Sunday, 28 June 2009

Singing My Way Home

The boarding call for the flight from Istanbul to London was more than an hour late. I tried to convince myself that it didn't matter. I told myself that even if I missed my connecting flight to Edinburgh, it wouldn't be the end of the world. I could buy another ticket, it was only money. But the part of me that cannot bear losing money -- a big part of me -- continued to stew and steam.

Another fifteen minutes passed and still the plane did not move. The other passengers began to grumble too. Finally, the plane's engines caught and the plane began to slowly taxi out, but then it stopped. Fifteen minutes passed, then the pilot sheepishly announced that it would be another twenty to thirty minutes before we had runway clearance. There was a chorus of groans. Watches and schedules were consulted for the umpteenth time. Mobile phones were pulled out and anguished conversations engaged in. I busied myself with yoga breathing and my current Turkish language project: learning the İstiklâl Marşı -- the Turkish national anthem.

By the time we finally took off, the flight was over two hours late and I had the Turkish national anthem pretty much word perfect.

I did my best to enjoy the flight. Turkish Airlines has the best airline food I've ever tasted and there was a wonderful chocolate pudding for dessert, though I declined the offer of wine. In addition to my Turkish national anthem project, I even had a good book to read. But five hours later, when we finally arrived in London, my heart sank when I looked at my watch: it was already eight and the departure time was seven. Then I remembered the two-hour time difference: it was really only six o'clock. If all went well, I could easily make the flight!

Then I saw the line at immigration. It seemed to go on for miles, looping around at least eight times. Typically, there were only three officials handling this huge crowd. I gritted my teeth and sucked in my breath and told myself that it didn't matter. But it did. My husband and daughters would be waiting for me in Edinburgh, having driven for hours to get there. They would definitely be worried about me and wonder what had happened. With a sinking heart, I took my place in the queue and tried not to look at my watch.

I was standing directly behind a dozen of the tallest men I've seen in my entire life. I'm not short. I grew up with tall people: my father was six foot four and I've got cousins who are even taller. But I've never seen anyone as tall as the guys standing in line with me. They were all carrying duffel bags and had on uniforms with Turkish flags on them. They were obviously members of some team -- basketball, I'm guessing -- and radiated athletic energy and good health. The shortest one was a head taller than I am. The tallest one was right in front of me; my nose was flush with his elbow. I'm not exaggerating.

Surreptitiously I studied their faces. Turks are an amazing group of people: you can see all sorts of influences in their facial structures. Some look vaguely Chinese or Mongolian, with high cheek bones, rather flat faces, and hidden upper eyelids. Some are swarthy and have Semetic features; some are as fair-skinned as Scandinavians with bright blue eyes and blonde hair. These young men included all types and combinations. I could hardly take my eyes off them -- or my watch. My stomach sizzled as I saw the minute hand sweeping closer and closer to seven.

Finally, I couldn't stand it any longer. I swallowed and caught the eye of the shortest young Turk-giant. "Do you speak English?" I breathed. He nodded, surprised. I had half a dozen questions I would have loved to ask him, not the least of which being What team do you play in? and What in God's name did your mothers feed you? , but there was nothing for it: I asked them the question I had to ask. "Would you guys mind letting me go ahead of you? I've got another plane to catch!"

The giant cocked his head and smiled. "It's okay with me." He nudged his friend, the one who could have knocked my nose off my face with his elbow. "Can this lady go ahead of us?" he asked in Turkish. The friend smiled wolfishly. "You may. But what will you give us in return?" A few others were now listening to our conversation. One of them glanced at my passport; I heard the word American mentioned. Another Turk-giant grinned. "Yes, what will you give us?" he asked.

Now I'm not rich. And I'm not young enough that hugs and kisses might have worked with this lot.

I cleared my throat. "Well, I can sing the İstiklâl Marşı for you," I ventured in a tiny voice, mentally grappling for the first line: Korkma, sönmez bu şafaklarda yüzen al sancak. They all threw back their heads and roared at this and my nerve almost failed me. I started to hum the first note. "Next!" the clerk called out. I was saved: I didn't have to sing after all!

