Chapter Two: Who am I?


Who am I?

Rifat’s father was afraid that his son would lose his identity as a “Kilisli”, become Westernized and forget his roots if he left Kilis. I find myself contemplating my own identity on the way back from Kilis to Istanbul. I close my eyes and am back in my third grade class. My classmates and I are enthusiastically reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in our black uniforms with white lace collars:

Nukhet as a child
Third Grade students Işık Lisesi in Istanbul. I am in third row from the bottom, second from right. Source: family archives


I am Turkish, truthful, and hardworking
My principles are to protect those younger than me, to respect the elder, and love my nation more than my own essence
My ideal is to progress, to raise above all
Oh Great Ataturk
I pledge that I will incessantly walk on the road that you opened up for me, towards the goals you pointed out
Let my being be a present to the Turkish entity

How happy are those who say they are Turkish!

I remember reading that “Turk” was used during the Ottoman Empire, to refer to peasants, to uneducated people, while ‘Osmanlı‘ (Ottoman) denoted a multicultural, more upper class identity. Armenians, Jews, Rums (Greeks who lived in the Ottoman Empire territories), Serbs and Circassians, were all called Ottoman regardless of their religion and ethnicity.

By Esemono (own work) [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

But as the forces of Westernization and nationalism swept Europe, they also spread to the Ottoman Empire, and the Christians in the Empire began to secede in order to create new nation-states, such as Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania. The response of the Sultans was to turn to Islam as a potential overarching identity of the Ottoman Empire. But Arabs, for instance, were not interested in remaining under the Ottoman Empire umbrella and rebelled against the Sultan with British support. The next identity that the Ottoman elite latched on to was Turkishness. Mustafa Kemal who founded Turkey out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, an Ottoman general himself, redefined the new nation as a country that belongs to Turks and Muslims. One could ask whether the word ‘Turk’ denotes an ethnicity or a citizen of Turkey regardless of ethnicity, religion or other affiliations. Article 66 of the Constitution clearly says that citizens of Turkey are equal, regardless of their race, religion or ethnicity. Unfortunately, this has not been the reality.

Turkish ethnicity along with Sunni Islam has claimed superior status over other ethnicities and religious minorities living in Turkey. Turkish nationalism has been quite discriminatory towards groups such as Kurds, Alevis and Circassians, as well as Christian minorities. To be fair, Turkish nationalism emphasized the unity of the nation, just like other contemporaneous nation-building exercises around the world following decolonization. A ‘national myth’ was created which led to the rewriting of history books, claiming that the people who live in Turkey are descendants of the Central Asian Turks. The Ottoman legacy and Islam were de-emphasized. The state derived political legitimacy from its status as the homeland of the Turks and from its function to protect the national group and facilitate its cultural and social life as a group. The term “Turk” considered to be a derogatory term during the Ottoman Empire, was now redefined as a point of pride: ‘Ne mutlu Türküm diyene’ (How happy are those who say they are Turks).

I am still curious why Kilis is no longer multicultural. Did I sense some resistance when I asked where the Armenians and Jews who used to live in Kilis are now? Armenians who mainly lived in Eastern and Southeastern Turkey were forcibly taken from their homes and sent on a death march as the Ottoman Empire crumbled. The Rums (Anatolian Greeks) still living within Turkey’s borders were exchanged with Muslims in Greece to homogenize both Greece and Turkey. Regardless of the fact that many Rums spoke Turkish and not a word of Greek and had lived in Anatolia for centuries and the Muslims in the today’s Greece (such as Crete) spoke only Greek and not Turkish, this exchange took place. Ethnic homogenization, as part of nation building, continued implicitly, if not explicitly as the Christian and Jewish populations dwindled in Turkey into a negligible number by the 1950s.

The more I contemplate, the more it becomes clear to me how the Pledge of Allegiance that I proudly recited every morning is based on a national myth. National myths require rejecting parts of history that don’t fit, refashioning history in ways that do fit, or creating entirely new stories. I am beginning to see how the Ottoman past was erased and history rewritten. The relatives that I spoke to in Gaziantep and Kilis were so eager to show that the family fits with this image of the Turk with roots from Central Asia.  Central Asia represented the cradle of all civilizations, including the Western Civilization. I suppose this was the new way to link Turks with Western Civilization and show that they were one and the same, which brings me to the next item of the Pledge of Allegiance: My Ideal is Progress.

