I’ve been warned that wearing a cross openly in Turkey means asking for trouble. There’s good reason for thinking so. The Republic was conceived in war – the War of Independence, in which several Christian nations grabbed at Ottoman territory – and birthed before the muzzles had begun to cool. To Atatürk’s victory in that war modern Turkey owes its very sense of itself. If the Pew polls and the attacks on churches and the use of Christians as stock villains in trash TV and the murders of priests are any indication, many Turks would prefer not to have too many Christians running around triggering identity crises.
Luckily for me, I don’t wear a cross. For a while I did wear a pewter Tau, but the T got snagged on my carpet when I was doing pushups and subsequently vacuumed up into oblivion. I don’t normally get my jollies offering living reproaches to other nations’ grand historical narratives. Having my skull thumped by kıros – a Turkish word whose meaning combines elements of “hooligan,” “douchebag,” and “townie meathead” — is way at the bottom of my “to do” list. Still, one does wish to show the flag, at least every now and then.
In the course of teaching, little opportunities present themselves. The time one girl, translating on her iPhone, wrote “chalice” when she meant “wine glass,” felt like a fat pitch hung right over the plate. Ad maiorem Dei gloria, I made sure to pull the sucker deep into left-center. In the course of explaining why her word wasn’t quite right in that context, I managed to slip in a lesson on Eucharist 101.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling bold — or bored, or guilty — I’ll set myself up. This week, in our lesson on compound modifiers, I included “long-suffering.” Now listen, gang, I said. You can’t understand this word without understanding its deep roots in Western culture. Who knows what a martyr is? That’s right, Ismail, a şehit. Anyone know the hippodrome in Istanbul? Who knows what happened there in ancient times? Excellent, Mehmet – chariot races, gladiator fights. What else? Nobody? They killed Christians. Anyone know how? Anyone? Good guess, Cansu, but they didn’t use dogs. They used lions. And the Christians prayed and sang. They were very brave. So a long-suffering person is someone who suffers for a long time without complaining, like a martyr in the hippodrome. Remember that.
For all I know these images are pure DeMille hokum, but needs must. Anyway, if my students’ test scores are any indication, most of it will seep out of their brains before next class begins.
So this Ash Wednesday, I’m upping the ante by giving up Coca-Cola. For students and fellow faculty alike, my Coke habit is a personal trademark, a visible symbol of my foreign-ness. Turkish people do drink Coke, but in extreme moderation. Seeing me walk around swigging from liter bottles that I flip – by the skinny end, like Boche grenades– into far-off wastebaskets, amuses and titillates them only a little less than seeing me run through town shirtless used to do.“Cola is very bad for you, teacher,” they warn me, pulling solemn faces and wagging their fingers like concerned parents. “It’s diet,” I tell them. “No sugar, no calories. Totally different.” They shake their heads, insisting, “But the bubbles are dangerous for your stomach.” One came out with something that sounded a little like the urban legend about the kid and the Pop-Rocks, but he was a beginning student, so I really couldn’t tell.
Once I stop, notice will be taken, inquiries made and a dialogue opened. Why am I drinking tea from a shot glass like one of you? So nice of you to ask, Umut. I’ve given up Coke for Lent. Lent? Why, it’s the six weeks between Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday, Caner. Tell you all about it? Why, of course, Yasemin. I’d be delighted…
In my dreams, maybe. Here’s where statistics and sensational news stories can sell their subjects – and their readers – short. The village where I live and the school where I teach are islands of secularism receding under a rising Islamist tide. Students come to class partly in the hope of forgetting that religion exists. If I felt like bashing Erdoğan and the AK Party leadership, I’d be a hero. But nothing, with the possible exception of a baseball game, would bore these college kids and young professionals faster than a faith-sharing session. Hearing about Christianity wouldn’t even offend them; it would put them to sleep.
And if I did offend them, somehow, I’d probably be the last to hear about it. You can find fanatics and hotheads anywhere. The people of Trabzon, where Fr. Santoro was murdered, enjoy a country-wide reputation for holding far-right views and being generally nasty. And it may even be that the average Turk disapproves of Christians in the abstract. But Turkish people also pride themselves above all else on their hospitality, which shows itself in a gentleness and patience to which the keyboard can do no easy justice. “Long-suffering” might not be a bad description. My students have already put up with my four-hour Power Point presentations, not to mention my sulks and fits of temper. Hearing me drone about some permissive Christian version of Ramadan won’t likely push them over the edge.
So I probably shouldn’t count on earning any palms this trip, much less going down in history as the apostle to the Turks. I will stick to the Coca-Cola thing, though. Last year, only a couple of weeks after I gave up YouTube, Erdoğan decided to ban it for all of Turkey. Coincidence? Maybe. But still, best not to tempt fate by doing it again. Considering the school pantry doesn’t stock Nutra-Sweet packets, I’ll have to use sugar in my tea, which may mean entering the Triduum shy a few teeth. Vanity of vanities.