February 28, 2014

Atatürk on the dolmuş

He really is everywhere still. I love this poster, not only for the chance to practice the passive, but also because it is so extravagant in its adulation.

"There is no army" they said

"There is no money" they said
"IT WILL BE FOUND" he said

"The enemy is many" they said

(I'm not 100% sure on translating this line's grammar)


February 21, 2014

So there's a Berber, a Suryani, and an Armenian

The famous view from Mardin of the fields leading to Syria

Sitting in a small wine shop in the dark–there has been another power outage in the old part of Mardin–are three men, laughing and laughing. Two are arguing in Arabic while the other listens. Oh, they are funny. One, handsome in a devilish way, has a black coat and a beard straight out of the movie 300. The beard is coppery red and his eyes are light. With a grin he waves his hands in mock dismay and threatens to throw a tea spoon at his friend. I am to learn that he is a devout Muslim and a Berber, which explains the hair colour. The oldest man of the three has light skin and no beard. He seems like a wise, bemused grandfather figure. I learn that he is Suryani, which in English translates not to Syrian, but Assyrian. With laughing eyes he gives me advice in Turkish about men, which I cannot understand. They continue discussing the upcoming election and the local political parties–apparently there is a woman running in one of them–and then wish me a good evening.

I am now alone with the man who runs the wine shop. In addition to making and selling local wine, he works as a pastor and leads a prayer group in town. He mentions Armenian background and something about Bitlis. I tell him how nice it is to see three people from different backgrounds not just talking, but really laughing. Later, out of ignorance, I ask something about when he lived in Bitlis. He shakes his head.

Orada hiç kimse yok.
There's no one there.


Now I am on the Wikipedia page reading that in 1915, "Turks and Kurds, led by Jevdet Bey Pasha, massacred some 15,000 Armenians in Bitlis." The pastor had been talking about his cultural past, not personal past. I am still so uneducated in the history of this region (ok, history of every region), that I am continually mis-stepping.

The pastor asks what I think of Urfa. Before I can answer, he describes it as 'Zor' (difficult).
'Kapalı' (closed). He holds his hands like blinders on horses, and pulls them in to indicate narrow-mindedness. This is a pretty universal assessment of the city. I have yet to hear anyone praise it. At least I know that Mardin is a mere bus ride away for cultural relief.

February 17, 2014

Learned last night: NGO, equal, opium

Last night I sat with a new acquaintance and talked about work and religion and philosophy, mostly in simplified Turkish. As we talked, my notebook filled with diagrams and new words.

I like these notes because they take me back to moments in the conversation.

They also remind me that language learning can be messy and chaotic.

I still have no conclusions about any "best way" to learn and retain new vocabulary (or a new language in general), but one thing I'll try now is this: instead of reviewing all the words I learn from interactions with people, I'll extract the ones that I especially want to remember, and spend a moment thinking about them.

Expressions I want to remember from last night

basra körfezi          Persian Gulf

I have no special connection to remember 'basra', but I just spent enough time on the Wikipedia page on the the naming dispute (Arabian Gulf vs. Persian Gulf) while mentally chanting 'basra körfezi' that it should stick.

eşit          equal

They both start with 'e'.  means 'partner' 'husband' 'spouse' 'wife', which suggests a nice association between relationship partners and equality.

destek          support

I just spent time looking up 'to support' (destek olmak), and that time, combined with a feeling of familiarity, makes me think the word will stick. I'm reminded of the experiment that found that people's brains 'light up' when they see faces that they can later identify; in that initial moment, it seems, your brain decides whether it will remember or not. Destek elicited a 'yes' (though we'll see if I can recall it later).

Note: I would love to find a site that does Turkish etymology for English speakers.

sivil toplam kuruluşu (STK)         NGO

'civil' is easy. toplamak means 'to gather' 'to collect'. kuruluşu can be 'foundation' 'organization'. Hmm... maybe if I remember the acronym (STK–'seh teh kah'). Like, 'stick'. An NGO 'sticks' up for people. That'll do.

imge          image

Too easy.

Haziran (June)         Temmuz (July)

I always confuse these two. Now my method is simple: 'h' comes before 't'. This is the same method for remembering that çarşamba (Wednesday) comes before perşembe (Thursday).

hikâye          story

This word I know, but I need to stop adding a 't' to the end. Something I learned in Arabic?

afyon          opium

We were talking about 'the opiate of the masses'. This is such a great word. My brain definitely lit up with the 'this will be remembered' light. Afyon. Afyon.

bağ          connection

I learned this before, but kept confusing the ending.

samimi          sincere, warm

This came up a few days ago when I was describing my brother. Another nice word.