Progress meant reaching Western civilization, becoming modern and Western. But I am a child of the last vast Islamic Empire, the Ottoman Empire. Why did I have to become Western? Are Turks really Western? Certainly many people in Europe would disagree. The European Union has responded very reluctantly to Turkey’s application to the EU. They have said that Turks aren’t Western enough. They are Muslim. Turkey is not in Europe geographically except for Istanbul and the small area to its West. I reflect on how the lands of Islam came to be influenced and dominated by Western civilization and values, as the economic and military power of the West increased. The Ottoman Empire’s decline occurred simultaneously with the rise of capitalism and nationalism. As Europe expanded and colonized the majority of the world, spreading new ideas and values, the countries that were on the receiving end were forced to change their ways and accept the forces of Westernization. The Ottoman Empire did not escape this big wave even though it was never formally colonized. The last century of the Ottoman Empire saw continuous efforts of Westernization in the military, in education and in the government, undertaken by the elite. Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) was a member of that  same elite, and he continued the path of Westernization in the new Republic of Turkey. Westernization in Turkey was understood as a linear path towards modernity, achievable by emulating the West and by adopting a positivist, scientific approach.

Am I Eastern or Western?

I, like many Turks, grew up with a love/hate relationship with the West, and thus, with contradictory identities. Can I be both Muslim and Western? Why are we copying the West anyway? Does that mean we are not good enough? Why are we giving up our civilization, values, script, calendar and dress? Is everything related to Western civilization somehow better and ours inferior? Yet, at the same time, we are being asked to feel pride in being a Turk? It was just very confusing.

This desire to become Western, or ‘to become the other’, lies at the core of the identity crisis in Turkey throughout its history. We were being told: you are not good enough as you are, you must change, you must emulate the West. On the one hand, we want the West to accept us, admire us, take us in as ‘one of them’. Yet, then we are afraid that we would lose our identity completely, disappear and become the other. There is emptiness, desolation, and a state of being a stranger to myself that comes with this state. The West is not exempt from this dilemma either. It has also constructed its identity, framing Islam, framing the Ottoman Empire as ‘the other’, ‘its shadowy, dark self’ as Edward Said put it. (Said, 1994)

I glance at the last sentence of the Pledge of Allegiance: I must be ready to sacrifice for the good of the nation. In the Ottoman Empire, everyone was a kul (servant of God) and by implication, a servant of the Sultan, who was the Caliph, the representative of God on earth. Thus, everyone had to be ready to sacrifice him/herself if the Sultan deemed it necessary. Now Turkey, the nation, came first and one must sacrifice oneself to the nation, the sacrifice of the individual remaining a constant. The tradition of hundreds of years, of the priority of the state above the individual, is continuing today. The priority is still the protection of the state, not the protection of the individual from the state as democracies would claim.

I wonder, however, that without this focus on individual sacrifice whether Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) and his friends could have created a new nation against all odds? By the early 1920s, the Empire became defunct, divided, and devoured up by Western powers, which had been plotting its demise for a long time. After six hundred years of rule over the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe, the Ottoman Empire was coming to an end at the end of World War I. The secret agreements among the Allied Powers (France, England, Italy and Russia) materialized into the Treaty of Sevres, signed August 10, 1920. The Allies were to control the Empire’s finances, reducing it to a colony. An Armenian state was to be established in Eastern Anatolia. France received Syria and the neighboring parts of Southeastern Anatolia. The Sevres treaty accepted the Greek administration of Izmir (Symyrna) and surrounding areas. Italy was confirmed in the possession of the Dodecanese Islands, large portions of Southern and West Central Anatolia, the Mediterranean coast of Turkey and the inlands, including the port city of Antalya, and Konya were declared an Italian zone of influence. A Kurdistan region was also carved out of what is now part of Turkey (leaving out the Kurds of Iran, British controlled Iraq and French controlled Syria). In short, practically no land was left to the Ottoman Empire. It was fully defeated and was about to go out of business, a much hoped for result for the Western powers, as well as the Christian minorities living within the Ottoman Empire. The new nation-state, Turkey, carved out of these occupied lands, emerged miraculously after a war to reclaim a much smaller territory than what previously belonged to the Empire.

