So how can a Coca Cola sign help us understand the Kurds?

if you are really reading this entry to find out about the importance of a Coca Cola sign, then you should scroll down to the bottom now.  If not, then jump in, and it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

It seems easiest to begin to answer the question of who the Kurds are by “seeing,” as best we can where they are.  We also need to gain a clearer sense of the Kurdish past, in as many dimensions as we can digest, in order to understand their present circumstances.

Kurds actually live in Turkey, concentrated in the southeast primarily, as well as in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and even portions of Armenia an elsewhere.  Within the Kurdish “group,” many different cultural and religious distinctions emerge.  For example, there are Arab enclaves within traditionally Kurdish areas in Turkey and Turkomen groups in Kurdistan in Iraq.  And, religious divides occur across Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.  According to Martin von Bruinessen, the Kurds represent an “ethno-religious mosaic.”  A very helpful phrase.  We also need to keep in mind the relationships with each country where the Kurds reside, as well as the diplomatic activities occurring across the national borders.  Ok?  Ready for  more?

Let’s go back, way back, then come forward.  As far back as the 10th and 11th centuries, we can chart a political history that shows the Kurds existing in a collection of either semi-independent or independent states in this same basic region.  By the second half of the 17th century, when British colonists were establishing holdings in eastern North America, writers like Ahmad Khani were composing the basic ideas of Kurdish nationalism.  Further, neither the Persian or Ottoman empires were able to successfully control all of what some claim to be Kurdistan.  By the 1880s, then through about 1930, Kurdish nationalism became even more energized, as repression of Kurdish religious and ethnic expressions increased.  Not an easy past.  In 1945, at the San Francisco Peace Conference, a Kurdish delegation proposed consideration of a formal acceptance of then current Kurdish holdings that would officially comprise a Kurdish state.  Fast way forward to the 1990s, then to now, to see how Kurdish difficulties continue.  In the 1990s, the Turkish government established paramilitary groups to combat Kurdish challenges to Turkish governmental authority.  That violence continues.  In 1995 alone, the Turkish government spent approximately $6 billion in suppressing Kurdish forces. While we were in Van, we heard a report of the deaths of three Kurdish militants at the hands of the Turkish army.  Also in 1992, Iraqi Kurdistan emerged at the end of the first Gulf War.  This creation meant that there was an autonomous political entity with its own local government and parliament within the state of Iraq.  Still with me?

As these events developed, there are additional considerations to recall.  For example, why can we assume that all Kurds, no matter where they live, all have the same objectives, political or otherwise?  Obviously, we can’t.  The various Kurdish political groups, the PKK, the KDP, and the PUK, do not agree, and have had violent conflict with each other across national boundaries (Turkey, Iran, Iraq).  Also, the relationship between Turkey and Iran, Turkey and Iraq, and especially now, Turkey and Syria, have added to an unhealthy energy that has fueled intra-Kurdish and really, inter-Kurdish concerns.  Now with the massive and potentially game-changing progress made by the Turkish government in the GAP project, the enormous set of dams being constructed on the Euphrates River in the country’s southeastern region, economic and political factors my de- and re-stabilize yet again.

We must assume that a situation such as that involving understanding who and where the Kurds are, and have been, is multi-sided and really hard to understand.  So what about the Coca Cola sign?  On the way from Mardin to Sanliurfa I happened to glance out the window just in time to see a sign advertising Coca Cola at a small Turkish market.  Does this sign “mean” that I now see how American culture has come to this small town we were passing?  Does the sign “mean” that I can take in all the features of this engagement with the global community?  Well, no.  So…I and we have a very long way to go to see all of the rich and complicated dimensions of the Kurds’ past lives and future prospects.  As a teacher and a global citizen, it is my responsibility to keep at it.  We’ll all stay informed, pass on to each other what we find out, continue to challenge our own assumptions, and continue to appreciate just how rich and intense our world really is.  Watch.  Listen.

More later,



Is Turkey a Modern Nation?

We are now in the city of Mardin, after traveling south fromVan and Diyarbakir, with quick side trips to Akadamar, Dogubeyazit, and Hazankef.  The question that I pose as this blog’s title is not an easy one to answer.  In fact, its answer seems to shift in tone and substance depending upon the last person I listened to or the last image that I recorded with my camera.  Ultimately, however, I seem always to settle on the basic response of..well, of course it is.  The more interesting challenge rests in explaining how it is modern, given the rich and complex historical and contemporary setting within which it rests.

