I got up early on Monday, May 2, and checked my email and Yahoo News even before my 6:30 am alarm went off. In between breakfast and putting a bit of makeup on, something made me check my email again, and there was an urgent message from Angela telling me to turn on the television.
I called upstairs to Sankar. Instead of riding the “work caravan to Asia” with me at 7:30, he was heading to Ataturk airport later in the morning for a trip to Dubai. He turned the TV on and we listened as both CNN and Al Jazeera reported the same astounding news. We watched footage of Americans gathering in the streets of Washington and celebrating, even though it was close to midnight. I thought of all the past news footage I’ve seen of people in other parts of the world protesting or celebrating in the streets, and felt kinship.
At work I planned to keep the news to myself, but at a morning staff meeting, Müge, one of our Turkish teachers, came in saying, “Did you hear? Bin Laden has been killed.”
“Who killed him?” someone asked.
“America,” someone else replied.
“Well, America created him,” said Semi, a male teacher, referring to our work with the Afghani mujahideen years ago. Semi has a brother in Seattle and relatives in Texas, and he speaks English with barely any accent. He’s knowledgeable—to a point.
Someone else commented that the news was okay, but that it’s never positive when anyone is killed. I kept quiet, checking out the week’s new teaching new materials on my laptop, and the moment passed. A few days later when a Minnesota friend emailed to ask about Turkish reactions, I mentioned that Turks consider Americans aggressive–and (I’ve been told this to my face) gullible, so it’s better to downplay events like this.
And so the week progressed.
Each week we give our students a listening exercise that consists of a brief, recorded lecture and then a sheet of questions to answer. This week’s topic was crime control and the focus was capital punishment. As usual, the focus was on America, the topic not capital punishment in general or capital punishment in Turkey (where it is now illegal but has certainly been practiced during the country’s long history), but capital punishment in the U.S.
Gathering up materials for the week, I glanced at the question sheet and read the following: “Which is the only industrialized country that uses capital punishment? “How many executions have been carried out [in the U.S.] since 1976?” (Possible choices: 1,900, 600, 500) And multiple choice questions about fairness that included the phrase, “most are male and African American.”
I didn’t disagree with what was written. I simply wondered why the U.S. so often has to be the focus. Surely Turkish students care more about events in their own country. And it stings to have negative examples on display. However when I tried to google some Turkish statistics (for example, the annual murder rate per 100,000 people; the U.S.’s is 9), the numbers were not available.
My teaching partner often presents the weekly listening unit to my students. But this week I told her I would do it. I would stand up in front of the class for two hours while students read about barbarism in my country. I would take whatever comments or questions came at me, and maybe I could slip in a few subtleties – such as a recent Illinois governor renouncing capital punishment or the fact that opinions seem to be changing. It occurred to me that many of us who live overseas tend to be of the liberal persuasion, whereas those who pass conservative legislation often tend to stay closer to home.
As it turned out, I would end up teaching the unit to my partner’s class as well: four hours spent representing a system that I abhor.
When I got home the afternoon before I was to teach the unit, the biweekly mail pouch had arrived, and in it—talk about perfect timing—was the annual report from The Innocence Project, an organization Sankar and I support. This group raises funds to re-examine cases on death row, often determining via DNA evidence that those convicted should be set free. Great, I thought. I’ll bring this to show the kids that there are other voices operating in my country.
I ended up receiving only a few comments or questions from students about capital punishment. One girl did ask my opinion. But when I pulled out the Innocence Project brochure, the class gave a collective sigh that sounded like relief, and students paged through the document with interest.
Actually, it seems events that direct blame on Americans and those that bring forth pride alternate here. I got some mileage recently from a visit by Congressmen Keith Ellison. He was in Turkey and then Saudi Arabia, which he apparently visits every year. Sankar actually got to eat lunch with him in Riyadh and make a plug for a huge 3M bid to produce both Turkish and Saudi passports. The congressmen put in a good word, and perhaps 3M will be awarded a part of these projects. But to me the big issue was to tell people here that the first Muslim in the U.S. Congress is from my city and watch their faces register surprise.
Nobody likes to be simplified or caricaturized, either personally or as a member of a larger group. Any response I might have given to bin Laden’s death would have been perceived through the lens of my country’s reaction after 9/11. And educational lectures that deal with the United States invariably make complex issues one dimensional—while leading people to think they truly understand America. There is a kind of loneliness in being an expatriate.
“It isn’t really that way,” I want to tell them. “Not quite. You don’t really know us.”