I was obviously too young to understand any of this as I was reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at grade school. Was I even really aware of many of these contradictions, dilemmas and myths about Turkish national identity in high school or college? I doubt it. My family belonged to the elite who supported Ataturk’s vision of Westernization and bought into the national myth. When it was time for a decision about which high school I would attend, I remember my parents’ discussion. While they were so proud to be Turkish, I still had to be sent to a foreign school. They mentioned Dame de Sion in Istanbul, the German High School or the Italian one and voted them out one by one. They said I must learn English. English was the language of the future. Was it because the United States had become the most powerful country in the world by the 1960s? Or was it because my father, mother, brother, uncle and even my grandmother had been educated at American schools? My grandmother went to the American College for Girls in Istanbul in the early 1900s and sent both her sons to Robert College in Istanbul in the 1920s, and my mother and her three sisters attended an American School in Izmir. So it was decided that I should attend the American College for Girls (ACG) but now it was up to me to get in. There was heavy competition for admission. I took the entrance exam and we started waiting anxiously. Finally, one late night my mother woke me up and in a loud, excited voice declared: Nükhet, you got in, you got in!! She and my father were at a dinner party where they ran into the president of ACG, Mrs. Sims. My mother apparently approached Mrs. Sims to ask how I had done in the entrance exams and she answered, yes, please don’t tell anyone yet, but your daughter is in! I fell happily asleep again with my mother’s excited voice ‘kazandın, kazandın! (you won, you won) ringing in my ears.

The school I would attend was originally established on the Asian side of Istanbul, in Üsküdar, in 1876 by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. In 1890, it became a college and received its charter from the Legislature of Massachusetts under the name American College for Girls. According to Mary Mills Patrick, an early president, the school was distinctly cosmopolitan and and had in one period contained as many as twenty nationalities (Patrick, 1929). But Sultan Abdulhamid was against Muslim girls attending this school. A few circumvented this rule. One of them was Halide Edib who later became a famous writer. Another was my grandmother, Nazire. She and her sister Naciye, enrolled under Jewish names.

My grandmother Nazire as a young girl. Source: family archives

Life at the American College for Girls

I spent nine years at the American College for Girls (ACG) between 1963 and 1971, (it is now co-ed and renamed Robert College). The campus is situated on top of a beautiful, wooded hill overlooking the Bosphorus in Istanbul, complete with excellent teachers and facilities. (Read more about Robert College.) My first English teacher was a young American woman fresh out of Smith College in the United States. I still remember her name: Betsy Boatwright. She later married a Turk and became Betsy Göksel. To us, her students, she appeared incredibly sophisticated and old. In her memoir published in the Robert College alumni magazine, RC Quarterly, Betsy Göksel recently wrote about how anxious she was and how ignorant she felt when she first arrived in Turkey. Read Betsy Goksel’s Memoir Our class was the very first class she taught at ACG. My classmates and I adored her. I grew up trying to imitate her accent, later going to discotheques and dancing to Western rock music and devouring American teenage magazines like Seventeen and comics like Archie and Veronica.

My first English teacher Betsy Boatwright Goksel in her first year at ACG
Source: RC Quarterly, Fall/Winter 2011, No. 41
Betsy Goksel’s first students. I am third from left. Source: RC Quarterly, Fall/Winter 2011, No. 41

I was quite oblivious to the political events around me as a teenager and in my early twenties as Turkey plunged into political turmoil, and as my cohorts began to coalesce around different philosophies from Maoism, Marxism, to Fascism and Islamism. One day, a group of Islamist students would pull me aside and try to convince me that I should join them, another day a group of Marxist students would lecture me. There were many young people in Turkey in the 1960s and 70s whose purpose in life had become charting a different political course for Turkey. I, on the other hand, did not have any particular ideology or particular values that I wanted to uphold at all cost. I was more interested in being popular, in getting elected class president, in making sure that I was friends with each of the little cliques at school.