The giant athletes laughed and waved goodbye to me with their huge hands. I waved back, relieved and a little sad.

Now I almost wish I'd had that glass of wine.

Sunday, 21 June 2009


When I ran into Leyla on my way to the post office, I almost passed her by by. If she hadn't called out to me, in fact, I don't know if I would have recognized her. "Are you okay?" I asked, trying not to stare. She'd missed a week's worth of classes.

Leyla held a crumpled tissue in her hand. "I have cold," she sniffed, blotting her reddened nose.

"I'm sorry to hear that," I said automatically, trying to figure out what was different about her. True, she looked ill. Apart from her reddened nose, her jet-black hair, usually glossy and well-groomed, was pulled back into a sloppy ponytail. But something was very strange: she looked, if anything, better than usual. I couldn't figure this out.

And then it struck me: Leyla wasn't wearing any make-up. Her skin, usually buried under a layer of thick foundation, was pallid but luminescent. Her eyelashes, usually caked with mascara, were bare, but sufficiently black and thick. Even the line of her mouth was different without the bright red lipstick she invariably -- and lavishly -- wore.

The next week, Leyla's cold was better and she was back to class in full war paint. I'm an English teacher, not a fashion consultant, but I had all I could do not to take Leyla aside and beg her to throw out her make up. And I remembered Consuela.

Consuela and I worked in the same typing pool at an insurance company. Though she was only a few years older than I, Consuela already had two small children and for some reason, I had the idea that she was vastly older. One morning, she showed up for work harried and flustered; her babysitter hadn't shown up and she'd had a real struggle getting to work on time. "I look awful!" she muttered. "I'm really sorry."

Everyone in the office was stunned: Consuela didn't look awful; she looked like a million bucks. We all told her this.

"No way!" she wailed, both hands flying to her face. "I didn't have any time to do my make-up!"

And the minute she said it, we saw that this was true. For once, we could see Consuela's face without the usual clown's mask of thick make up she slathered on. We'd had no idea how pretty she was.

All morning long, Consuela cowered in shame, convinced that her lack of make up made her hideous. "Someone else go instead, please!" she begged when someone called and asked her to deliver a file. "No way can I go, looking like this!" Nothing we said made the slightest bit of difference.

The next day she showed up to work as usual, her face a smooth pink mask, her mouth a pouting, waxy coral, her eyelids a slick, shocking aqua under half-inch long false eyelashes. She looked ten years older and cheap as all get out, but she was happy and full of confidence, secure in the knowledge that she looked her best.

I don't wear much make up. I look so genuinely ridiculous in it that this is no hardship. But while I can smile and shake my head at women like Leyla and Consuela, I too have my masks -- comfort zone accoutrements that make me feel better about myself. And whether these are my facial expression -- self deprecatory grimace or serene Queen-of-England smile -- or the pair of trousers I'm convinced knock ten pounds off me, sometimes it's good to step back and take a good hard look.

I'm practicing my new smile right now. And I've got some trousers to take to The Salvation Army.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Getting In Touch

It's that time of year again. All the tests have been taken, all our marks have been turned in, and the final grades have been posted. Tears have been shed too -- tears of joy and tears of bitter disappointment. I have been hugged, begged, thanked, kissed, harangued, and cried upon.

From the staffroom window, I see one of my students showing her parents around the campus. Her mother exclaims at the pretty flowering trees, the fountain-pool. They pose for photographs, the proud father changing places with the mother as they take turns snapping photos. They put their arms around their daughter and smile. I share their sense of achievement.

In the corridor, one of her classmates still sits in stunned outrage. I've done my best to console her, but it hasn't worked. Never mind that she wouldn't be failing if she'd put in a little more effort, I still feel bad. She will be calling her parents later, telling them the bad news. I share their disappointment too.

