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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.

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