As we came into mountainous Mardin yesterday afternoon, there were several spots where we could see Syria.  Given the difficulties that this neighbor to the southeast has experienced especially this past week, Syria has been on all of our minds.  Some of us found ourselves cynical about the UN’s Security Council deliberations and lack of immediate response.  Earlier today, we spent part of the morning at the Deru-l Zafaran Monastery, a site that reaches back to an era 2000 years before Christ lived when its location was dedicated to a sun-worshipping population.   The site eventually became home to a Orthodox Christian monastery and still exists as such.  Some members of the monastery speak Aramaic, the language that Christ spoke.

Our visits at other sites and with different people since being in Van certainly reinforce my thinking about Turkey’s presence in the modern world, especially because of the rich and complex diversity it holds within its borders — even racing across its borders and into the wider global community. 

While in Van, during one of our workshop sessions, my group focused on the concept of national identity, and we found ourselves drawn to the world’s newest country of South Sudan and the historical moment that this event represents.  We wondered about basic questions such as whether or not it already has a pledge of alliegance?  If it does, who wrote it and what does it proclaim?  What does its constitution say?  Whom does the document protect, whom does it leave out?  Was it ratified?

But, back to Turkey’s current dilemmas.  Two speakers, both heading women’s  organizations, seem to show how groups are harnessing the country’s human resources to urge more rights for some members.  After our trip to the monastery, we visited the offices of MOKID, an organization we had heard about while we were still in Istanbul, which creates programming for children that advocates peace and houses a sewing workshop for women to create dolls (the “Dolls with Identities” project) to use in simulation activities which strive to enable children to feel empathy with others who seem so different.  We saw first-hand how these women are formulating new drive and energy to change certain attitudes.  While still in Van, we had met with Nehabat Akkkoc, a Kurdish woman who is the leader of another organization, KAMER, and who also works to stop domestic abuse against women, especially the practice of honor killing. 

It seems that these organizations give the world a chance to look at solutions to problems that are world-wide…the US, Sweden, any other country.  If that isn’t being modern, then what is?  Domestic abuse happens around the world.  It’s far too easy to single out one country and assume that it is the one with all of the problems.

While in Diyarbakir, we visited the house of Ziya Gokalp, a strong nationalist figure and member of the Young Turks.  Since he died in 1924, he didn’t get to see the real start of the republic, but he was so active in assimilating new ideas from elsewhere that urged new political thought.  Golkap is certainly among the founding fathers of the republic, so his story is key.  He supported the idea of maintaining Islam’s place in a modern Turkey.  If that isn’t being modern, then what is? 

Golkap and others of his generation and so many who followed him struggled then and now to decide what Turkey’s national identity should be…tying together strands of religious devotion, political representation, economic leadership, social interaction and class markers, and ending up with strong cloth, durable enough to withstand global challenges.  If that’s not being modern, then what is?

In fact, as Turkey struggles to create a significant, if not a peaceful, place for many ethnic groups that have been previously under-represented in the national civil dialogue, such as Kurds, it matches other nations’ efforts to do the same.  If that is not modern, then what is?

In the US, occasionally, groups of us feel as though we lead the world in all that is the best in all aspects of society…economic activities, political representation and democracy, the ways that ethnic and racial groups get along with each other, how the national government represents all levels of American society…the list can go on.  But, the fact is that Americans can indeed learn a great deal about the global community’s struggles and concerns, and, just maybe, become a more caring nation as a result.  What’s more modern than that?

As I am writing this entry, I am sitting in a restored and refurbished caravansari that had originally been completed in 1275…so it’s not like I’m going to forget the fact that Turkey’s ancient world is quite directly under my feet as my foundation.

More later,



Women…in history and in present

This is a very difficult topic to conceptualize and to understand, but it’s clearly time to dive into the conversation…certainly I have set myself for this moment.  We just returned from a hamam and feel clean and so refreshed.  If you are not too sure what a hamam is, here’s a quick overview.  For centuries across the Mediterranean and other areas of the world, men and women have taken the time to wash and have massages with others of their own gender.  The women in our group did that this afternoon…imagine a very hot, steamy, entirely marble sauna, spending time just to relax, get a bit drowsy, and rest.  Some of us got scrubbed as well.  The guys did the same in another building.  The hamam where we were was quite new and beautiful, with different colors of marble, as well as other features which were quite attractive.  The actual hamam design was centuries old, and I tried to imagine myself as a woman, well, maybe from the late Ottoman era.  Would I have been a scrubber or a massager?  Maybe an attendant of another type, or even a woman of higher status?  Don’t know….

