Thursday, November 13, 2008

Current Projects VI: Turkish novel

Cutting in line is one of the great joys in life, a small act of civil disobedience often made possible by having an ally near the front. Similarly, vaulting over a queue of planned projects is easy when the queue-maker is particularly excited about the latest project to pop into his mind. In this case, it's a novel based on my real-life experience in befriending a Turkish family, and the sometimes bumpy road to understanding and affection we traveled together.

It started about four years ago. My oldest daughter was entering second grade, and my wife had just started a family mentoring initiative in which an experienced school family would take a new school family under their wing and help guide them through the transition and answer their questions. She made the matches without much difficulty until she came upon a new family that had just arrived from Turkey. Mom and Dad spoke very little English, their daughter (same age and grade as mine) none at all. Our Mayberry-esque little suburban school system was ill-equipped to serve them and my wife couldn't see saddling another family with such a challenge, so naturally, social worker that she is, she decided we would be their mentors.

during the first couple of weeks, my wife tried unsuccessfully to convince the school to allow an interpreter to be in the girl's classroom. Hiding behind the banner of Immersion, the principal and teacher were in fact too cheap, shortsighted, and possibly even racist to make such a small yet significant accommodation. No matter, within a few months the girl was reading English texts at same high level as my daughter.

The first month or so of school, I had yet to meet the Turks, as I was working. But Laura wanted me to meet them, so she arranged for them to come to our house one Saturday. Even on a level linguistic playing field, I am no great conversationalist, so it was definitely uncomfortable at first. But they seemed friendly and likable. The parents, Kerem and Olgun, were young and very attractive. He was a customs official in Turkey, she had been a district attorney. The Turkish government, we learned, was interested in sending government workers to the US to study international finance at Boston University. For some reason, they had been advised to look in our sleepy bedroom community of Melrose to live during the two-year program. One would think the more diverse Boston/Cambridge student meccas would have been a more appropriate location. But they were here and our mission was to make them feel welcome.

Our daughter, Hannah, and theirs, Ilayda, played silently yet cooperatively together apart from us. After a bit, Kerem started peppering me with difficult questions, based on things he'd heard were true about Americans and Jews. What was the connection between freemasonry and Judaism? Was it true that Jews who worked in the World Trade Center stayed home on 9/11? Why do Americans allow President Bush to burn up the middle east? Rather than challenging me or my values, he was asking out of pure curiosity. He'd heard these things and wanted to know my response. As clearly, simply, yet as definitively as I could, I rebutted these rumors. I didn't know the connection between masons and Jews (though my father is a Shriner, I'm not privy to the secrets since I have never elected to join) other than it seems to go back to King Solomon and the building of the temple, yet there is nothing sinister about either group. Jews did not stay home on 9/11 and a simple reading of the list of victims shows that a great many Jews were among the dead. Many Americans protest their government but in a democracy we work within the system rather than stage coups.

He seemed satisfied with my responses, though he often continued to challenge me about American foreign policy. In fact, as liberals, my wife and I were very ashamed at what we were doing in the world and the incompetency of the Bush administration, and we told him we could not and would not defend Bush. In a way, this formed a bond between us, but a number of other families in Melrose were suspicious of them because they were not as willing to criticize their own government - at least not to a Muslim family.

And yes, of course, they were Muslims and we were Jews. We actually knew far better than they did that the two religions are very similar. The first time Kerem heard us say Shalom Aleichem, he was stunned because the Muslim phrase for "peace be to you" is pronounced almost identically. The dietary laws behind Kosher and Halal are virtually the same. And the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael are foundational to both religions, although they differ in that to Jews, Isaac was the favored son and to Muslims, it is Ishmael.

Our friends were Muslims but they were not strict Muslims. They did not pray regularly, and they drank alcohol. And this was one of the great gifts for us, as Kerem introduced me to raki (rahk-UH), an anise-flavored liquor known as Lion's Milk because it turns white when you add water to it and has a bite like a lion. He was most impressed the first time we drank together because I was able to walk away afterwards, though I was in no shape to drive. I was impressed by the ceremony around it. One prepares mezes, small bites of food like tapas, and eats while drinking. One also engages in pleasant conversation while drinking. One drinks leisurely and comfortably and toasts often ("Serefe!"). It is polite when clinking glasses to have the rim of your glass hit below the rim of the other person's, thus humbling yourself to your guest. It is delicious and delivers a nice, clean buzz.

Their food was wonderful, too. Olgun was an amazing cook, and while Hannah and Ilayda became very close friends, Hannah never took to the food. On the other hand, Ilayda took very easily to American junk food.

After two years, they moved back to Turkey. In the interim, they had a baby and so did we. In fact, they delayed their departure a few weeks because they wanted to be here when our baby was born. They have told succeeding families to come to Melrose and call us for help. The small apartment building in which they lived in time became 100% occupied by Turkish nationals studying at BU. We met some of the them, not all, but never established the kind of friendship that continues to this day. We hope someday soon to visit them in Turkey, and then to travel to Israel. We still keep in touch via email, and they recently sent us a CD of lovely Turkish music.

In retrospect, meeting this Turkish family was one of the great occurrences of my life. I learned so much from them and was able to teach them as well. In all the time we've known each other, there are only two things I can't shake them of: They reject the veracity of the Armenian genocide, and they believe George W. Bush was complicit in 9/11. We have agreed to disagree, yet this will be a key aspect to the novel. Partly because it is so rich, and such a unique experience, and because I love them so much, I am starting this novel today.

No comments: