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

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