Enough for now!

February 14, 2014

Vocabulary from all directions and a question

Hanging out in a village

yavru          baby animal, e.g. lamb
civciv          baby chick (yeah, cutest word ever, pronounced 'jeevjeev')
şam hurma          'sun date'? does anyone know what this is in English?
koyun        sheep
çoban          shepherd
kavun           melon
tohum          seed (also the word for semen/sperm)
yaramaz          naughty, useless (applied to children, in my observations)
gelin          bride
düğün          wedding

Having a phone stalker

bilinmeyen numara          unknown number
açma          don't answer your phone (literally, 'don't open')

At some point during the endless calling, I was played a recording that said that if I wanted to meet, I should answer the phone, and if I didn't want to meet, I should not answer the phone. My stalker was overestimating my Turkish comprehension skills, because it took two listenings to understand, by which point I had apparently already indicated I wanted to meet.

Watching a Turkish dizi (ridiculous soap opera)

öldüren tutku          fatal passion
engelli          with obstacles, difficult
sakin ol          calm down
gerçek masallar          true stories

Watching Turkish news

cinayet          murder
üflemek          to blow out (as in, there was a fire, and it 'blew out' the roof)
çatı          roof

Conversing about politics and the upcoming election

adalet          justice
asıl          foundation, base, source

Totally recognizable from Arabic. e.g. My dad is Canadian, welakin min asıl New Zealand (but originally from New Zealand). A word I use way too much in Turkish is aslında (actually, or 'at the source').

çoğul          majority
oy kullanmak          to vote
kabul etmek          to accept
dernek          association
üye          member
acemi          inexperienced
yolsuzluk          abuse, misuse (literally 'way-without-ness')

This last was used to reference the event on December 17th, when dozens of AK Party officials were arrested for corruption, money laundering, and bribery. I was in Cappadocia that day, and my Turkish friend there bought a stack of newspapers including this:

Question: How to retain all these new words? 

A friend uses a cool vocabulary quiz app... I used to use paper flash cards... I'm open to ideas.

February 12, 2014

That time I drove to Iraq with a guy named Muslim

Or, A terrible model for intercultural dialogue

Driving along the Turkey-Syria border

Where is Gabriel?

There is some confusion and instead of being picked up by someone I know, I am suddenly alone in a car with a guy named Müslüm, or in English, Muslim. He is thirty-one, with a wife and two kids, and has the habits of smoking in the car and shouting all of his questions.

Do you know Tayyip?

Leaving Urfa, we pass a billboard by the AK Party.

Tayyip tanıyor musun? 
Do you know Tayyip?

Note: If someone asks you if you know the Turkish prime minister and they use his middle name, it might say something about their leaning.

Muslim’s explanation of why he supports “Tayyip”: 

Karayolları? Tayyip yaptı. Hastaneler? Tayyip yaptı  Barajlar? Fabrikalar? Tayyip yaptı. Çiftçiler? Tayyip yardım etti.
The highways? Tayyip made them. The hospitals? Tayyip made them. Dams? Factories? Tayyip made them. The farmers? Tayyip helped them.

“in the middle”

As we drive east, basically along the Syrian border, Muslim elicits that I am not a Muslim. I do my usual song and dance about loving everyone and the importance of being open-minded. 

Ortasındasın or ortadasın, he says.
You are in the middle.

Hmm. Does this mean agnostic? Undecided? I can get the literal meaning, but not the connotations. I shrug my shoulders.

I can never remember how to pronounce ‘proselytize’

Muslim feels that our six hour car ride is an excellent opportunity for me to learn more about Islam, and invites me to ask questions. We review the five pillars of Islam (fasting, pilgrimage, prayers, alms, and saying God is the one God and Mohammed is his messenger), we talk a little about the Turkish women who don’t cover their heads (he’s not supportive), and then somehow he veers into Israel’s tyranny (zulüm), the American invasion of Iraq, and the joint Israeli-American conspiracy to break up Turkey and steal all of its resources. Whereupon I lose my patience and curse in English for a bit before reverting into a messy stream of Turkish along the lines of:

Yeter! Herkes aynı şey bana söyliyor! Her zaman aynı şey! Sıkıldım. Biliyorum. Başka şeyler! Yeter!”
Enough! Everyone tells me the same thing! It’s always the same thing! I’m bored. I know. Other things! Enough!

