If you wait long enough on a balcony overlooking the main street of a Turkish village, you might see a convoy of cars filled with exuberant young men honking their horns and shouting. Some will be brandishing small copies of the al sancak, or the flag — blood-red, marked by a star and the waxing moon (the latter, according to legend having first appeared in a dream to Ottoman dynasty founder Osman Gazi). Or maybe an al sancak the size of the stars and stripes when flown from a truck stop will be covering the hood.
Either way, this burst of patriotic feeling will be meant as a farewell to one of the men, who will be reporting for national service. All Turkish men must serve at least a year on active duty, except for university graduates, who can get by with half of that. As recruits chant while marching, Her Türk asker doğar – every Turk is born a solider. Taking the shilling, from what I understand, is not nearly the nightmare for Turks that it is for Russians, but it’s no picnic.
This evening, through my Facebook news feed, I learned that a former student of mine is about to report for duty. He has posted pictures of his dog tags, and of himself in his GI haircut. Here I will give him his real name, Fatih, because it’s perfect. On one hand, it means “the conqueror”; on the other, it sounds not too unlike “fatty.” In those days, the future soldier sported an extra half-chin and a spare tire fit for a Ford F-350. Indeed, in many respects, he resembled the young Vincent d’Onofrio.
The resemblance first struck me during class, when Fatih happened to mention his upcoming service obligation. The thought of a drill instructor stripping him of his human dignity and crushing his spirit brightened my whole evening. To that point, Fatih had proven himself an incorrigible smartass. His laugh was a snigger, his default expression a leer. One day during Ramadan, he explained away his inattention with the claim he’d been fasting, only to light up a cigarette during the next break.
Now it happened that in those days I was given to conducting lessons with a rigidity that might not have looked too far out of place on a Potsdam parade ground. This was not standard operating procedure for graduates of Oxford Seminars. In our certification course, we aspiring teachers were taught to minimize Teacher Talk Time (TTT) and spend most of every class riding herd on independent student activity. But this would not have worked with my students, who tended to sit inert, awaiting orders, and when no very clear ones were forthcoming, to grow bored and sullen.
Terrified of dying onstage, desperate that nothing be left to chance, I transcribed three-hour lectures into Power Point presentations which I projected onto a screen in front of the white board. Rapping the screen sharply with the butt end of my magic marker, I would order each student, in turn, to read the lessons and the examples and to complete the exercises in the full glare of her classmates’ attention. Doğan! Ayşe! Sezgin! Irem! – Read! Fill in the blank! I don’t think I told anyone to sound off like you’ve got a pair, but that dictate would have captured the essence of my style.
This micromanaging had the surprising effect of working fairly well. It kept everyone’s eyes turned toward the front of the room, and gave them simultaneous practice in listening, reading, and speaking. The repetitive nature of the exercises cut through the students’ affective barrier, as the instructors in the cert course liked to call nerves, by creating clear expectations and a sense of routine. Perhaps it appealed to the best side of the Turkish character – even T.E. Lawrence, who had no cause to love them, credited Turks with being the most obedient troops of the Great War. Her Türk asker doğar, indeed.But the appeal for me of this unconventionally conventional teaching style went deeper than its practical benefits. Samuel Johnson observed that every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier. I’d thought meanly of myself ever since the eye doctor at the Ft. Hamilton MEPS center informed me that the Marine Corps preferred recruits who could count their own fingers at a distance of five inches. Achieving complete mastery over a classroom felt like having a pair of epaulettes stitched magically onto my shoulders. With Atatürk, hero of Gallipoli, beaming his endorsement from his portrait on the wall, I took to pacing and slapping my marker against my thigh like a riding crop on a pair of whipcord breeches.
It was always Fatih, doing his best Good Soldier Schweik, who threatened to upset morale. Along with his other tricks, he made a habit of interrupting lectures to ask questions on intricate grammar points unrelated to the lesson. Prefacing them with “I always heard…” or “My last teacher told me…,” he invested each one with the ring of a thrown gauntlet.
One evening Fatih lumbered into class half an hour late and asked a question on material that, as luck would have it, we had just covered. I snapped, “You might know the answer if you’d come to class on time.” Fatih stiffened, dummying up for the remainder of the hour. When we took a 10-minute break, I stepped out on the balcony for a smoke and saw him stomp resolutely out of the building and up the hill.
When the other students and I resumed the lesson, a small but insistent hurt seemed to fill the classroom. Afterward, while taking dinner at a café across the street from the school, I looked up from my lamacun to see Fatih waiting on line. He also saw me but, standing as though at attention, thrust out his chin and kept his eyes front.
The next morning, the school director congratulated me on handling Fatih so firmly. “We need disciplinarians,” he explained through a translator. Some of the other teachers confided they, too, had found him to be a major headache. And yet, right before the lesson, when Fatih poked his head into the kitchen, I could not contain my glee.
“You’re early,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “I am early.”
And I apologized for snapping and pumped his hand in welcome.
We became friends after that — or so it seemed to me. In fact, he became something of a favorite. I did not even begrudge him the admiring attentions of Hatice, class brain and one of very few young women in that school who did not carry themselves like the second coming of Betty Boop. When the students took me out for dinner at the end of the trimester, he got to be the life of the party, and I seized the opportunity, for once, to stand down.
It may be that neither of us is cut out for military life, but Fatih, at least, will get his chance to try. With his advanced degree in econometrics, he will serve only six months as, in his words, “a special soldier,” which I take to mean an admin specialist. Still, now that Erdoğan has commenced operations against ISIS, he will be able to take some satisfaction in having done his bit against, if not civilization’s most acute threat, then certainly the planet’s biggest bastards. Inshallah, he won’t hurt any Kurds in the process.
His duties will probably bore him to tears – for that reason I won’t envy him his good eyes. Maybe, during an NCO’s especially long and blustery harangue, he’ll remember my lessons and think what good preparation they were. If so, when I look back at our clash, I will not think too meanly of myself.