In February I took a trip to northern India, which included Jaipur, Agra and Delhi. I had always wanted to see the graceful architecture of the Taj Mahal. When any of us enter a new situation, we construct a “reality or perception” of what we think we will encounter.

In February I took a trip to northern India, which included Jaipur, Agra and Delhi.  I had always wanted to see the graceful architecture of the Taj Mahal. When any of us enter a new situation, we construct a “reality or perception” of what we think we will encounter. We need to do so in order to be able to process all that bombards our thoughts, senses and emotions.  I must say that India was not quite what I had expected or should I say had “constructed.” The more I travel throughout eastern Europe, the Middle East and central Asia, the more I am able to see influences these cultures have had on one another. In northern India I was surprised to see so much of an influence from the Moguls (“cousins” of the Turks). The ornateness and amazing detail of the architecture was stimulating to the senses. It also seemed amazingly familiar to some of the architecture of Alhambra in Granada (Spain) and structures within the Turkish, Arab and Persian worlds.  The effects of nomadic tribes migrating across central Asia into Europe, North Africa and the Middle East and eventually settling down caused a sharing of culture and ideas. It took me several days in India before it dawned on me that the word they were using for one type of cheese was paneer or peynir in Turkish!

The song “Sari Gelin” has been going through my mind. The first time I heard the song was in a Turkish film entitled “Salkim Hanimin Taneleri”.  It was near the end of the movie when the song was sung on opposite sides of a prison cell by a Muslim guard and an Armenian prisoner. They both seemed a bit surprised that they both knew the same song, one in Armenian and one in Turkish. Sari Gelin is a traditional Anatolian folk song shared by several Middle Eastern cultures. Recently Sari Gelin has taken on a different identity as a documentary distributed by the Turkish Ministry of Education to its elementary schools. It gives the Turkish version of the events surrounding 1915 with a particularly anti-Armenian rhetoric accompanied by very graphic images. Many Turkish families as well as Armenians were outraged and insisted upon the immediate end to the showing of this film in elementary schools. In an open letter sent to Prime Minister Erdogan signed by 500 Turkish Armenians, they questioned why the Ministry of Education would wish to “fuel hatred and animosity against Armenians”?

In an editorial by Yavuz Bydar in the February 20th edition of the English language newspaper Today’s Zaman, he describes this story and concludes with the following:

“The letter had an impact. The ministry issued a statement, late on Wednesday, that the DVDs were meant to be sent to “history teachers,” for their use as complementary material, not to be shown to the pupils. It said that the ministry had stopped distribution because “abuse” had been detected. It is hard to be fully satisfied with this response. The implementation must be monitored further by the press, and the question must be asked regarding why on earth such controversial propaganda material would be of use to the teachers themselves.”

In the beginning of April, the Alliance of Civilizations summit met in Istanbul for the second time. This Alliance was founded to explore ways to reduce tensions between cultures and societies that threaten to inflame or ignite conflicts around the world. The method of defusing tension is to be through greater understanding of the roots of cultural and societal polarization. The mandate is that this group should be action-driven in order to effectively reduce tensions. The Alliance is currently co-chaired by Turkey and Spain and this year it was attended by three heads of state (including President Obama) and over 30 foreign ministers. Part of Turkey’s action plan is supposedly to set up a committee within the Ministry of Education to review Turkish textbooks in the light of cultural issues!

This week mothers of Turkish soldiers and mothers of Kurdish PKK militants who have been killed or wounded in the conflicts in the southeast of Turkey met in Diyarbakir. They gathered together in an effort to add impetus to the tentative beginnings of a dialogue process between the Prime Minister and the political party representing many of the Kurds of the southeast of Turkey. Women have always been a political force to reckon with and the women of this country are no exception. The Kurdish women gave their Turkish counterparts white headscarves. In the tradition of the southeast the throwing of a white headscarf by a close female relative or friend between two men who are fighting signals the end of the fight and that the two men are to reconcile. They stated that more bloodshed was not the solution to the problems of the region and that peace needed to be established.

Grass roots movements have often been effective ways to bring about change. As peoples realize all that they share rather than focusing on all that divides them, they can take tentative steps together to attempt to find resolutions. By allowing all of our constructed realities to shift and to adjust to something a bit different, we can open ourselves to understandings and experiences that are richer and deeper. We need to trust a bit more and fan tensions a bit less.  “I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it.” (Voltaire)

And in closing I want to give a tribute to a wonderful man who was one of the “elders” when I first arrived in Turkey in 1980. Bill Edmonds was an energetic, articulate and passionate man who delved deep into this culture and was cherished by many people. As Director of the Redhouse Press he was instrumental in the publishing of children’s literature and a series on ecology. His humor, jovial nature and love of music left a deep imprint here in Istanbul and in the hearts of many of us. He will be missed as one of the giants of our mission here in Turkey. May his soul rest in peace.

Selam / Shalom

Alison Stendahl
Istanbul Turkey

Alison Stendahl serves with the Near East Mission, Istanbul, Turkey.  She is Academic Dean of and a math teacher at Uskudar American Academy in Istanbul Turkey.