I’m annoyed that he wants me to learn about his faith, but he has no interest in my beliefs. I’m annoyed that he seems totally fixed-minded. I’m annoyed that he is sticking to the same politicized talking points that I have heard before.


After some silence, in the spirit of reconciliation, I point out the mountains in front of us. 

Dağlar güzel. 
The mountains are beautiful. [And they are. After the plains, they are a true relief.]


Dağlar, I say again, slowly, gesturing at the mountains.

Ah! daGKHlar.

Evet, daGKHlar!

And this, my friends, is me being a real jerk and pointing out someone’s non-standard Turkish accent. Yeah. I have a lot of thoughts around accent and emotional response, but for now let me just explain that here in the southeast, people tend to replace "standard" (I know, problematic) Turkish sounds like k (pronounced as you’d expect) and ğ (actually a silent letter that extends the preceding vowel) with sounds that remind me of Arabic, such as ‘kh’ (the phlegm cough’), ‘g’ (the gargle), and ‘q’ (the choking on water). Something about this replacement generally disturbs me, and in this unhappy moment, I act out.


Pardon. Çok özür dilerim.
Sorry. I’m really sorry.

I apologize for being so edgy (sinirli) and angry (kızgın). I’m tired (yoruldum). It’s my first week more or less living in Turkish. I can’t speak enough. I can’t understand enough. My brain is mixed up (karışık).

Peace in the car, peace in the world

There’s a famous saying attributed to Atatürk, founder of the Turkish state:

Peace at home, peace in the world.

Half the reason I learn languages is to make awkward jokes in them, and here is my chance:

Arabada barış, dünyada barış.
Peace in the car, peace in the world.

Muslim gets it and laughs.

Trucks waiting (up two 2 weeks!) to enter Iraq

Do you speak English?

The Iraqi border guards must not see many New Zealanders, because they ask me if I speak English.

“Ah... yes.”

“Do you want tea?”

“Umm... no thanks.”

“Enjoy your visit in Kurdistan!”

“Thank you!”

What’s your favourite food?

Having established the limits of my Turkish and the danger zones of conversation, Muslim and I spend our evening in the easy and safe territory of food. His favourite is lahmacun (like a thin crustless pizza). I gush about how much I like the soups (çorbalar) and the breakfasts (kahvaltılar) here. He kindly encourages me to eat more tavuk (chicken).

In the morning, Muslim buys us kaymak and bal (butter and honey). I eat literally a dish of butter. We drive back to the border to pass into Turkey. When the guard stamps our passports, the mood in the car shifts to pleasant and mellow. The sun slowly moves down the windshield. We put on sunglasses. Muslim seems to have figured out that he doesn’t need to shout at me, and that it helps to speak slowly.

In Zakho, Iraq

Some are afraid

He asks what people in Canada, America, and Europe think about Muslims. Hmm. I talk about the multicultural cities I have seen and the fact that I have many Muslim friends.

Ama... bazılar korkuyorlar.
But... some are afraid, I admit.

I say that in Canada sports are an important part of my life. I do them in shorts with my hair uncovered, and I cannot imagine giving up this way of life. Likewise, a lot of people in the Western world value their ways of life. They're afraid you would want to change those ways.

Somehow I master an “if” clause to summarize:

Eğer sen beni değiştirmek istiyorsan, rahat olamam.
If you want to change me, then I can’t be comfortable.

His response: 

Ben seni degistirmek istiyorum.
I do want to change you.

Ha. Well where do we go from there? Philosophically, I don’t think we can have real dialogue if we sit down with the intention of changing the other person’s mind.

In these moments I feel the temptation to abandon my faith that people can always change. I see why so  many Westerners accept the “just don’t talk about anything important” approach to multiculturalism.

Ama... arada bir... ?

Somehow we move on to my love life. When was my last sevgili (sweetheart)? Am I seeing anyone now? I say that my life is plenty full with learning Turkish.

Ama... arada bir?

Muslim turns on the overhead light so I can locate my little yellow dictionary. Arada bir... arada bir... so much suspense... Ah ha.

“But... once in a while?”

I laugh and laugh. Then I keep laughing. After the strain of speaking in a second language about delicate matters, it’s a pleasure just to laugh about coarse matters. But if Muslim thinks I am sharing anything, after we reviewed all the things that are haram (forbidden in Islam), including new vocabulary item zina (adultery/fornication, which gives Xena the Warrior Princess a new association), he is quite mistaken.