I know I did my best, but sometimes I wonder how effective I've been. Sometimes I wish to God I could reach these students, who seem to live in some parallel universe to mine.

In the bathroom, I overhear a conversation in English between two students who sound West African.

"Ooh," one girl laments, "jooost look at all this fat on me! I am so ashaaamed!"

Her friend snorts. "What fat? I don't see fat."

"Look," insists the first girl, "look at this here, you see? This greeeat roll of fat." I can hear the pout in her voice.

Her friend snorts all the louder. "Geeet out."

"I have to lose this fat!"

"GEEET OUT, you do not!"

I've been lurking in the toilet, but now I've got to see these girls. I've got to see with my own eyes just how fat the complaining girl is.

Two sets of brown eyes flit over me as I come out. Both girls are stick thin, in skirts so short I want to throw a sheet over them. Despite their skinniness, they are also curvy and drop-dead beautiful and if there's an ounce of fat on either of them, only a determined anorexic could find it. I hope to God the girl who thinks she's fat is just belly-aching. I'd like to tell her to go pig out on ice cream -- that life is too short to angst about weight, but she wouldn't listen to a random middle-aged woman. A random middle-aged teacher. We live in separate worlds, these girls and I.

The girls freshen up their lipstick and pat their perfect hair with manicured fingers. They leave the bathroom in a fog of body spray, clattering on high heels. Ah well, I'm glad that at least one of them has some sense in her.

Before I can leave, the door slams open again and another girl hurries inside. She is in tears. She grips the side of the sink and leans over it, sobbing. I wash my hands slowly, embarrassed to be witnessing her misery. I don't know what to do as she dabs helplessly at her tear-stained reddened eyes and nose; she must be mortified that a strange woman is in here with her. I ought to leave and let her cry in peace.

But I just can't do this. There's something about the way this girl cries that reminds me of my own daughters, as toddlers. She seems on the verge of getting over her grief, and then new waves of misery wash over her and she bursts into fresh tears.

"Are you okay?" I ask as gently as possible and she squeezes her lips together and tries to nod, but her face crumples and more tears slip out.

Suddenly, I can't stand it. I open my arms, the way I used to do when my own little girls were in tears. And to my amazement, this girl steps right into them. She accepts my hug, letting me pat her back and offer her mindless "There, theres". For a brief time, she even stops crying. When I say goodbye, she even gives me a tremulous smile.

My inner mother hen is thrilled. Finally I've reached one of them.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

And Miles To Go Before I Sleep

It is a few hours after midnight. My eyes are hot and dry as I blink them open; I wonder fleetingly why I am awake, and then I hear it: EeerrrrzzZZm!

And now I feel it, too: that nasty, infuriating itch you get after a mosquito has dined on your blood.

Snapping the light on, my tired eyes do a quick circuit of the room as I try to find it. I spot a spider or two, the odd moth, and a few dead mosquitoes from previous late night mosquito safaris, but not the living culprit.

My husband sleeps on, blissfully unaware.

In Japan, mosquitoes weren't interested in my blood as long as I was with my husband. I could sleep straight through the night, waking up with only the odd bite. Mosquitoes were ravenous for my husband's blood; he would wake up scratching and swearing to find me unbitten and refreshed. At some point, however, they developed a taste for me. We bought mosquito nets and rigging them up every April became one of our family's rites of spring, just as taking them down towards the end of autumn got to be a preparing-for-winter ritual.

Before we left Japan, we gave those nets to neighbors. Wish we had them now.

I am forced to abandon my hunt; wherever she is, this mosquito isn't going to show herself. I flick the light off and settle back down, breathing deeply and hoping against hope that sleep may claim me again.

And then it starts: that horrible yeerRRRZZZZm buzzing near my ear. I flick the light back on and I see her, poised on the wall. I flail at her with my pillow. I miss.

After a three-minute mosquito safari and a good spray of Bug-off, I still haven't caught the nasty little creature, but I hope I've scared her off. I turn off the light and settle back into my pillows with a sigh.