Over the past several days, I have been thinking about the role that gender has played in Turkey’s history over the past many generations, and given our readings and visits, historical and literary anecdotes seem glued together.  Of course, I am also thinking a great deal about how I might enter into some discussions with the AP US history classes in particular.  Some years ago, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, an American historian who investigated women’s history in the late colonial era, wrote an extremely important work, A Midwife’s Tale.

Right.  Well, how is this work connected to Turkish history or modern Turkey?  In the work, Ulrich focused on the journal kept for over twenty years of a midwife, Martha Ballard.  As Ulrich mapped Ballard’s practice, and charted her remedies and counseling of families in her New England community in the 1780s, readers learned about how people interacted with her.  Until the new, young, male physician came to the area and upset the order.  Ballard was pushed out, and later retired.

At the same time that Ballard was practicing her midwifery, the nation was writing a new constitution and other momentous events were happening.  I have always enjoyed how students begin to “see” both important levels of social and political life in the new nation.  We know quite well that upper and middle class white women in the new republic were encouraged to school their male youngsters well so that they could be good citizens.  So, females in American history have served dozens of key roles and we have many examples.

As I think more about the women of Anatolia whom we have “met” in Snow, Bliss, Pierre Loti’s writings, other pieces that cover women’s issues in the early 20th century, and even the early 21st century, I try to understand how both genders have related to each other in all aspects of their lives.  I am eager to move past simple explanations, and, also start looking at units for the US history course.

In the 1920s, a Turkish journalist, Sabhia Zekeriya Sertel, created a magazine with her husband.  While they covered many topics, a key one for Sertel was the way that women should be incorporated into the labor force in the new Turkish republic.  At about the same time, both Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, among others in the US, were also advocating for major changes in the lives of American women (especially in political involvement, birth control).

In our two novels, several female characters test the boundaries of religious, family, and community commitments.  In Bliss, for example, Meryem, struggled to deal with having been raped.  As the weeks moved on, she was befriended briefly at one point by another young woman.  This chance encounter on a train energized her at a crucial point in the story and her life.

In another extraordinary book, one of our trip’s leaders, Sylvia Onder, led us through a discussion about gender relations in Turkey.  One of the major readings for this session was a set of chapters from her own book.  The section that I read focused on health care and belief systems and where women’s community roles are intertwined in these topics.  Prof. Onder showed us the path not only to the door of the poor rural village she studied, but into the gray, no-easy-answer zone that we are ready to consider.

And, of course, around us here in Van, we see men and women walking along singly, in groups, with and without children, driving cars, riding bicycles.  You get the idea.  We see people going about their lives.  Who are they?  How do they sew the fabric of their lives together?  How important is the national political scene as they go about each day?  Was one of them involved in the protest that occurred a day ago down the street when relatives were trying to call attention to the violence happening Turkish and Kurdish forces and the loss of life?  Back to the women in particular, their dress is quite mixed…young girls in tight jeans and maybe a headscarf, colorful and beautifully arranged…same age or older women who are covered in a long coat with a headscarf.  The variety is as great as possible.

I, for one, am relieved.  Why would that be?  In Pamuk’s Snow, the reader, although continually lost in his snowdrifts of complex phrasings and plot twists, gets to see just how complicated community life really is in eastern Turkey.  Nope, no easy answers.  But, we have clear stories and images to set before our students on their plates for them to contrast with American lives, both past and present.

More later,



Here is a set of photos from the trip, starting in Istanbul.  We’re now in Van and will be here for several more days, moving further to the southeast as August and Ramadan both begin together.

More later,


Further exploring eastern Anatolia…

We are continuing to see how people have traversed and inhabited the region of Anatolia.

Some of the readings we have been completing, particularly the ones covering land ownership and land use in previous centuries, show how the Ottomans and others have clearly judged worthy and unworthy practices.  Comparisons with European Americans’ views of Native Americans and African Americans are all too easily called to mind.

As part of our stay in Ayder, we visited the mountain community of Yayla.  Residents from over 50 communities across the larger region of eastern Anatolia migrate to this site (at over 7000 feet) to live for several months out of each year.  The major purpose for this seasonal move is to enable their herds of cows and other animals to feed well for a certain time period.  This settlement is quite steady and permanent in that the families return generation after generation, and each family gets to know many others.  Their collective use of the land is quite remarkable, leading them to install zip lines powered by hydroelectric energy so that goods may be carried over deep hills, irrigation systems as well as a variety of crops grown to provide food sources.  We met many villagers, one man in particular really held the visit together.  Not only did he drive the small van that we took up the mountain, but as also managed the food preparation for our meal, and as mayor, certainly acted as overall host for the day.