My laughter fills the car as he mimics cutting off his left hand.

I go my way, you go yours

Muslim drops me off in my neighbourhood. As I walk off into the cool night, I repeat the last thing he said:

Ben yoluma, sen yoluna
I my way, you your way

February 9, 2014

So I guess I'm learning Kurdish

En route to a village where everyone speaks Kurdish but me

I actually came for Arabic

Many moons ago, my friend Melodee sent me by mail an article about bilingual Arabic-Turkish speakers in southeastern Turkey. Sweet, I thought. I've always wanted to go back to that cultural hot spot, and now I can go with the exciting mission of learning Arabic via Turkish. The bilingual Turks can guide me through the daunting underground caves of Arabic, using our shared Turkish as a headlamp.

Şanlıurfa? Sure.

I arrived in Turkey in November with this idea about Arabic in the southeast and also a vision of working in some position that connected to my values–spending time outside, learning and teaching in a human way, and sharing ideas about how to live. By fate, such a position was presented... in Şanlıurfa.

Şanlıurfa, unlike Antakya further south, is not really the city for learning Arabic. Yes, there are Arabic speakers, especially now in the form of displaced people from the conflict in Syria, but the city is primarily Kurdish. I am told that Şanlıurfa is 80% Kurdish, and I believe that means that 80% of people speak Kurdish as a first language.

For instance, many of the people I work with now speak Kurdish as a first language, and Turkish as a close or far second. Turkish ability seems to vary with education, access to Turkish media, and communication with non-Kurdish speakers. These are also the people teaching me Kurdish, using our common second language of Turkish to explain things.

Learning Kurdish via Turkish is probably a huge mistake

Reason 1: The languages are not from the same family. 

Turkish is Turkic. Kurdish is Indo-European. There are some overlapping words, but not that many, based on what I have heard.

Note: Of the two major dialects of Kurdish, I am learning Kurmanji, the northern, versus Sorani, the southern.

Reason 2: The Turkish alphabet sucks at describing Kurdish sounds. 

I began writing Kurdish words with my own made-up transliteration system. Now with the thought that it may be useful in the future, I'm trying to use what Kurdish speakers use in Turkey–the standard Turkish alphabet.

Although no expert after a mere week, I can already tell that letters are missing or inadequate for the sounds of Kurdish. The throaty ‘kh’ that’s similar to Arabic is one thing, as well as a vowel between Turkish ‘e’ and ‘a’.

Kurdish stuff seems to always be political in Turkey, and the inadequate alphabet is no exception. Only last year did the government legalize the use of letters Q, W, and X, [I know–there's a potential satirical Sesame Street episode here] which are used for transliterating Kurdish, but which don’t otherwise exist in Turkish.

See the alphabet issue in this strongly-titled article by a journalist who maintains a devoted blog on Kurdish matters. You can also see the same article written in Turkish and written in Kurdish. [Note to self: Potential learning/self-educating materials].

Kurdish–my long lost cousin?

Learning issues aside, one cool thing about this language is that it feels eerily familiar, like a long lost cousin that shows up with features and mannerisms I know intimately, but wouldn’t notice until someone pointed them out.

Because it is an Indo-European language, and there are so many other Indo-European languages swilling around in my brain in varying quantities (English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Hindi, Farsi...) every Kurdish word sounds like a possible cognate.

na (no)
du (two)
bra (brother)

Today a woman taught me ba for ‘wind’. It stuck easily. A list of cognates online points out that ba is a cognate for vent (‘wind’ in French). More from the list:

ster (star)
mer (mari in French) (man)
merane (manly)
nu (new)
brusk (blitz in German) (storm)

As my friend Alaina said, it makes the world seem even more like one big family.

February 7, 2014

Learned today: prophet, west coast

iletişim          communication

neyle ilgileniyorsun?          what are you interested in?

Cem Evi          worship place for Alevis

hazreti           his/her holiness

peygamber          prophet

batıda deniz kenarı          west coast

kısas          retaliation/reprisal

Am I searching?



               Ah... çok dindar bir insan değilim.

               Ah... I'm not a very religious person.

               Benim için, herkesi seviyorum... açık olmak önemli bir şey...

               For me, I like everyone... to be open is an important thing...

Oh, hümanist. [My new friend shows her disappointment].

