Life Goes On

The skies have opened up and delivered some much needed rain. The world economy has turned upside down. Life is full of change. In one week, I attended a wedding of a graduate, the funeral of the mother of a colleague, rejoiced over a new birth, and mourned the loss of a dear friend and former colleague Martha Millett. Martha gave 38 years of her life to the people of Turkey. She continued to give of her life the best she knew how as she faced the growing limitations of a painful illness. She is one of the many examples of the fruits of a life of service to others. Life goes on, sometimes with us and sometimes without us.

The skies have opened up and delivered some much needed rain. The world economy has turned upside down. Life is full of change. In one week, I attended a wedding of a graduate, the funeral of the mother of a colleague, rejoiced over a new birth, and mourned the loss of a dear friend and former colleague Martha Millett. Martha gave 38 years of her life to the people of Turkey. She continued to give of her life the best she knew how as she faced the growing limitations of a painful illness. She is one of the many examples of the fruits of a life of service to others. Life goes on, sometimes with us and sometimes without us.

Turkey has been through its own share of life. The economy is not immune to the world. Our gasoline is around $10 a gallon but we have a pretty good mass transit network. It just takes time and energy. The ruling AK party has been in and out of court decisions as Turkey tries to find a new balance between the religious and secular and between the old ruling elite and the new educated middle classes. Too many black and white issues when really thousands of tones of grey exist. 

What has been growing in Turkey is the number of banned websites. At one point even my home church, University Congregational UCC in Seattle, had its church blog banned! This ban has been lifted but other things randomly join the censored list daily. The newest ban, joining such famous Turkish banned websites as You Tube, is the website of British biologist Richard Dawkins. The lawyers of the Islamic creationist author Adnan Oktar took this action after Dawkins supposedly wrote on his website in July (I cannot check this fact since I cannot access the site!): "I am at a loss to reconcile the expensive and glossy production values of this book [Oktar's Atlas of Creation] with the breathtaking inanity of the content."  I personally find Dawkins a bit aggravating. I believe in God and have no trouble with evolution. Yet Dawkins sees things as either blind belief or atheism. What strikes me in this whole situation is fundamentalism across faith traditions is so similar! Why fundamentalists of one faith cannot understand those of another is bewildering. The more the USA acts unilaterally in the Muslim world, the angrier they become. Of course the reciprocal is true also. I will not get into foreign policy or this letter will become pages long.

How does the topic of soccer sound? Free of politics?? Turkey is currently participating in the games leading up to choosing Europe's representatives in the 2010 World Cup. "Europe" for the purposes of world soccer spans from Iceland in the northwest to Kazakhstan in the east to Israel in the south. Palestine, Syria and Lebanon are conveniently part of Asia.  The beginning of September Turkey and Armenia played a qualifying game in Yerevan. What made this game so diplomatically meaningful is that the President of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, accepted the invitation of his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkissian, to attend the game, making Gul the first Turkish leader to ever visit the Republic of Armenia. The nationalists were the ones to object, from both sides. Gul took a small step perhaps prompted by the conflict between Russia and Georgia. The Caucasus like the Balkans is a region of unresolved hatreds that were suppressed at the time of the collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires the end of World War I.  Dialogue has to start somewhere at the national level. It is much easier to talk to someone you have some relationship with than with someone you do not know at all. This is what diplomacy is all about. It is about building a functioning relationship so that when the tough topics are addressed, you have some reason to stick it out no matter how tough the process may be. Two quotes from different articles that appeared in the September 8th issue of Today's Zaman English edition newspaper are worth duplicating here. The first is from a columnist named Etyen Mahcupyan. He wrote an article entitled "Boring Soccer" and concluded the article as follows: "Later on I started thinking maybe this boring game was played the way it was supposed to be. A game with no surprises, no deceiving, reflecting the truth as it is, usual and simple. What more could we want? Wasn't it exactly the one we needed?"

The second quote reflects the continued effect the murder of Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink has had on the Turkish psyche. Yavuz Baydar wrote an article entitled, "If Only Hrant Were Here" which was in the same edition of Today's Zaman. He reflects upon his trip to Armenia to watch the match in the following words: "Just above the 'sunken' stadium, in the heart of Yerevan, lies the 'Monument of the Armenian Genocide', facing Ararat. It is a serene site, with heart-wrenching music and quiet visitors. I go there, as I always do, to pay my respects to those who perished due to inhuman folly and sheer madness during late Ottoman rule. Once upon a time, our ancestors were the citizens of the same land, though many of them had their share of tragedy, when visiting the 'Genocide Museum', it is clear who paid the highest price. As Hrant Dink used to tell me, 'Understanding, only understanding, will help us overcome denial.'"

Fundamentalists and nationalists have something in common. They both have never learned the true meaning of dialogue. Dialogue is not giving away everything one believes in, but there is the risk of change. Dialogue is learning to listen to the other, attempting to see the world from their position. It is the ability to develop empathy and to better understand that the world is not full of black and white, of right and wrong, of win and lose. In ambiguity we trust in God to stand above our humanness and to see the bigger picture. In dialogue we risk understanding the other better and perhaps actually changing the world. Isn't healing creation something God would be pleased with?

Selam / Shalom, as this Islamic month of fasting draws to a close.

Alison Stendahl

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.