For her oral presentation assignment, Ayse discussed three famous world monuments. She chose the Statue of Liberty, the ruins of Machu Picchu and the Louvre Museum. In the following six minutes, she informed us of their various locations, dates of construction, histories and modern functions. Her favourite was the Statue of Liberty.
Taking notes from the back of the classroom, I realised with a jolt that I had visited every single monument on her list. The Louvre I had been to twice, once with my family as a teenager, then again more recently while backpacking across Europe.
What were to me real places, filled with vital details and intimate recollections, were to Ayse and her audience mere images – downloaded from Google, seen a thousand times in paper, on tv and online. Vague postcards from some imaginary other world.
The week before, we had learned how to describe our future desires. ‘When I am older,’ my students had said, ‘I would like to move to Canada.’ ‘When I finish school, I would like to study in Europe.’ ‘I would like to live in America.’
Of course, I had heard this sentiment expressed by my adult classes, discontented as they were with the politics of their country and its economic crisis. That same week, there had been a lively discussion between one student in his forties and another just out of university. The older had urged the younger to work to improve her own country if she were so disatissfied with it, but the younger had been resigned. “It is not my country anymore,” she had said.
Still, I had thought that the students in Ayse’s class, who were as young as thirteen, might be a little more insulated from such concerns. But the malaise, it seems, is contagious, spreading from worried parents into the world of adolecence.
Children are impressionable creatures, of course, and the burdens on their elders remain immense. Over the past few years, the Lira has been stumbling from one political crisis to the next. With the annulment of the Istanbul mayoral election on the 6th of May came another sharp drop in its value. One of my colleagues, Ibrahim, was friends with the manager of a local bank, which was fortuitous, as I had been thinking to open a foreign currency account. On the morning of our day off, we went together to see him.
The bank manager told us that his name – Göktur Özdemir – translated to ‘Celestial Iron-Heart.’ His shirt was tight and his hair short and his tie very neat and, though he repeatedly adjusted the air conditioner, there was always a little sweat beading around his hair line.
Tea and coffee were brought in and I decided it would be rude to commence with business without some pleasantries first. Göktur was relieved to be pulled away from the phone calls he had been making all morning, forever refusing his desperate customers more credit.
“How are the people in your country?” He asked me.
“Happy,” I conceded with a sigh. All along I have been trying to convince people that unhappiness was a universal malady not uniquely suffered by the Turks. That morning, I suppose, I had not the energy to try and persuade him.
“Twenty years ago, the people in Turkey were happy, too,” he said, nodding in confirmation. “The young people were happy. Now, I look at them and-“ he waved is palm up and down across his face, “-nothing! Always on their phones! You walk down the street and see peoples’ faces. They are so unhappy! When customers come into the bank, they are always angry! Only caring about money. Of course, money is important, but it is not everything.”
“You are right,” I said. “Did Ibrahim mention that I would like to open an account?”
As I filled out forms, Göktur spoke further of his country’s condition, both economic and cultural. In those past two decades, Turkey had developed at a breakneck pace, primarily off the back off a questionably regulated, probably corrupt construction industry and increasingly debt-fuelled consumer spending.
Growing up in Australia, I barely noted the descent into the high technological consumerism currently dominating our lives. It was the natural, invisible progression of western capitalist culture, beamed out of Silicon Valley, Menlo Park and Foxconn City.
In Australia, we embraced it early, with the wholehearted abandon of children. Now, I hope, we are starting to mature a little. To wake from that hyper materialist delirium, and to realise the disastrous consequences for community and ecology that are becoming so undeniably clear.
In Turkey, with its proud, ancient history and vibrant traditions, the contrast between old and new is stark. Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern and Central Asian traditions have over thousands of years forged a culture fixated on family. The kind of genuinely communal society that I had only heard of in the reminiscences of my parents’ generation is still alive and well here.
Yet, as Göktur bemoaned, Turks are falling more and more in thrall to shiny devices and social media. News feeds populated by models and celebrities offer the same kind of intangible promise as postcard images of exotic destinations. In this, as in so many ways, a great struggle is underway for the soul of the country.
I see the old spirit when I go walking in my neighbourhood at sunset. Just across the highway, huge shopping malls, international hotels and residential towers rise up out of the hot, dirty streets of the district.
But in my neighbourhood, the old character has been preserved. There are few buildings higher than five stories. Large houses are occupied by extended families and few cars trouble the narrow maze of streets.
The old men sit in pairs on park benches late into the evening. They murmur sideways with their partners, chatter to their opposites across the path, mind the children playing and call out to the passers-by. Like this there are always more conversations than men, to be picked up or left hanging at their leisure.
The talk of the children is far more serious. They huddle for secret conferences, fix themselves on the task of climbing a fence, make furtive solicitations at the one left high up on the balcony. They rage at sleights and make tragedy out of an injury with a ball, though all are reconciled for that most pivotal moment – the shy petition at the door of Muhammad’s shop for ice-creams.
Muhammad sends his assistant Bünyamin to relieve the agony of their waiting. He is too busy smoking a cigarette and playing a game on his phone. In the early days, I would come and sit with him outside his store and subject him to my infantile Turkish. Nowadays, I leave him to his entertainment.
And so my own postcard is preserved.