Adventures in Turkey pt. 4: Confronting my Own Ignorance

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In the Hilton in Izmir right now and it’s SUPER fancy. Like….unbelievably fancy. Allyson and I unlocked our door, stepped in, and stared first at the room and then at each other in amazement. I felt like a sad, American hobo. Rivaling even our fancy, luxurious room, though, is the view we have of the Aegean Sea from our window. It’s breathtaking.

We went to Fatih University this morning, ranked the 5th best university in Turkey. Salih (who I think pretty much adores me now) told the head of the department that I was a great person and student and asked if he could get me a job teaching English there. The man exclaimed, “Oh! I’ll ask!” and started to run out of the room while Salih called after him, “I’m kidding, I’m kidding! She hasn’t even done grad school yet!” He replied, “Well, you recommended her, so we want her! Come back when you finish your master’s.” It was slightly embarrassing but mostly wonderful. Fatih already has amazing medical and engineering programs, even though it was only founded in 1995 or 1996 (I can’t remember which.) Salih keeps telling everyone I’m going to be a teacher, which leads to questions of, “Do you want to work here?! We’ll hire you!” I stammer, “Uh, but I haven’t even finished school-” to which Salih interjects, “But she graduates in April!” I say, “And I don’t speak Turkish–” and Salih boasts, “Do you know how fast she’s learned since she’s been here, though?!” I DID have a brief conversation with our host family this morning in pure Turkish, and it was pretty sweet. It seriously makes me so happy that they keep offering me teaching jobs, and not just because there are practically none back in America. I found myself thinking, “Maybe things aren’t going to work out between us, Michigan….”

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I found myself becoming more thankful for my home country after touring Zaman Newspaper. My former journalist’s heart skipped a beat as we walked through the building, examined the newspaper, and talked with a reporter who discussed Turkey’s free press…which actually isn’t that free. She explained to us that there has recently been a lot of scandal surrounding Prime Minister Bilal Erdogan. Since Turkey’s democratic state is fairly new and still developing, newspapers are not guaranteed protection, especially if they choose to publish truth that slanders authority. Several non-Turkish reporters were deported, we were told, after publishing articles against the Prime Minister, and one reporter was even imprisoned. Zaman is privately owned, so they can continue functioning, but face the danger of being sued by the Prime Minister. With an election coming up, we asked if it was possible for someone else to be elected. The reporter shrugged and told us that, while there are many different political groups here, none are really substantial enough to stand a chance against current leadership, so it’s unlikely that things will change. It was sobering to listen to the reporter tell us about all of these troubles, and I found myself thankful for America; though our political system is decidedly corrupt and has troubles of its own, I don’t think I’ll ever take freedom of speech for granted again.

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After Zaman, we had free time for two hours so we went to a park right on the Bosphorus strait and explored. Dram, of course, had more exclamations of, “Obama!” We played around on the different exercise machines that Turkey has sprinkled all over the country, free for public use, before heading to the airport.

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We flew to Izmir, where we had dinner in a very fancy restaurant, and then drove back to the hotel. We had a good talk with Dr. B about perspective while we were waiting to board to fly out of Istanbul. He stressed the importance of understanding that nothing is or can be purely wonderful, and that it’s good to remember that Salih is organizing all of this for us, and we wouldn’t be getting the treatment we are if it wasn’t for generosity of the Gulen movement, Niagara Foundation, and Salih’s leadership. It was sobering enough to listen to the reporter at Zaman and realize that Turkey, while beautiful and inspiring, is far from perfect. Our rose-colored glasses were chipped away a little bit more as he, Marv, Caleb, and I discussed a situation that happened yesterday at Süleymaniye Mosque.

As we were walking up to the mosque’s entrance, there was a group of gypsy kids running around barefoot and with big, dark, sad eyes, asking for money. Someone had whispered to me, “Do NOT give the kids any money,” and I instantly flashed back to my translator in the Dominican Republic telling me that the majority of kids begging are trafficking victims, and that any money I gave them would just go back into the hands of the traffickers and feed the system. We bypassed them and made our way into the mosque, where we spent an hour or two before heading back out to browse through the street vendors selling jewelry, scarves, and other souvenirs. This same group of kids appeared again, with their small, dirty hands outstretched, eyes on the ground, and asking softly, “Lira? Lira?” I remembered stories of pickpockets and children being used to distract tourists while others steal from them, and I kept my wallet securely in my bag as I shook my head, smiled politely, and said, “No, sorry.” As everyone else did the same, I told myself that, while we weren’t giving money to help these kids, in the long run, we were doing more good than harm. (Ugh. My arrogance.) Marv, however, instantly reached into his pockets and gave them all of the spare change he had, to a chorus of, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” as they ran off, bare feet pounding on cobblestones. Those children’s faces (and my lack of giving to them) tormented me on the long bus ride from the mosque to Hakan and Ezra’s. (Notice I didn’t even mention the story yesterday. Ugh. My pride.)

While we were sitting at the gate waiting to board, I heard Marv and Dr. B talking about those kids, so I joined them. Marv was talking about how he simply gave because a hungry little kid had asked him for money, while Caleb was with me in that he wasn’t sure what to do, so he just played it safe and didn’t take out his wallet. Dr. B explained to us that the gypsy culture is especially prevalent in Denizli, which we would soon see, but that they could also frequently be seen outside of mosques asking for money. Then he got very serious and said, “I’m a man of principles. I like to have them and I like to stick by them. And yesterday, I was thinking about how any money I gave those little kids would just feed the system, and they wouldn’t get a job, and their children wouldn’t get a job, and their children’s children wouldn’t get a job, and there would be more generations of hungry little children begging on the streets. So I didn’t give them anything.” Then he was quiet for a long moment and he said, “But the danger in that comes when I stop seeing that little boy as a human being and only as an object to psychoanalyze. Sometimes, you have to throw your principles to the wind and just give. I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t have the time–or the desire–to psychoanalyze people who came to Him for help.”

The four of us sat there quietly for a moment, considering this, and I felt tears sting my eyes as I thought about how I had spent over $1,000 for this trip (and had over $200 more in both American and Turkish money in my wallet) but I couldn’t give a little boy in need a lira. A lira is about $0.50 in American money. Half a dollar.

I can only pray that that group of kids ran across other people that day who had a better heart and attitude than I.

If you missed previous entries:

Adventures in Turkey pt. 3: Some Heartfelt but Definite Jet-Lagged Rambling

Adventures in Turkey pt. 2: In Which We Hit the Ground Running

Adventures in Turkey pt. 1: Anxiety and Excitement

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