And all of a sudden there is the most unearthly noise: a song that isn't a song, an eerie, heartfelt, drawn-out cry that chills my blood. It has just enough of a tune to make me think it must be a song, but then the singer lowers his voice and a whining, mournful, urgent chorus takes over.

It goes on for at least five minutes and I realize it must be the pre-dawn call to prayer from the nearby mosque. I'm usually fast asleep during the pre-dawn call to prayer. Wish I was now: it seems to go on forever, an atonal, anguished droning that sets my teeth on edge.

During the day, I love the call to prayer. My students all claim that the call to prayer in this area is nowhere near as beautiful as it is in their own hometowns. They swear that the muezzins in Istanbul -- or Konya -- or Antalya all sing out the call with a full-throated skill that is utterly dazzling. If this is true, it must be something: I find it hard to imagine anything more lilting or romantic than the one we have right here in our own town. It centers and steadies me and gives me a sense of inner peace and oneness with humanity.

It doesn't do that now.

Finally -- mercifully! -- it is over and I take a deep, steadying breath. I go through my usual sleep-inducing rituals, starting with countries that begin with A. Afghanistan, Angola, Argentina... I'm half the way to Azerbaijan when the rooster next door decides it's time to get to work, letting loose with a blood-curdling ooohAAAHuhlllOOOH.

I'm not the only one who has noticed that this rooster can't crow worth beans. You've never heard anything as pathetic. He'll start off, loud and brash and clumsy, then stop himself mid cockle-doodle-doo as though he's forgotten the lyrics. You can almost imagine him trying to remember how to do it in the quiet that follows that first abortive attempt. You lie there in the dark, wondering when he'll start up again. You don't want to get too relaxed and comfortable; you know you have to brace yourself for that sudden heart-stopping cry. And then, just as you've decided that he must have given it up as a bad job, he'll start again:aaahOOOaaaOOOuhOOOOOOH.

And, so help me God, he goes on and on and on.

I am not a cruel or violent person. I try not to quarrel with my husband and children; I put up with my colleagues' quirks and peccadilloes; I catch bees and moths and release them outside instead of swatting them; I eat a largely vegetarian diet and feel guilty for the small amount of meat I do consume. But I could happily force our local muezzin to listen to System of a Down and Rammstein, full volume. I would absolutely spread that mosquito all over the wall, and yes, at this moment I would wring that stupid rooster's neck.

Tomorrow I'm buying something stronger than citronella oil. And earplugs.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Choosing The Winners: From The Ridiculous To The Sublime

My daughters are teaching me how to embed YouTube clips. They've shown me how to do this before, but I'm not the world's swiftest learner, and to be honest, they're not always the world's most patient teachers, but boy, have they made great strides: no one has yelled at me once and we've spent a good fifteen minutes on it! And lucky me: I've been able to let my pesky WIP sit for a few hours. And I have found yet another way to procrastinate, so I can give the FreeRice site a little break.

As a teacher of basic English, the decisions I have to make are sometimes heartbreaking. By giving -- or withholding -- a point or two, I can either mess up someone's summer plans or make them the world's happiest kid. Although the results are the main thing, sometimes there are other factors that come into play: how hard the kid tried, whether or not s/he has a part-time job, how good the student's attendance was -- and, damn it -- punctuality.

It's not easy. Most of the material I have to grade is of a very basic level. Here is just a little taste:

My Best Friend (Serhat)

I'm happy to meet Onur. Because He is friendly always. He is shy boy but also He is extrovert. sometimes I feel myself alone. Always I want together. I hope we don't leave never and I hope our friendship are going to until endless.

My Best Friend (Mehmet)

My Best Friend Ahmet is quite and friendly boy. He is liked by everybody. Because he He is gentleman. Sometimes His working too much and everybody is liking him. His family is quite poor. But his family is gentleman. He is quite fat. But everybody look his by ripe person.

Which one of those two would, in your opinion, rate the higher points? Would it really not matter to you if you knew that one of the students came from a very poor family and had to work at a part-time job? As it happens, both of these students are boys, but what if you knew that one was a girl whose parents refused to pay for her university education?