               Yeah, sure. [Is a humanist really the worst thing to be?]

               Ama, dinlere ilgileniyorum!

               But I'm interested in religions! [Is this true? There's a gleam in my interlocutor's eye, in any case.]

somethingsomethingsomething araştır somethingsomething

               Araştır... araştırmak...?

'To search'

               Oh! Am I searching? [The gleam makes sense. My friend is here to help.]

               No... no.

[24 hours later, I am kindly offered a Koran.]

February 6, 2014

Talking Politics

With local elections coming up, and some serious political movement at the federal level, I'm finding it necessary to learn some Turkish vocabulary. Hadi, let's review some old and new.

siyaset / politika          politics

(Siyaset is also Arabic for 'politics.' Or asiyasiya? Maybe that's 'political'? Need an Arabic consult).

hükümet          government

devlet          state

(As is devlet hastanesi, 'state hospital'. When I say that in Canada I teach new immigrants, people always ask I'm employed by the devlet.)

il          province

başkent         capital 

(Baş 'head', kent 'town')

başbakan          prime minister

belediye başkanı          mayor

(Belediye is 'municipality' in Turkish. In Arabic, I think it means country or countryside).

darbe          coup d'état

devrim         revolution

tutucu / muhafazakar          conservative

(The second comes from Arabic. One person said it's not commonly used, but the next day another person used it before tutucu.)

milliyetçi           nationalist

anket          survey

That's enough for now. I suspect Turkish politics are always interesting, but the situation is especially intriguing right now, with a Muslim scholar in Pennsylvania apparently initiating corruption busts, a Prime Minister whose new slogan is "Iron Will", and population that experienced a political awakening this summer.

You can get a grasp of the major plot lines from this great article from New York Times Magazine by Suzy Hansen.

February 5, 2014

"Glorious" Urfa Walkabout

You've seen my home. Now, the city!

These girls are rocking a pretty standard Urfa outfit for their age, based on what I've seen: slim jeans, coat to low thigh, and fancy headscarf tied around the front of the neck.

Urfa is no village. Population is estimated at 500,000.

Standard urban Turkish man garb: leather jacket, nice jeans, a longer coat for the gentleman.

In Urfa, by the way, every park is Dude Chilling Park.

Local elections are coming up (more on this later), so the streets are full of signs, flags, and music-blaring vans.

Many of the older women wear long coats, again with the fancy headscarves tied around the front of the neck.

Kitap means 'book' (in Turkish and Arabic). The university students inside were super kind and searched the shelves for a book in English (no dice). One of them, insisting that we speak in English, asked, "What are you doing...here...in Urfa?" I laughed.

Big plaza undergoing development. Requisite Atatürk statue at back left.

Şanlıurfa is the real name of the city. Şanlı meaning 'Glorious' was added to 'Urfa' to commemorate the city's efforts in the War of Independence–the war after World War I, when Atatürk fought off the Allies and made Turkey from what was left of the Ottoman Empire.

Apparently it took a few years of petitioning for the 'Glorious' to be added. Local politicians were tired of hearing about neighbouring cities 'Gazi' (veteran/warrior) Antep and 'Kahraman' (Heroic) Maraş.

Sunny days, cold nights.

Balıklı Göl! "Fish Pond"! This beautiful pool is Urfa's main attraction.

The story: Nimrod pushed Abraham/Ibrahim off a cliff and into a bed of burning embers.

God/Allah turned the bed of burning embers into a pool of friendly fish, and Abraham/Ibrahim went on to play his founding role in the three major monotheistic religions.

And Urfa has a swell park.

In the afternoon I returned to my neighbourhood in Yeni Şehir (New City), and took a walk through a more modest, but still lovely, park.

I like that beyond this empty lot we can see the plains. This is Mesopotamia, birthplace of agriculture! So cool.

February 4, 2014

Hazards of Living Alone

This video was originally to celebrate and make fun of my enormous new living space. So many rooms, so much marble flooring. So little furniture to impede dancing.

Now it is also to celebrate breaking back into my blogging account, after Google barricaded me with impossible security questions and a verification system based on a forgotten phone number.

Welcome to Urfa!
Welcome (back) to the blog!

I envision posting a fair amount in the coming weeks, focusing on learning Turkish (and maybe Kurdish), understanding cultural phenomena of eastern Turkey, and the usual life musings that arise when you have an abundance of time and space and an absence of familiar routines.