The day after IS terrorists beheaded 21 Coptic Christians on a Libyan beach, all of Turkey wore black – in memory of Ozgecan Aslan, a university student who was murdered, allegedly after frustrating a rape attempt by a minibus driver. Ghastly as the crime was, the aftermath was even worse. Desperate to hide the evidence, the alleged killer burned the body – with his father’s help.
In my village, the turnout was impressive. Young Turks – you should pardon the expression — are normally a pretty spruce bunch. Even the religious girls tend to select hijabs in peach and burgundy and teal. Fairly swelling with figures in heavy black overcoats, my school’s dim, narrow hallways looked like an Upper West Side apartment during a shiva call. The marble floors, ubiquitous even in low-rent buildings throughout Turkey’s Marmara region, enhanced the resemblance. When I stepped into the rest room, I was half-shocked to find the mirrors uncovered.
Turkish students have a robust sense of social responsibility. Frequently, they live to regret it. In June, 2013, students were among the thousands who gathered in Istanbul’s Gezi Park to protest Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ongoing transformation into a strongman. Eleven people died, 3,000 were arrested, and 8,000 reported injured. The following May, after an underground explosion killed 300 miners in Soma, students took to the streets again. On what I remember as an especially beautiful spring evening, I heard them chanting through my classroom window. I was afraid class would end just as the police were setting up the water cannon, but everything stayed fairly tame.
As an EFL instructor, I have no choice but to exploit any current event that will hold my students’ interest without setting them at one another’s throats. Ozgecan Aslan’s murder certainly fit the bill. I mentioned it my intermediate class without knowing all the facts of the case; as they filled me in, fragmented sentence by fragmented sentence, I taught them the words for “scratch,” “fingernails,” and “pepper spray.”
“Do you know why the killer did it?” I asked, more than half-expecting to learn of some political motive. One student shrugged and said, “Monster people!” Another looked up from her iPhone and said, “Malefactors.”
My advanced students wrote essays in praise of the death penalty. As one put it, “I think rapist type of criminal should be agonized before their die because their suffer will teach them victims’ grief.” Normally, these young people hate Erdoğan the way Tea Partiers hate Obama. Just last week, they were cracking themselves up with an old YouTube video that showed him being bucked off a horse. Now they were clamoring to thrust the axe into his hands.
In fact, Erdoğan does seem to be striking exactly the right note. In an address on national television, he called violence against women “an open wound on our society” and express hope that “awareness has been raised.” As the father of two daughters, he could well have been speaking from the heart.
Violence against women isn’t normally the kind of thing a male foreign visitor gets to inspect at his leisure. But from time to time, out of the corner of my eye, I’ve caught glimpses of the open wound Erdoğan referred to. On the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, I was waiting for a minibus on an Istanbul street corner with Pertev, the woman I’d come here to marry. A group of four or five young Kurds strolled up. The leader eyed Pertev from top to bottom. As God is my witness, he actually dipped his shades to do it. To me, the gesture’s brazenness made it look silly, like a pose struck by a Tiger Beat cover boy from 1983. A woman, especially a woman without an escort, would probably have seen it differently.
Turkish women don’t make eye contact with strange men. On the street and on public conveyances, they stare straight ahead. It’s a big-city custom that’s caught on even in small college towns for the very sensible reason that college-town men can be rapists, too.
That the entire country was mourning one person when many thousands were being slaughtered just over the border did stick in my craw a little. But this was unfair of me. Charity has always begun at home. The previous fall, when IS forces surrounded Kobani, students from the local university marched through the streets demanding that their government intervene. Since all of the men were facing a minimum of six months’ national service after graduation, this was no empty gesture. Where Ozgecan Aslan is concerned, Turkey’s government and its youth are finally in step, and that’s a relief to see.
The refugee Syrians who teach at my school didn’t begrudge Ozgecan Aslan the sympathy or the outrage. “I’m just glad the killer wasn’t a Syrian,” one said. “That would have been a nightmare.”
The night before, one of the other teachers had asked me to proofread the Facebook post where he called on his friends to dress in black. I made a few corrections but felt unmoved by the message. As I’d been in Turkey only 11 months, I didn’t think I was qualified or obliged to take up what sounded like a slightly more extravagant version of colored-ribbon activism.
But when I woke up the next morning, I discovered that a black oxford shirt was the only clean, seasonal thing left in my closet. Between it and my black Adidas parka, I showed up to work fully tricked out to mourn a world in the grip of malefactors.