Two coats that don’t fit
And there I found myself, in a café in Istanbul with a book in my hands and tears in my eyes. It was the banned book by Ahmet Şık. I just bought it and really, really wanted to read it. But the first two pages not only took me an hour, they also drove me nuts: I didn’t understand most of it. That frustrated me to tears. I took a deep breath to get a grip, but hardly managed. I felt stupid, even more so because I bought another book as well: a Turkish-Kurdish dictionary. Yes, I started learning Kurdish, Kurmanci to be precise, the Kurdish most spoken in Turkey. What am I thinking? I can’t even get my Turkish right, and now I start another language?
Why is this language learning so important to me, and why does it frustrate me to tears in public when I feel inadequate? Thinking about that, something a Dutch friend said to me a few weeks ago came to mind. He has been coming to Turkey for decades, speaks fluent Turkish and has been living here for years. He said: ‘You are really screwing yourself into Turkey, aren’t you?’ I liked that image of what I am doing here: trying to get to know the country and the people better, trying to dig deeper, trying to learn more, trying to take root here solidly.
Why? Turkey suits me, to start with. But also, I have been here for five years this month, and I have reached a point of being in between countries, or, you could say, in between identities. Changing coats is a suitable metaphor for that. When living in the Netherlands, I wore my Dutch coat: it fitted just right – I lived there and my identity matched my surroundings. Then I moved to Turkey. I tried (and managed!) to build a life here, and that naturally means that the Dutch coat doesn’t fit so comfortably anymore. But throwing it away, just like that, is not possible. My new, Turkish coat is unfinished, it hasn’t shaped fully yet so it’s also not comfortable. I am wearing two coats that don’t fit.
It’s not nice to wear an uncomfortable coat. I, like every human being, need to belong somewhere, to fit in. I don’t have a family of my own and at the moment not even a partner to belong with, and the people who know me best and who are the closest to my heart, are far away. So I need to try to belong in another way. My Dutch coat will, I think, never be fully comfortable anymore. Even if I return to my home country one day, living abroad has changed me and that can never be undone. For now, though, I have no intention of returning to the Netherlands. I want to stay here. So if I want to have a comfortable Turkish coat to wear, I have to shape myself further. And for me, language is one of the keys.
The book I was reading in the café last night is symbolic of the situation I’m in. As a journalist for the Dutch press, I could very well stick to reading about the book and the reactions to it, and follow the developments: will it be freely available now, or will it be confiscated, and will the people who edited and published it get into trouble? But for me, that’s just not enough. I am not just a journalist in this country anymore. I live here, I want to be part of this society. So I want to read the book and fully understand it.
Wanting to learn Kurdish is just as symbolic. As a journalist for the Dutch press, it would be enough to read about Kurds and see how all the issues involving Kurds in this country develop, but for me, this is just not sufficient. Kurmanci is the second language of this country. Learning Kurmanci is an essential part of shaping myself for living in this country. For a coat I can comfortably wear in Turkey. (I have to add learning Kurmanci is a bit of a statement too. Forbidding and surpressing a language for decades doesn’t make it go away.)
When I heard the metaphor of the coats for the first time, some 5 years ago, it scared me. Having no comfortable coat, the horror! But I knew that if I stayed in Turkey, I would inevitably find myself in the coatless situation one day. And here I am. The confrontation with that fact last night was disturbing. But there is only one way out of this situation, and that is, of course, forward. One day, I will have a comfortable coat. The lining of it will be Dutch, to keep me extra warm.
Ha! I love the coat metaphor! I think I was given a straight jacket with this whole political thing recently–in an interview in the Radikal, one of the writers said it was like an initiation into the real Turkey. I really can relate to what you said about Kırmanci too. I don’t know if I should be starting anything with my Turkish less than perfect but I like your view on it–the second language of Turkey.
Great post and great metaphor. I often have talked about trying to put on another pair of shoes that need to stretch, and break in to fit my feet, but the coat metaphor is much stronger. Best of luck with Kirmanci too. Keep at it and it will come.
I am sure you have heard about this a million times before,but Turkish IS a difficult language if you are not a native speaker of a Ural-Altaic language (e.g. Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian, Korean, Japanese, Mongolian) The grammar structure, as well as the phonology is firmly different than Dutch, English or any other Indo-European language, at all. The good news is that, once you grasp the basic idea of agglutination, it gets easier.