Do you see the kind of dilemmas I am faced with here?

Now, for what it is worth, here are two clips of the performances of two talented young men. After listening to these several times, I thank God that I teach bonehead English and don't work as a musical critic.

Haochen Zhang of China

Nobuyuki Tsujii of Japan

If any of my readers can tell me definitively which one of these musicians is better -- and why -- I will be enormously grateful.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Crime And Punishment

When I was a child, I knew from its name that the most beautiful country in the world had to be Czechoslovakia. In fact, given its name, I secretly didn't even care if it wasn't beautiful. I was heartbroken when Czechoslovakia got divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- what a shame to break up that beautiful name! How sad that only one side got to keep the Z! -- but then the Soviet Union got broken up into so many wonderful new places, all with wonderfully exotic names.

Like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Lucky me: every term, we get a handful of students from former Soviet bloc republics, such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and they have proven to be even more interesting than the names of their countries. First of all, though a handful of them are ethnically Russian, most of them look Asian. Some of them are astonishingly exotic. When I walked into one class for the first time, I saw a red-headed boy with skin far whiter than mine, scribbling away. When he looked up, I did a double take: his face was entirely Asian, but his eyes were a bright cornflower blue. The fact that most of these students are bilingual in their own language and Russian makes them all the more fascinating.

As a general rule, the Kazakhstani and Kyrgyzstani students have also had better English language skills than the average Turkish student. My first week here, I had to monitor a test. As I strolled around the classroom, I could see that the 'stan' students were tackling the writing component of their exam with gusto while almost all of the Turkish students were making heavy work of it. After the test, one of the Kazakh students approached the desk. "Can I ask you a question?" His pronunciation and intonation were a little stilted, but near native.


"Well, foolishly, I neglected to allocate enough time to filling in the last part of the writing section. I know that the examination is finished, but I was wondering if you might allow me --"

My chin had dropped at neglected and my eyes had popped at allocated. I held out a hand to stop him. "Forget it."

The boy's face fell, so I leaned closer. "Take it from me, if you can say that much, you've already passed." And he had: even with the missing reading questions, he'd scored 92%. Some of these students are so good they finish the placement exam in one quarter the allocated time, scoring close to 100%. And like the West African students, the tiny minority who screw up and fail end up being our high fliers.

But of course there are exceptions. Like Karim.

Karim looked so much like my Japanese students, it was uncanny. He even acted like them: he was bashful and hardly ever talked in class. Because he never talked, it was hard to know what his level was -- or what was on his mind. When he turned in his journal, though, I was astounded: all the words he never got out in class were there, penned in the beautiful, meticulous copperplate these students have all been taught. The first paragraph made me sit up straight:

Although I was exhausted from attending lessons all week, my rooms were not clean, so I spent some time in tidying and sweeping. I dislike such domestic chores because I am not used to performing them, but I realize that these things are necessary if one is to live alone.

I was so astonished by this entry, I caught Karim after the next class. "Did you really write this?" He shyly nodded and I shook my head: like my Japanese students, he was even humble!

His next week's entry was even better:

Unfortunately, I caught influenza and was forced to go to the doctor, who prescribed some medication for me as I had a high temperature.

This almost made me swoon: Karim was able to use relative clauses!

After taking the medication, I rested in my room. Truly, I missed my mother's wonderful care and attention. I reflected to myself that it was a real misfortune to have fallen ill in a foreign country where I must look after myself.

This did make me swoon. Long, flowing sentences that were a pleasure to read! More relative clauses and three-syllable words! Why in the world had this kid failed his preliminary examination?

When I talked to one of my colleagues about Karim, she shrugged. "He's a repeat student, you know. I had him in my class last term. He never turned in his homework and hardly ever came to class."

