging parents and siblings.

Due to inadequate financial opportunities and unstable political conditions, Sema’s family decided to move to Saudi Arabia for a few years. I asked Sema’s father if he enjoyed his time there, he responded, “It was a terrible place.” He then formed a big grin and said, “But the money was really good.”

Before they left to Saudi Arabia, Sema’s sister remembers her mother explaining how the Arabs eat with their hands. Specifically, her mother told her that Arabs have a tendency to use food to scoop other food. Sema’s sister found this disgusting, “As a child I thought Arabs were like savages or animals!”  Ironically, as a very young girl, Sema’s sister often forgot that her parents were Arab also.

Today, both sisters are uncertain about the social make-up of their identity. I remember inquiring if they saw themselves as Turkish or Arab. They looked at each other and laughed. Sema suggested, “I think we see ourselves as nothing. I mean we’re neither.”

In this village, you won’t see pictures of Ataturk penetrating into people’s households. Nor will you see his photos posted in any public places.

For those who aren’t familiar, Ataturk is the founding father of modern Turkey. He is held in sacred regard within the State.  I asked Sema’s mother what she thought about Ataturk, she replied, “I don’t know much about him but I hear he was a good man.”

According to Sema’s mother, her greatest desire was to go to school. And though she never could, she suggests that her wish was fulfilled through Sema.

Sema is the only university graduate in her family. She holds a degree in English language and teaching. Today, she works as a school teacher in another village that also borders the province of Hatay. She understands how difficult acquiring an education and accessing exterior support can be if you’re underprivileged.

Sema also admires the Kurdish persistence for ethnic recognition. She sometimes wonders how things would be different if Arab Alawites waged a similar fight.  I asked her if the traumatizing history still encircling the Kurdish struggle frightened her community, she answered, “You know, I really think it did.”

Social constructions of civil belonging continue to marginalize Sema’s community. She explains, “You know it’s really hard going to school and having to learn subjects in a language you’re still unfamiliar with.” She continued, “Even to this day, if my mother wants to go to the Bazzar she has to go with either my father or myself.”

While walking along the river, we happen to bump into her cousin. Together, the two of them showed me some of the most serene areas of their village. They took me to spaces that uncovered the depths of the beauty surrounding us.

While walking in an olive garden, Sema’s cousin remarked, “We were always double oppressed. We were either excluded because we were Alawites or because we were Arab.” Considering the hardships of their past, the influx of Syrian refugees taking shelter in Hatay has complicated the region’s ethnic relationship even more.  However, according to her cousin, “War hasn’t affected life in the village very much.”

It could be argued that the history of migration is a significant portion of the history of humanity. Hence, culture too is naturally rootless. Sema’s story demonstrates how cultural practices are never fixed but always moving, interconnecting, and changing. Some of the dangers that emerge from attaching a sole national identity to a geographic location are exposed through the hardships that she and her family have endured. As Sema’s story shows, the politics of integration functions as a politics of control.

While sitting on the rooftop of her parents’ house, Sema commented, “This place can be so peaceful at times.” And like the children playing on the hill, it seemed that for a few minutes, she too was free in exploring a world of her own.

Mathew Nashed is a writer living in Istanbul.

More articles by:

January 16, 2019
Patrick Bond
Jim Yong Kim’s Mixed Messages to the World Bank and the World
John Grant
Joe Biden, Crime Fighter from Hell
Alvaro Huerta
Brief History Notes on Mexican Immigration to the U.S.
Kenneth Surin
A Great Speaker of the UK’s House of Commons
Elizabeth Henderson
Why Sustainable Agriculture Should Support a Green New Deal
Binoy Kampmark
Trump, Bolton and the Syrian Confusion
Jeff Mackler
Trump’s Syria Exit Tweet Provokes Washington Panic
Barbara Nimri Aziz
How Long Can Nepal Blame Others for Its Woes?
Cesar Chelala
Violence Against Women: A Pandemic No Longer Hidden
Kim C. Domenico
To Make a Vineyard of the Curse: Fate, Fatalism and Freedom
Dave Lindorff
Criminalizing BDS Trashes Free Speech & Association
Thomas Knapp
Now More Than Ever, It’s Clear the FBI Must Go
Binoy Kampmark
Dances of Disinformation: The Partisan Politics of the Integrity Initiative
Edward Curtin
A Gentrified Little Town Goes to Pot
January 15, 2019
Patrick Cockburn
Refugees Are in the English Channel Because of Western Interventions in the Middle East
Howard Lisnoff
The Faux Political System by the Numbers
Lawrence Davidson
Amos Oz and the Real Israel
John W. Whitehead
Beware the Emergency State
John Laforge
Loudmouths against Nuclear Lawlessness
Myles Hoenig
Labor in the Age of Trump
Jeff Cohen
Mainstream Media Bias on 2020 Democratic Race Already in High Gear
Dean Baker
Will Paying for Kidneys Reduce the Transplant Wait List?
George Ochenski
Trump’s Wall and the Montana Senate’s Theater of the Absurd
Binoy Kampmark
Dances of Disinformation: the Partisan Politics of the Integrity Initiative
Glenn Sacks
On the Picket Lines: Los Angeles Teachers Go On Strike for First Time in 30 Years
Jonah Raskin
Love in a Cold War Climate
Andrew Stewart
The Green New Deal Must be Centered on African American and Indigenous Workers to Differentiate Itself From the Democratic Party
January 14, 2019
Kenn Orphan
The Tears of Justin Trudeau
Julia Stein
California Needs a 10-Year Green New Deal
Dean Baker
Declining Birth Rates: Is the US in Danger of Running Out of People?
Robert Fisk
The US Media has Lost One of Its Sanest Voices on Military Matters
Vijay Prashad
5.5 Million Women Build Their Wall
Nicky Reid
Lessons From Rojava
Ted Rall
Here is the Progressive Agenda
Robert Koehler
A Green Future is One Without War
Gary Leupp
The Chickens Come Home to Roost….in Northern Syria
Glenn Sacks
LA Teachers’ Strike: “The Country Is Watching”
Sam Gordon
Who Are Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists?
Weekend Edition
January 11, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Richard Moser
Neoliberalism: Free Market Fundamentalism or Corporate Power?
Paul Street
Bordering on Fascism: Scholars Reflect on Dangerous Times
Joseph Majerle III – Matthew Stevenson
Who or What Brought Down Dag Hammarskjöld?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Joshua Frank
How Tre Arrow Became America’s Most Wanted Environmental “Terrorist”
Andrew Levine
Dealbreakers: The Democrats, Trump and His Wall
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Que Syria, Syria
Dave Lindorff
A Potentially Tectonic Event Shakes up the Mumia Abu-Jamal Case
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail