Eren sat patiently on the bench while we waited for the trolley car to take us down the famous İstiklal Caddesi in Taksim. It was a bright, sunny morning, crowded as the district always is. As every visitor quickly learns, Taksim is the heart of the city.
From this hub, people are pumped out to every part of İstanbul by all different modes of transport. If you ever get lost, the easiest thing to do is find your way to Taksim Square, then navigate to your destination from there. Two-year-old Eren and I were not lost, just exploring. I had some errands to run on that side of town and brought him to ride the famous and historic tram. While we waited, I noticed a group of people gathering nearby. Taksim is also the hub for protests, some of which can be dangerous. I noticed the police were present, but they didn’t look too alarmed so we stayed. The group wasn’t big, I had seen larger in my nine years of residence in İstanbul. Eren waved to a few in the group and they waved back at him, smiling.
With a silent command, the group of about 20 donned caps and unfurled hidden banners. I had never heard of this group before, but all of their signs spewed anti-American sentiments. Whether it was due to the conflict in Syria, the problems in eastern Turkey or just the standard blame-America-for-everything-wrong-in-the-world wasn’t clear. What saddened me was that the demonstrators had interacted with my half-American son just moments before. They pinched his cheeks and “Maşallah”ed him without realizing that he was half American. Now, Eren clapped along to the drum they banged on to accompany their chanting. The scene was sadly surreal.
Last summer, while Eren and I were back in the US, we were fortunate to be there for the July 4 festivities celebrating the birth of America. Eren and I went to the local parade put on by my small town. He loved the fire trucks and horses that marched along the street. Next came the veterans, of wars spanning World War II to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the soldiers from these two most recent wars passed, the crowd changed. Around me, people began to talk and some even shouted phrases against terrorists and anti-Muslim slogans. They applauded the troops for their service against “towel heads.” These were people who had offered to share their picnic blanket with us. Maybe they would have changed their minds if they knew the child on my lap was Muslim, and half-Turkish. Directly after the veterans was a Christian rock band from one of the local churches, singing about peace and how to love your neighbor. I looked around but seemed to be the only one who noticed the irony.
Both groups resembled each other in many ways. The first lumped all Americans into one category and blamed America for all that is wrong in the world. While there are several policies of my government that I question or am against, that doesn’t mean that the filth spewed by these protesters didn’t hurt. It did. While I am against terrorism, it hurt that this group of Americans lumped terrorism and Islam in the same category, in derogatory terms. Both sides claim to be peaceful. Both sides were nice to strangers on the street (us) without realizing that their words were partly aimed at us. What would their reactions have been if I had said to the demonstrators in Taksim that we were American? To the parade goers if I had said we were Turkish and Muslim? Would they have apologized? In both cases I stayed quiet.
The past 20 years have seen an explosion in technology. Gone are the days when to research a topic properly one needed to go to the local library. Back in the early 1980s, my mom even took the extra step of buying a set of encyclopedias. My sisters and I would spend many an afternoon reading about various topics. It was our 1980s version of Google. Now, almost everyone in İstanbul and my hometown has access to information quickly via their telephone or their computer. Instead of consulting numerous resources, many sides just stick with their sources of hate and misinformation. While some people question, others do not. It’s easier to just believe and follow the loudest voice, even if it is wrong. Access to technology sadly has not lessened the hatred felt for those who are different or unknown.
My nine years of living in Turkey has spanned a lot of controversial policies by America in the Middle East. The Iraq War, the Abu Ghraib debacle, Afghanistan, etc. Through all of this, I have learned that the majority of Turks, while feeling very strongly about certain subjects, don’t hate Americans or me in general. They are angry about my government’s policies, and we have many enlightening discussions on the topic. In America, many Americans feel the same. They hate terrorism; don’t like Islam being turned around to advocate war. Most Americans come from backgrounds of controversy and war, which was why our ancestors came to America in the first place. My German and Irish ancestry is typical of this. My German grandfather immigrated to the US before World War II, my Irish grandparents during the Irish uprisings at the turn of the century. Both sides experienced discrimination on US soil. Both sides persevered. It’s the same in Turkey, with my husband Can’s family. He has roots from Bulgarian Turks, and there are still some of his relations who talk of what they experienced before making it to Turkey and the problems afterwards.
In both my native country and my adopted one, it saddens me when I see and hear people display intolerance. The person walking next to you on the street, or whose child you passed a blessing onto, might be from a faction you purport to hate. You never know. There are so many people like Eren and I in this world who are examples of the grey area. Half Turkish, half American. Who identify with several different identities and loyalties. My life as an American and as an expat has been filed with questioning the stereotypes I was raised with and also experienced on my travels. My viewpoint has radically opened, thankfully allowing me to see things from many perspectives as well as my own fallibility. Most of that has been recorded in this column when tested with Turkish family relationships and motherhood.
I didn’t leave the tram stop as the protest continued, nor did I leave the parade as the spectators yelled against Islam. While I don’t want my son exposed to this stuff, it is impossible to shield him from it forever. In neither place were our lives threatened nor were we in danger. In Taksim, the small protest was over before the tram arrived at our stop. At the parade, the shouting stopped the minute the veterans passed us by. Everyone moved on, and so did we. These incidents sadden me as I wish that people weren’t so ignorant and would take the time to question their beliefs. It’s something I have struggled with a lot over my lifetime, and is not an easy journey. But, it is not impossible.
Elle Loftis is an American expat, writer and mother living in İstanbul. Reach her at [email protected] for comments or questions.