I was amazed: Karim was repeating the course with English this good? But in fact, he seemed to miss a lot of my classes too. When I called him on this, he smiled shyly and handed me his next journal entry:

On Saturday, my good friend Shukrat came to visit me from my country. He and I hoped to find some amusement, so we went out in the evening to pass the time together. We happened to find a place to drink and remained there for a long time. My friend and I talked until the early morning hours, remembering the happy times we spent together in our own country. The next day, we went to the beach and ate a picnic lunch we had prepared.

Well, no wonder Karim had gotten so brown. I smiled and shook my head at the phrase ...picnic we had prepared: Karim even knew how to use the past perfect correctly! I couldn't wait to see how high he would score in the midterm.

To my utter amazement, Karim failed to show up for the midterm. When I asked him what had happened, he gave me another shy smile and a shrug. "Overslept."

"How could you oversleep when you had a test?" I wailed. Frankly, I'd been counting on Karim to bump up the class average.

Karim squirmed and looked contrite. I couldn't help notice that he was even more tanned, as though he'd spent a whole week outdoors.

It wasn't until I gave the class their first pop quiz that I finally figured it out.

Karim squirmed in his seat and chewed his lower lip as he stared at his paper. He seemed to grow even darker as I observed him, as though he was blushing under his tan. I misunderstood his nervousness: Karim hadn't been on the castle field trip like the rest of the class and I assumed he was worried he wouldn't get credit. "Don't worry," I told him. "Write about some historical place you've been to in your own country and I won't mark you down."

When he turned in his paper, it was surprisingly short, and Karim couldn't quite look me in the eye. In the staffroom, my face fell as I read the following: It isin AlmatyCityCentral Museum a veryPerfect location in city Centre. It has all history about Kazakhstan I ashamed, but it is fat I don't know history of the Museum I liked Museum because after visit I feeling very good. I like Museum because I can know history of the Kazakhstan Museum the beautiful place I loved it.

The copperplate was shaky too.

I found Karim outside with a group of his Kazakh friends. "Whose diary is this?" I asked as Karim reached for it. One of the boys giggled.

"Seriously," I said, "which one of you guys is Doystoevsky? Because I know it's not Karim here."

One of the boys burst out laughing and elbowed Karim in the ribs. And now he did blush. I handed him the journal.

"The only reason you guys got away with this," I hissed, "wasn't because you were smart, but because I was stupid." I turned to address Karim's pals. "Next time, dumb it down a little and you might fool someone." Then I swung around and narrowed my eyes at Karim. "Or better yet, stay away from the beach and do your own damn homework for a change!"

Looks like Karim will be repeating the course in summer school. No more trips to the beach for my young Raskolnikov.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

A Powerful Dose Of Atatürk

It's hard to live among Turks without getting a hefty overdose of Atatürk.

I'm betting that most foreigners living in Turkey feel the same: for just about every Turk I've met, Kemal Mustafa Atatürk is like George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King all rolled into one. If you don't tire of running into Atatürk statues, hearing excerpts of his wisdom blaring over the radio and intercom, or sitting through long-winded and impassioned speeches extolling his great deeds and virtues (usually in Turkish), you're a lot more tolerant -- and less fidgety -- than I am.

Yes, I know that Atatürk, as the founder of modern Turkey, did many great things. I know that he reformed the Turkish language, made a clear separation between religion and government, and promoted the education of women -- for starters. And yet for some reason, even these great achievements of his failed to capture my admiration.

But the other day I happened upon this quote of Atatürk's, about the European troops he fought in Gallipoli, now carved in stone beside the monument that commemorates the battle:

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours... you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land. They have become our sons as well.

Now, I know that Atatürk was an astute politician and I am not unaware of the powerful political implications behind this speech. But even given that, these words of his move me to tears. My hat is off to the person who wrote them -- Atatürk himself -- and the translator who rendered them into eloquent English. This one quotation shows better than any other what incredible healing power carefully chosen words can have. I am in awe of the generosity of spirit, the shrewdness, and the foresight behind them.

Turks are right to venerate this man. From now on I will do my best not to squirm through the hour-long speeches.