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The Way It Is

There is a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change. But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt

or die; and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread. (William Stafford)

Driven to face who I am as a Turkish-American woman, this journey began as an exploration of my paternal grandfather, Dr. Kilisli Rifat. I never met him but he gave me my name. As a successful, renowned doctor when the Ottoman Empire disappeared and the Republic of Turkey was born, Dr. Rifat and his family were caught in momentous changes.  By following his complex story of redefined identities, adopted voluntarily or by force, I was led to reexamine the history of modern Turkey and definition of being a Turk. I uncovered that my family was not the Turkish family I thought it was, and my grandfather was harboring secrets I could not have imagined. Through writing I found myself on a parallel journey, encountering multiple identities of the culture and landscape I called home, and ultimately leading to a redefinition of who I am.

My grandfather was a well-known figure of his times. He was a medical doctor who graduated first in his class from the prestigious Military Medical Academy (Mekteb-i Tibbiye-i Şahane) in Istanbul, a professor of hygiene and public health, a columnist at various newspapers, the director of the International Quarantine Service, a founding member of “Kizilay” or Hilali Ahmer (The Red Crescent), and a supreme court judge. Dr. Kilisli Rifat was also a member of the elite who shaped Turkey’s health and population policies and was named one of the top eight doctors of Turkey in the 1930s. (Zülfikar Aydın, 1986)

This project draws on my academic background in the social sciences. At the same time, it is intensely personal. I tried to uncover the details of my grandfather’s life like a detective, trying to weave together a story line. I reconstructed his life in the tradition of creative nonfiction. As such, this work is not meant to be an authoritative and thorough biography. Dr. Kilisli Rifat wrote copiously. A collection of all his works would be a worthwhile undertaking, but that is not what I intended to do. Neither is this a purely personal journey. I believe that combining the personal with my professional training has yielded a richer, more meaningful and complex story than could have been achieved by historical analysis or a personal memoir alone.

In constructing this story, I have drawn on the political, social and historical writings focusing on the period of Rifat’s life (1877 – 1936), interviews with surviving members of my family, several unpublished memoirs of family members, personal correspondences, published and unpublished articles and books of Dr. Kilisli Rifat himself. Even though I refer to some actual events, I want to emphasize that for many of the details of my grandfather’s life, I was forced to rely on my own imagination and speculation, and thus offer my own narrative.

I grew up in Istanbul in an urban, middle class and secular environment in the 1960s and 70s. In 1978, I left Turkey and went to Canada for graduate study in political science. As I look back, I realize that I really left Turkey propelled by ambition, a sense of adventure to see the world and a need to understand the nature of power, especially political power. I imagined that if I understood the nature of power, I could have a bit of that power myself and perhaps work for an international organization such as the United Nations. I dreamt about traveling around the world as an expert of some sort but soon found out that surviving in Canada had to become my priority. At the University of British Columbia (UBC), I was just another graduate student from the “Third World”, from a developing country with a strange, unpronounceable name and a foreign accent. The first paper I handed in to my professor was not up to par and was returned to me to rewrite. He was kind enough to give me a second chance. I failed one of the first courses I took at UBC because I did not like my professor’s political views and refused to put in the effort. I soon learned that if I did not work hard and learn the ropes, I would have to say goodbye to my dreams.

Fast forward to the mid 1990s, I am a professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (now Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey). By all accounts, I have succeeded. But now that I have adapted to life in North America, I am beginning to get homesick for Turkey. Furthermore, I am haunted by deep existential questions. Who am I? What is the meaning of life? Is there God?  At this point, I meet a Greek American, Yannis Toussulis, a Ph.D in Psychology, a family marriage therapist, and a traditionally authorized murshid in the lineage of Pir Nur al-Arabi, the Nuriyya-Malamiyya. I am enchanted by him, by his depth of knowledge and become his student. I sense that delving into Sufism (Tasavvuf) might help to answer some existential questions I yearn to explore, as well as to reconnect me with my roots.

