Instead, I remain a struggling kindergarten English teacher with a passion for studying the Middle East. Like many other expats in Turkey, I sometimes come under a friendly, but suspicious, umbrella merely because I am interested in studying this fascinating but volatile region. When I try to explain that it is possible to do research for fun, I am met with polite but disbelieving nods from my Turkish co-conversationalist.
I first became interested at 11 years old, when the book “Not Without my Daughter” was released. My mom was reading it, and I picked it up when she was finished. Like many, I was shocked at how the author portrayed Iran, her husband, his family and Shiite Islam. My conservative Christian hometown in Michigan seemed worlds away. Despite having never met anyone with a Middle Eastern background in our predominantly Dutch town, I still questioned whether the author had portrayed things accurately. Could Islam really be that bad? Even at such a tender age, it sparked my interest.
Years later, at a college party in the small Ohio town where I majored in music at the conservatory, I would ask a Turkish student if he hailed from “Constantinople.” When he corrected me and told me that the city had been called “İstanbul” for some decades now, I went back to studying the area with flushed cheeks. A short time later I abandoned an unpromising music career, changed universities and officially majored in Middle Eastern Studies. Woefully behind, I crammed in classes on religion, politics, as well as tried to learn the basics of Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish. Tired of merely conducting research from books, I decided to travel to one of the “safest” countries in the region, Turkey. By the time my feet first touched Turkish soil I fell in love with the place, and moved to İstanbul permanently a few years after my college graduation.
Before my trans-Atlantic move I met with my college advisor and we discussed what jobs might be available to me with my degree. At first a job with the US State Department intrigued me, seemingly a great opportunity to see the world, while working at different US consulates and embassies. The tragic events of Sept. 11 and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq made me see my country in a new light, and not one that I was proud of. I didn’t try to work for the US State Department, and have no regrets. When I moved to Turkey, I thought I would try and apply for a master’s degree in Turkish Studies. This dream too fell by the wayside as I, instead, had to focus on keeping a full-time job in order to support myself in this expensive city. Even though I taught English to kindergarteners, I always had a thick book in hand to stimulate me after a full day of reading “Brown Bear” out loud. My Turkish friends would look at me askance when they saw me reading books analyzing Hezbullah or Alfred Lord Kinross’ hefty tome on Atatürk. How could an American woman teach kindergarten, yet read these books as a hobby? I stressed that I do, but no one believes me. Thomas Friedman wrote in one of his columns in The New York Times that the Middle East loves a conspiracy theory; a small one permeates İstanbul, that Turkey will be overturned by American spies acting as kindergarten teachers. If only I were that powerful.
I have been so ashamed of the Bush administration’s actions over the past eight years that I have introduced myself as a Canadian many times when asked. Michigan, after all, is pretty close to Canada and I can fake the accent and add a few “eh’s” at appropriate intervals, but that is the extent of my James Bond-like abilities. If I am an American spy, then times in the US must be pretty tough.
While I once had grand dreams after college of using my research and talents to help in this region, living in Turkey taught me to take a step back. Everyone loves an English teacher, but no one needs another American windbag trying to tell them how to run their country. I quietly believed, and still believe, that we Americans have a lot of housekeeping in our own country to do, and that we have meddled enough in the Middle East to last a lifetime. While I still teach small children English, I have only used my degree to publish a few entries in an updated encyclopedia, hard, cold facts, with no opinions to get me into any trouble. Studying Turkey from afar without having visited, all the research I did was null and void when I moved to Turkey. I learned that the world on the street was much different than what I had studied at home, and it made much more sense. While I disagree with most of the paranoid conspiracy theories that run rampant in the Middle East, some of them do have hints of truth to them and have spurred my mind creatively.
I am sad to report to my friends that rather than being an undercover agent, I am merely a curious American woman with a passion for studying the controversial past, present and future of the Middle East. My Turkish husband, Can, is truly my love match, and I am also not using him or my unborn child to gather intelligence. As incredulous as this may sound, not all Americans are ignorant. There are a great deal of us who passionately love this area and strive to educate our countrymen as to what the real Middle East is about, and to undo the damage books like “Not Without My Daughter” have done. You don’t know a place until you have lived there and seen it with your own eyes, but unfortunately this is not an opportunity that many Americans have. I am guilty of passing information on Turkey back to America, but rather than strategic or valuable, it is in regards to the country’s warmth, hospitality and generosity. How even though people think I might be a spy, they still welcome me into their homes, their families and their hearts without question. Could a suspected agent in America be so lucky?
As we count down the weeks until the birth of our son, people have started to admonish me to move on to some lighter reading. The baby, I guess, is too young and vulnerable to be considered a partner in espionage, but I guess you never know the effects reading about the Lebanese civil war can have in vitro. Meekly, I instead picked up the “Baby Book” by Dr. Sears, and shelved my new interest in the rise of Islam in Europe until well after postpartum. While talking about birth and babies has definitely become my, more acceptable, new hobby, I know the day is not too far off when I will long for my old, intellectual ways. Hopefully, saddled with a baby by then, people won’t ask if I’m a spy, but can instead see me as an intelligent, if not overcurious, American woman.