When we moved to Kars, the town where Orhan Pamuk wrote Snow, our group was able to have the time to walk around the town before we began our discussion of the themes and episodes that emerge as key.  We also went outside the town, approximately 50 km. away near Ocakli, to Ani, a very old settlement close to the Armenian border, to see many different churches that were built starting from the late 10th century.  Through the early 13th century, when Mongolian forces invade and destroyed many buildings, Ani was host to Byzantine and then Seljuk governing systems.  The succession of faith traditions is clearly visible in the architecture which ranges from a variety of churches ad well as at least one mosque.  The remains of a hammam are still extant.  As we walked around the site, we could see an Armenian guard watching us from a tower on the other side of the border.  So we watched him also.

I am carrying an image in my mind, as well as on my camera, of a set of gardens that we happened to see shortly after we left Ayder.  A variety of crops nested together, corn, tea, kiwi, zucchini, all growing compatibly.  As I learn more about this vast and complicated country, the harmony of the plants comes and goes in my mind.  So much growth, conflict, understanding, misunderstanding, flourishing, not flourishing….

Last night, our seminar focused on the very difficult topic of the Armenians’ history in this region.  Kars has many Armenians and the population’s current presence provides a constant reminder of this difficult topic.  Between the 1890s and the years of World War I, Armenians were heavily persecuted by Ottoman leaders.  It is unknown how many lost their lives, either in this eastern area or in forced marches to the Syrian desert, but it may haven been well over 1 million people.   I reflected on the chapter of this terrible story that actually involved Americans who had already been involved with Armenians as the Ottoman empire was crumbling, and who called attention to the persecution.  Clearly, the episode is a bitter chapter and one that still has enormous power as EU members consider Turkey’s candidacy for membership.  Each year, Armenian Americans lobby Congress for formal recognition of the atrocities as a genocide.  When we had our discussion in the hotel, using its meeting room facilities, we scrubbed the white board to erase the genocide notes we had put on it which included the 1948 UN Convention on the official definition of genocide.  A very tough topic to discuss in public in this area because the Turkish people do not like to call attention to what happened.

Today, in Kars, we had lunch at an Azieri restaurant, exciting foods we hadn’t eaten before, such as a noodle and green lentil soup and a beef-filled turnover, among other items.

What we are continuing to share with each other is our increasing ability to develop materials and ideas that we can use across grade levels and disciplines.  We are teachers above all, through and through.  Whether it is seeing key themes in Snow, navigating the difficult terrain of the data about the Armenians (who persecuted them, who might have tried to harbor them), integrating our halting conversations in Turkish with local residents, thinking about Kurds and their political, economic, and social roles in the modern Turkish state, whatever it i we are doing, we yearn for the practical, the usable for our curricula.  Our thoughts are flowing fast and furiously, and are as refreshing to each other as the mountain falls of Ayder.  Tomorrow on to Van, to learn and see more!

Turkey in the world

If you are following our route, we have moved on from Trabzon, past Uzongol to the southeast, past Rize, and now are in Ayder for the night.  It is Saturday night, so here I am in an internet cafe!  The altitude is over 3000 feet, so I was quite winded getting to this point….  Tomorrow we continue to Kars, where Orhan Pamuk wrote Snow.

I want to share wıth you some observations I  have had over the past several days since we left Ankara.  I have been thinkıng a great deal about Turkey’s position in the modern global community…so  here goes.

At one of our meetings in Ankara, Akif Kirecci spoke to us about Ottoman political developments and intellectual climate overall.  A key point that set the context for the next several days was hıs ıdea that not only duriıng the late Ottoman era but later also, Anatolia has been home to a multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-legal, multi-ethmic, and multi-national climate.  No wonder the layers of cultural riches are so present everywhere you look, hah…even everywhere you think.  On the way ınto Ayder, yesterday afternoon, we passed Ottoman-era brıdges still in use.

At the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, we got to visit wıth Halil Demirdelen, an archaeologist who had come to Penn Charter a few years ago.  We saw Hittite and other civilizations’ artifacts, of course, but also learned about the Museum’s education program that enables Turkish youth to learn about the 1000s of years of their past.  In 1935, Ataturk had expressed interest in these topics and had begun to support such archaeological excavations.