One day a classmate at ACG introduced me to her cousin, who invited me out on a date. He came to pick me up in his fancy sports car, a Corvette, if I remember correctly. I noticed that he was driving towards the car ferry terminal, which would take us across the Bosphorus to the Anatolian side. It was winter and there was no obvious reason why we should be crossing the Bosphorus. When I asked where we were going, he threw me a menacing look and kept on driving. In those days I didn’t have the ability, courage, or money to be able to resist, to just get out of the car and find my way back home. He drove us to his family’s abandoned summerhouse and he raped me there. This meant that I was now a ‘woman’. In Turkish, there is a difference between girl and woman. A girl is a virgin and a woman is not. If you are called a woman and you are not married, you are in trouble.

Graduating from ACG in 1971. Source: family archives.

My whole world fell apart after this incident. I felt terribly ashamed and embarrassed. I could not tell anyone. For a year, I hated all men. Afterwards, in a complete turnaround, I started going out with any and every man I pleased. I thought that since I would already considered a ‘slut’, I might as well enjoy myself. I was taking revenge for my rape and using men for my pleasure. I did not know at the time that my reaction was not unique but, in fact, quite common among rape victims. After a few years of this promiscuity, my parents started to get very worried, watching helplessly as they saw me being dropped home by various male friends in the early hours of the morning. Finally, when the wife of my married lover came to our door, her face and body bruised during a fight with her husband and screamed insults at me in the hallway of our apartment building, my parents got desperate but kept a stony silence.

The education I received at the American College for Girls had encouraged me to experiment, to be adventurous, to be free to choose how to live my life. But my family, especially my mother, wanted something else: that my priority should be to get married, to become a Mrs. Somebody. She thought I should marry a diplomat. She herself had always aspired to be an ambassador’s wife. She said that education for girls is good but up to a point, but I didn’t really need to get a university degree as the more educated I was, the less marriageable I would become. Higher education was for girls who were not very attractive, she pointed out. Also it was a given that I must keep my virginity until marriage. But here I was in my mid-twenties, no longer a virgin, with no prospect of marriage, or interest for that matter, and had a reputation for nightclubbing and running around with men. Things were going from bad to worse. I was flailing about working at tourism agencies, holiday villages, taking part time jobs here and there. Meanwhile, I attended the University of Istanbul. I somehow graduated with a B.A in philosophy, barely attending classes. The campus was occupied by one student group or another those days, with tanks sitting in front of the gate. As such, classes were frequently canceled or students were afraid to go to class. I remember that one day I was sitting with some classmates in the library and a group of guys with guns barged in. We hid under desks. I am not quite sure how we escaped. I must have suppressed that memory.

A couple of years after graduation, I saw an ad in the paper that a new masters program in political science had been established at Boğaziçi (Bosphorus) University. I remember reading this ad and my heart started to pound. This could be my chance. I needed to understand what is going on in Turkey, in the world. I needed to stop flailing about and do something meaningful.  So I applied to the program. But why choose political science since I was so apolitical much of my life up to this point? Hard to say. I think I was seeking a way out of my situation, an impasse as I saw it. Perhaps I could redeem myself by becoming an expert in something, learn about the nature of power, work for an international organization and get out of the dead end I was stuck in. I read books on political theory, the history of the Ottoman Empire, anything I could get my hands on to prepare for the entrance exam. The day I was admitted to the masters program at Boğaziçi University was probably one of the most joyous days of my life. I was so happy to have finally found something meaningful, something I was reasonably good at and enjoyed doing: reading, reflecting, researching and writing.

