A small translation matter this weekend turned into an interesting cultural discussion. It began with the word ‘gavur’. The most logical translation for that is ‘infidel’. But ‘infidel’ doesn’t have anything like all the implications and connotations that ‘gavur’ has in Turkish.
The word came up because I wrote a short article about Caroline, a Dutch character in a Turkish soap. In the series she is often referred to as ‘gavur’ – you can read the story here. Gavur is a general word to describe a ‘non-Muslim’, but in Turkey it’s much more than that. It’s a word used to denigrate a foreigner. Even more than that: when you call somebody gavur, it’s considered a downright insult. You mean to say somebody is inferior, an immoral human being.
Let me take you back a bit in Turkish history to explain why gavur is so deeply rooted in society as an insult. Let’s go back to the First World War. The Ottoman leaders were motivating their soldiers by convincing them they were fighting a war against infidels. (It must have been quite confusing for the soldiers in the field to actually encounter Muslims fighting for the British troops, as enemies.)
Then, between 1919 and 1923, the War of Independence was fought to get rid of the Treaty of Sèvres, which included the surrender of the Ottoman forces to western powers. One of the stipulations was that Anatolia would be divided into three spheres of interest: British, French and Italian. The Greeks too would get territory, and there would be an independent Armenia. The War of Independence was also fought against Christians, or, in Turkish Muslim eyes: infidels, gavurs.
The threat, by the way, was not only seen as coming from outside, but also from within. That’s what defined the faith of the Christian Armenians, who once lived in Anatolia in large numbers. In the First World War, Turkey was also fighting Russia. Many Armenians hoped that if Russia won, there would be the possibility of an independent Armenia. The Armenian support for the Russian army was seen as treason, and led to the deportation and mass killings of Armenians during the First World War. To this day being ‘Armenian’ is considered derogatory in Turkey, and it can be used to define somebody as unreliable.
Then, in 1923, the Turkish Republic was founded. It had to become a nation state. Unity was based on two things: being a Turk and being a Muslim. Those were things to be proud of. Being anything other than a Turk or Muslim became a bad thing. Being foreign or Christian, or in short, being gavur, became equal to being against the Turkish state, equal to being untrustworthy and treacherous.
When you think of it, the description of ‘gavur’ fits the character of the Caroline in my short story stunningly well. She is a foreigner, she is destabilizing a Turkish family from within with wicked behaviour. Just like the foreign, Christian powers once tried to destabilize Turkey from within with wicked behaviour. A better metaphor would be hard to find!