Later in the day, we met with Metin Corbatir who spoke with us about political reforms and ongoing privatization of the Turkish economy, a major change which has led to a huge upswing in international business connections.  Today we visited tea processing and shipping facilities to see yet another business activity that extends well across central Asia.  Corabatir moved on to another key concern, that of the work of UNHCR.  While he gave much detail regarding the movement of 1000s of Syrians into Turkey through Antaka, I found myself even more interested in the fact that 100s of 1000s of refugees have come across the country’s borders in mass influxes since the late 1970s.  Turkey does not have a single official policy about length of stay.  The countries of origin range from neighbors such as Iraq and Iran, to now Somalia and Sudan.  There is some tension between UNHCR and the Turkish Red Crescent regarding support for the Syrian guests, as they are called.

Even later on, we found ourselves even more energized by a talk by Mehmet Karalkalpaki, an expert on Ottoman poetry, but also a representative from UNESCO’s  world heritage program.  He discussed the developing cultural dialogue between countries across the Middle East and those outside this region.  Did you notice that I did not say the West?  I cannot bring myself to support that kind of divide in the language.  I refuse to see the we versus them mentality.  It cannot exist for me.  Turkey has 10 World Heritage Sites and over 200 national heritage sites that it tries to restore and teach about.  An important element of the Turkish economy is tourism of many different types and the sites are part of that base.  Recently, Turkey returned 2000 objects to Iraq that had been stolen from Baghdad’s major historical museum when the US invaded.

Can you see my thinkıng?  I am strivıng to enable my own growth as a student of teaching globally.  Turkey is a lab country, one of our speakers said to us.  It’s all here…modern, ancient, crossroads of issues, democracy of a dıfferent type…so much of what we are doing nurtures our sensibilities, helps us to share the world’s feverish moments, to hold those moments as our own.  Cannot it all add up to a sweet nurturing of our own grace?  While walking at hıgh altitudes may wind us physically, and changing hotels almost nightly makes the groıund seem to shift under us, the amount we are learning is energizıng beyond decent description.  We are learnıng to be global citizens and sampling the world’s diverse riches.

More later,


“Since the time of Alexander the Great….”

The first full day in Ankara was stunning in several ways.  Not only did we quickly notice how different the city is from Istanbul, but we clearly accelerated into Turkey’s contemporary concerns.  By the day’s end, our minds spun with new insights and understandings.  Yet..our visits triggered new questions and challenged assumptions that we didn’t even realize that we had tucked away below the surface.  We began our day with a meeting at the US embassy which consisted of a security briefing as well as discussions about State Department educational programming focused on English and Turkish language learning, and entreprenurial skill development.  Jerry Howard, a career foreign service diplomat, commented on Turkey’s position with respect to the US and the Middle East.  Turkey is “reorienting itself” more towards the Middle East, he said.  As he and Stephanie Winans, the earlier staffer, had been speaking, my mind framed the comment that the security officer had made that Turkey had been a high security threat region since the time of Alexander the Great, giving some new context for the arrests of Al-Quaida members at the embassy a few weeks ago.

As the day developed, we met with members of several Turkish organizations devoted to a variety of causes, including advocacy for scholarship opportunities for young women of high school and college age, support for instruction only in languages historically spoken in Turkey (meaning less teaching in English), advocacy in human rights cases, and assistance for women faced with domestic abuse and other matters. Each of these fine organizations showed such energetic patriotism and nationalism, in their own distinctive ways.  We were fascinated and charged with new insights in to Turkey’s relationships between the national government and the people it represents.

These conversations were intense, and I do not foolishly presume to understand all of the complex ideas that our interpreters expressed to us.  It will take a very long time even to digest the notes that I wrote.  I do see, however, a remarkable opportunity to knit historical and contemporary threads together covering Turkey’s past, even back to ancient times in terms of social, political, military, and economic matters, and enable American students to study them.  In addition, American teens can meet Turkey’s modern issues and compare them with their own nation’s story in the areas of education, women’s issues, the matters involving traditionally underrepresented groups, and other national policy debates.  The individuals who spoke to us did so with a passion that easily swept across the language differences.  As one individual remarked, “To be an active citizen is the most important thing…[but] it is not easy to get up from your comfortable chair…[people] need encouragement to do it.”

Such a rich day…and one that ended on just the right note when we went to a theater and watched the new Harry Potter movie in English with Turkish subtitles.  We have even learned enough Turkish to recognize some of the phrases that we saw running across the bottom of the screen.  I am uncertain though if I can properly say some of my new Turkish verbs without the Elder Wand.  I’ll try!

More later,


Previous Older Entries