But it turned out my brother and parents had other plans for me. My father approached me in the middle of the first semester at Boğaziçi University and handed me a plane ticket to Canada. He wanted me to visit my brother, Rifat, who had immigrated to Vancouver. I told him that I did not want to leave now and miss my classes. Your brother is inviting you to go visit him in Vancouver, my father replied, this is an opportunity for you. I was reluctant, but I had to go. Once I was in Vancouver, I decided to drop by the Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia (UBC). A professor’s door was slightly ajar. I walked in with a big smile and introduced myself. He was probably somewhat taken aback. But as matters of fate go, I applied to to UBC and the next summer I was holding a letter of acceptance in my hand. Since my grades were not all that good, I think that meeting the professor in person, who also happened to be the graduate student advisor, must have had something to do with my acceptance. I learned later that my brother had convinced our parents to send me to Vancouver to meet a Turkish man living in Canada, ‘an eligible bachelor’, hoping that I would get married. The visit to my brother in Canada had not led to a marriage as my parents and brother had hoped, but instead to admission to a masters program in political science at a Canadian university.

Arriving in Vancouver as a graduate student from Turkey, I discovered that to Canadians, I was a woman from a third world country with a strange name who spoke English with an accent. Where are you from? Turkey – where is Turkey? Is it Arab, isn’t there terrorism there? Is it somewhere close to India? Do you speak turkey over there? Bombarded with such questions, I preferred to hide my identity and hoped no one would ask. I began to feel quite inferior. But inevitably because of my accent, someone would put the question yet again: where are you from, which I hated. Of course, no one could pronounce my name either. Are you Muslim? Yes, nominally. This was another question I dreaded because I knew so little about Islam and could not answer any further questions. My parents had never discussed Islam with me or my brother. If anything, my father’s preference was to have nothing to do with Islam. I remember him chiding my mother for fasting during Ramadan or reading the Qur’an. He considered Islamic practices to be backward. When Turkish classical music played on the radio, he turned it off or found a station that played Western classical music.

I finally did fit successfully into my new life, so successfully that eventually when I returned to Turkey after about a decade, people would ask: You live abroad, don’t you? This time my Turkish, perhaps tinged with an American accent, announced that I was not a yerli (local). My body language was perhaps too confident for an average Turkish woman. Being considered a foreigner in my country really began to hurt me. I vowed to make up for the time I was abroad, to read and to learn everything I could about Turkey, devour novels in Turkish, essentially to relearn being a Turk. But what kind of a Turk?

The myths I had grown up on had begun to unravel. I saw that despite the well-organized efforts to create a national myth, to create a new national identity and to foster a clean break with the past, the new Republic had not succeeded. I needed to continue exploring my grandfather’s life and follow him from Kilis to Konstantiniye, (Istanbul as it was called then). How could I know myself without knowing who he was? Slattery reminded me:

“We are attached in our origins through the Dead. Remembering an ancestor, which does not have to be, but may include a blood relation, sheds crucial light on our own personal myth.”(Slattery, 2012: p.p. 128-129)

(c) Nükhet Kardam 2015

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Click here for Chapter Three

References and Credits

Betsy Goksel’s Memoir

Robert College

Podcast on American Missionaries in the Ottoman Empire

Patrick, Mary Mills, Under Five Sultans, London: The Century Co., 1929.

Said, Edward, W. Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Slattery, Dennis Patrick, Riting Myth Mythic Writing, Carmel CA: Fisher King Press, 2012.

3 thoughts on “Chapter Two: Who am I?

  1. Gozumu kirpmadan okudum…..muthis, cok guzel kullanilmis dil, inanilmaz icten hatiralar, cok begendim, tebrik ederim. Ben Zeynep Gumuluoglu, Junior, 1971 mezunu, bilmem hatirlarmisin ama memleketin ayni yoresinden, Iskenderun’dan gelen biri olarak sanki ayni duygulari yasadim……

    1. Sevgili Zeynep, pek cok tesekkurler, begenin beni cok sevindirdi. Gercekten sanki ben hepimizin hikayesini yaziyormusum gibi hissettim, birlikte yasadiklarimizi icten gelerek yazdim. maalesef hatirlayamdim seni, bagisla, ama Turkiyede oldugumda bulusmak cok isterim. Sevgilerle.

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