Like me, Yannis has roots in Turkey. His family comes from the Eurasian “Rum” of Anatolia (not mainland Greeks), from the land that we now call Turkey. These Rum or “Romans” were the remnants of a great clash between Islam and the West, and ancient Byzantium had been its primary battlefield. But the Rum were also a product of the overlap between these two great civilizations. I invite Yannis to the Monterey Institute to teach courses on the relationship between the West and Islam and on the psychology of intercultural conflict. Yannis’ courses open my mind to not just the diversity within Islam, but also to how deadly national, ethnic and religious identities can be (as Amin Maalouf has so aptly explored) and prompt me to question what lies behind my family’s ‘Turkish” identity.

My grandparents, Dr. Kilisli Rifat and his wife Nazire were subjects of the multicultural Ottoman Empire. Then they became Turks, “citizens” of the secular Republic of Turkey. How did they adapt to becoming citizens of a unitary nation-state with a reconstructed history, national myths and identity? How did they survive the destruction of a vast empire, the wars, the devastation? The desire to explore these questions grips me and fires me up from within. The French psychologist, Anne Ancelin Schutzenberger, spent decades studying what she calls the ancestor syndrome. She points out that we are links in a chain of generations, unconsciously affected by their suffering or unfinished business, until we acknowledge the past.

Surely our ancestors are part of us.  As Carjaval points out:

“There are scientific studies exploring whether the history of our ancestors is somehow a part of us, inherited in unexpected ways through a vast chemical network in our cells that controls genes, switching them on and off.  At the heart of the field, known as epigenetics, is the notion that genes have memory and that the lives of our grandparents – what they breathed, saw and ate – can directly affect us decades later.” (Doreen Carjaval, “In Andalusia, On the Trail of Inherited Memories”, New York Times, August 21, 2012). See the book by Carjaval


Presenting this story in digital format would not have been possible without the partnership of my colleague and friend, Sarah Springer. As a result of our collaboration, I found myself becoming a more creative thinker and seeing the links in my story that I had not previously been aware of. I saw how the internet offers possibilities for innovation and for dialogue with readers who may share similar stories.

I owe much gratitude to my institution, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, for supporting me in this endeavor, including giving me the opportunity to attend a creative nonfiction workshop at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 2014. I would like to extend my thanks to Karen Leshner of the Intrepid Foundation, the sponsor of the Leslie Eliason Teaching Excellence Awards for faculty. This award made it possible for me to embark on this project. I am grateful to the Digital Learning Commons at the Middlebury Institute, specifically to Bob Cole and Evelyn Helminen for their assistance. The support of my colleagues, especially Beryl Levinger, Amy McGill and Amy Sands, have been invaluable. I have had many discussions with friends and relatives who offered their time, their insights and research assistance. They include, in no particular order, Peter Shaw, Eileen Nazarro, Yüksel Inel, Nur Mardin, Azim Looker, Füsun Akarsu, Kabir Helminski, Nicolas Lecerf, Nalan Özkan Lecerf, Kibria Ann Draper, Domingo Martinez, Ted Conover, Elvia Navarro, Mert Keçik, Ekin Duru, Aytül Tamer, Yücel Demirel, Muhlis Salihoğlu, Belma Beyazıtoğlu, Burhan Akgün, Bülent Karadağ, Mustafa Ihsan Karadağ, Öznur Karadağ, Ahmet Münir Bilgen, Leyla Welkin, Üstün Bilgen Reinart, and Sanem Güvenç-Salgirli. Finally, Yannis Toussulis, Mehmet Selim Öziç, Timur Kardam Crone, Donald Crone and Ahmet Kardam occupy a special place in this journey. All shortcomings, of course, are mine.

(c) Nükhet Kardam 2015

Click here to purchase the entire e-book in Kindle format. 

Click here for Chapter One.

References and Credits

Carjaval, Doreen,  “In Andalusia, On the Trail of Inherited Memories”, New York Times,  August 21, 2012.

Header image CC photo courtesy of Rajesh_India on Flickr

Schutzenberger, Anne Ancelin, The Ancestor Syndrome: Transgenerational Psychotherapy and Hidden Links in the Family Tree, New York: Routledge, 1998.

Maalouf, Amin, In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, Penguin Books, 2003.

Zülfikar Aydın, Mükerrem Bedizel, “Kilisli Dr. Mehmed Rıfat Kardam (1877-1936)”, Elli Yıl Önce Ölen Sekiz Büyük Türk Hekimi İçin Anma Töreni Kitabı (In Honor of Eight Great Turkish Doctors of Medicine) İstanbul,1986, pp, 68-71.

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