Lowry’s account of waging peace in an Anatolian village

March 14, 2010, Sunday/ 10:53:00
One of the hottest debates in international political relations is the issue of democratization.
How much right does one country (or a group of countries) have to interfere in the sovereignty of another? If the goal is democracy, does this end justify the means? Or how about averting terrorism (the infamous WMD -- weapons of mass destruction)? Or stopping a belligerent regime being in possession of nuclear weapons?

How far can one go? Are sanctions advisable or acceptable? What about regime change?

Sadly, our news is filled with stories on one side that demonstrate the difficulties of securing peace in countries where democracy can at best be described as fragile, and with stories on the other side full of verbal conflict between nations concerning the threat of nuclear proliferation.

The events of recent decades have spurred a number of civilian groups to take a stand against the trend of nations to impose change by invasion. Believing that the way to initiate change is from the bottom up, by working on issues of development and education and bringing about a viable political process within country, they often use a phrase made famous by a former Israeli negotiator: “Waging Peace.” Itamar Rabinovich used this as the title of his insightful book examining the history of Israel and the Arabs between 1948 and 2003.

The idea that peace is not just some passive term -- the absence of any tension, war or conflict -- but an active term formed by positive and deliberate actions of those who can be termed peacemakers is not new. In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God.”

Back in the 1920s the newly formed British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) took as its motto “Nation shall speak peace unto nation.” This may have been a laudable ideal espoused by the BBC’s founders, but watch any 24 hour slice of BBC World News or any episode of “Eastenders” on BBC Entertainment, and you will see that these are little more than words written on a crest or shield.

What is new is the proliferation of NGOs, charities and campaign groups who have as their stated aim and purpose to work tirelessly to bring about peace. Often issues of justice and non-violence in society are also tackled. Here are just a few:

“Waging Peace campaigns against genocide and systematic human rights abuses. We have a particular focus on Africa, on atrocities overlooked by the international community and where minorities have been persecuted on racial or religious grounds. We work to secure the full implementation and enforcement of international human rights treaties wherever we campaign. Our current priority is Darfur, where we are fighting for an immediate end to the atrocities and a stable and secure peace settlement that will bring about long-term safety and security for Sudan’s citizens. Our experienced team produces regular high-level and in-depth research reports, which enable us to support the call for urgent, effective and measurable action from the UK government and the international community.”

“Women Waging Peace Network is a network of more than 1,000 women peacemakers from conflict areas around the world, ranging from Sudan to Sri Lanka, Colombia to Bosnia, the Middle East to Sierra Leone. The network was launched in 1999 to connect these women with each other and with policy shapers. Members of the Waging Network, all demonstrated leaders among women peace builders, are elected and appointed government officials, directors of non-governmental organizations and movements in civil society, scholars and educators, businesspeople, representatives of multilateral organizations and journalists. With varied backgrounds, perspectives and skills, they bring a vast array of expertise to the peacemaking process. The Women Waging Peace Network has made a big difference in the lives of women by enhancing their leadership role and potential in their societies. They have used the opportunity of this support to learn to connect, to achieve and to inspire us in all that they do.”

Back in the 1960s, before the term “waging peace” became such a buzzword, US President John F. Kennedy founded the Peace Corps. Its name unashamedly taken from the military arena, this was a US government program to send volunteer young people around the world to assist in peaceful development programs.

Heath Lowry, the Mustafa Kemal Atatürk professor of Ottoman and Turkish Studies at Princeton University, was one of the volunteers. His spell of nearly two years in the village of Bereketli in Balıkesir was to form his introduction to the country that was to become his lifelong passion -- hence the title of these memoirs, “An Ongoing Affair -- Turkey and I.” This is the second book of a Peace Corps volunteer’s memoirs published by the İstanbul-based Çitlembik Publications. Malcolm Pfunder’s memoir “Village in the Meadows” was reviewed in this paper on Oct. 28, 2007.

Lowry is only grateful for his experience in the village, using a pun to describe them as his Bereketli years -- years of blessing. As many Turks transition from the village to the big city in Turkey, he shares this common experience with them. The role of the Peace Corps in Turkey in 1964 was primarily to provide volunteer English teachers for the country’s middle schools. Heath was one of the first to be allocated to a village, theoretically under the auspices of the Adult Education Branch of the Ministry of Education. However, neither the ministry nor the volunteers had any clear program.

Sent “blindly out into the wilds of Anatolia,” in Bereketli Heath found himself working closely with the village headman, or muhtar, and together they achieved a number of major development projects: the planting of a forest of poplar trees, the introduction of a monthly doctor’s clinic to the village, the building of a house that became a model for all new construction, the making of a bridge to ford the torrents to create access to the next village in times of heavy rain and a water fountain in the village square, to name but a few.

Full of the usual anecdotes concerning adjustment to village life, local customs, rumors started by the hoca that the milk distributed came from pigs, blood feuds and flirting, Lowry’s memoirs have the added edge that he has a deep grasp of Turkish politics. He resists the temptation to add an academic treatise of analysis and explanation, but the very meat of his understanding the issues makes this a very readable account, which avoids the usual skim over the surface of life in a Turkish village.

The muhtar is from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in a village that had majority support for the banned Democrat Party (DP), whose leader Adnan Menderes had only recently been overthrown in a coup and hung. Heath and the muhtar quickly realized that each had everything to gain and nothing to lose from partnership. The governor of Balıkesir required a weekly meeting with Lowry, suspecting him of being a spy, but seeing as every move the American made was made known and discussed at length in each of the three coffeehouses of Bereketli -- each with its own political affiliations -- it is hard to assess who should be suspecting whom of spying. Nevertheless, these awkward weekly meetings were turned by Heath into an advantage to gain assistance for implementing his and the muhtar’s plans.

Sadly, for a program which did such good on a ground level -- both for the locals and for the foreign volunteers -- the good name of the Peace Corps was besmirched in Turkey by the misconceived actions of a few of its leaders and it was closed down.

When Heath left the village he took with him not just memories. A letter written by the muhtar and signed by all 128 heads of families of the village was to become a treasured possession traveling with him for the next four decades. This letter did more than just express their appreciation to him: It shows that the battle for hearts and minds is won through working side-by-side for change.


“An Ongoing Affair: Turkey & I,” by Heath Lowry, published by Çitlembik, TL 12 in paperback ISBN: 978-994442453-0
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