When I meet with my friends here in İstanbul, our conversations tend to lean toward the spiritual.
One concept that seems to have been downloaded into our psyches is the truth that “we are all one.” I haven’t met one spiritually minded person who does not believe that idea. And yet, the same person, in a different conversation will rant with hate about the Kurds or the gypsies or Israel or America -- totally oblivious to the inherent contradiction.
My very first friend here was a 23-year-old Kurdish kid from Bitlis. I was being taught backgammon by one of the waiters of a cafe I had been frequenting and he called Fırat over and said, “Play with this guy.” Fırat and I didn’t speak each other’s language, but we hit it off immediately and with the help of gestures and a dictionary we got through the game.
Fırat made it his personal mission to help me. He helped me learn the language, learn the bus and metro systems, learn the culture, the customs, etc. He was patient and kind. For example, the morning that I cleared out a tiny börek establishment when I blew my nose at the table (literally everyone got up simultaneously and said, “I’m done”), he looked at me and said, “You understand now that we find blowing your nose in public gross, right?” He never got upset with me, he just poked and prodded until I eventually started getting it.
My Turkish was slow in emerging, but I had Fırat, his brothers and cousins in a makeshift immersion program that help to speed things along. My colleagues at the university would tease me when I tried to speak Turkish. “You sound like a village boy,” laughed one colleague. It was my first hint that my new friends might be considered different.
Visiting Fırat’s village
Over the years it came out that Fırat and his family were Kurdish. He told me about his hometown and his family and his youth. In fact, I’ve even had the pleasure of visiting his village. However, when he first told me, it was tentatively -- as if he were testing the waters. He seemed relieved that I never gave a second thought to his “Kurdishness”; he was a friend with a kind soul.
As I never gave a thought to Fırat’s Kurdishness, I also never gave a thought to my other friend Hikmet’s “Turkishness” -- here were two nice guys that I thought were really fun to be with.
And yet, when I tried to introduce Hikmet to Fırat, Hikmet was instantly alarmed at my choice in friend. He kept trying to get me alone, away from our small group. When he finally got me to himself, he said, “Don’t give Fırat money.” “What?” “He’s Kurdish, they all smoke hash; they will sell their sisters; they steal and are terrible people. He is only your friend for money.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. For the Kurdish folks I knew, not one of them had anything to do with drugs or other monkey business. They were hardworking kids trying to make ends meet. And, for the record, they never asked me for a dime. In fact, whenever we went out, I was hard-pressed to pay for anything.
Fast forward a year. I was looking for an apartment to escape yet another landlord who wanted to raise my rent 50 percent (even though the law said the limit was 8 percent) because they thought I was an unsuspecting foreigner and that I would go for it. Fırat wasn’t available to help me find a flat and so I set off on my own. I found a small place in a bit of a run-down neighborhood, but it fit my simple needs and my price range.
Moving to a ‘gypsy neighborhood’
A week after I had moved in, I invited Fırat to see the place. He was appalled. He quickly pointed out that I had moved to the outskirts of a gypsy neighborhood. So? I didn’t see the problem. He then told me about gypsies: “They all smoke hash; they will sell their sisters; they steal and are terrible people, and your neighbors will be along soon to ask you for money.” I couldn’t believe my ears. I said, “Firat, I heard the same story about Kurdish people.”
And yet on a different day, in a different place, Fırat and Hikmet would each say we are all one.
We get our ideas on who to hate and who to love from our environment. Many -- dare I say all? -- of the perceptions we harbor of the “other” are dictated to us by our family, friends, the media, society, etc.
I met a young Kurdish kid one day who was wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt I asked him who that was and he said, “It’s Che Guevara!” with an enthusiasm that most have for their soccer teams. I went on to question him about his beloved icon -- where this Guevara came from, what he did, why this boy had an affiliation to him, etc. He couldn’t answer one question about his “idol.”
I told him that I understood why he was latching on to this individual as an idol -- he was merely following what others had told him was true. I then suggested that he take a trip to the Internet and read up on Guevara -- at least know what country he was from and about the actions he took in that country. I told him that once he was informed, he may or may not choose to continue following his idol, but that it would be his choice based on what he knew, not what he was told to know.
It saddens me to know that a person will literally kill for ideals that they barely understand. They only know that they are to vehemently hate this other and to wish for their demise. You might say that the murder of Hrant Dink and the fiasco surrounding the trial of his murderer is a good example. Apparently, the murderer didn’t even know Mr. Dink’s full name -- only that he was Armenian and, therefore, an enemy.
This, I know, is human nature. To vilify or denigrate another group or race makes it easier to justify any persecution or act of violence. This modus operandi has been part of the human condition for centuries.
There are countless examples in history, but one that comes to mind is the treatment of the Native American. When the “settlers” first appeared on the scene, they were weak and helpless in this new land, they welcomed the help of the natives with open arms -- the natives who kept them alive that first winter. Many journals written at the time espoused their gratitude and admiration of the people that inhabited this “new” land.
Relieving the natives of their land
As time passed, the settlers made a conscious decision to relieve the natives of their land. The very same journal writers began to vilify the natives as “savage” and “uncultured.” The natives hadn’t changed, but it was necessary to reduce their contributions in the minds of the Europeans, so that they could annihilate them without compunction -- they could justify it.
I have heard horror stories on both sides of the Turkish/Kurdish story. I know a Kurdish man who was picked up by the police when he was 14 and who subsequently suffered a day that I shudder when I think about -- he still bears the scar that runs along his neck from ear to ear. I also met a Turkish man whose entire family was apparently wiped out by Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgents. So, yes, there is hate and pain on both sides of the issue.
But honestly, 99.99 percent of the people I’ve met -- whether Turkish or Kurdish -- are just honest, hardworking folks who want to get through this life with a few creature comforts and some money in their pocket, good health and maybe a family.
So when I am out with my friends and the conversation starts going toward the spiritual realm, I take the proclamation that “we are all one” with a grain of salt. I know that if I questioned the individual, slowly widening the circle with questions aimed at ascertaining where the “we are all one” border ends and where the stereotype or hate of the “other” begins, it won’t be long before I find it. Maybe it will stop with religion -- “We Muslims are all one.” Maybe it will stop with race -- “We whites are all one.” But in my experience, I have rarely met a person who genuinely believes that we humans who inhabit the planet are all interconnected in some intricate, unknowable way and that truly, we are all one.