Ever since the attacks of September, 2001, we Americans have been subjected to a relentless barrage of news, analyses, studies, and reports about terrorism. In light of recent terrorist incidents in Europe as well as our homeland, we are tempted to conclude that Islam itself is somehow to blame; that inherent in this faith is a call to violence. Whenever tempted to submit to this, our collective 21st century national dread, I look back gratefully on the time I spent in a Turkish village 50 years ago.
For the urgency of today’s anxieties prods me to think back on time spent among İslik’s huddled compounds of grayish and sometimes whitewashed walls so intensely that it’s as if I were there in body again. Sharply isolated from modern urban life, set in the midst of the conservative, pre-modern, and rural plains of central Anatolia, the village was typical of rural living, values, customs, and rituals of its time. While isolation afforded variation among villages, particularly from region to region, many things were shared across the country: universal belief in the modern Turkish state, one common language, trust in political leadership, a shared religion, and pride of heritage.
True it was that in 1965 when the Peace Corps was in its fifth year of existence, the world was far less troubled. When I moved to İslik, smack in the middle of Konya’s flatland province, I was aware that in his mission work nearly 2,000 years ago, St. Paul had traveled through that very region. Over succeeding centuries the whole area had grown to embody the juncture of western and Middle Eastern history: the remnants of a Roman road lay less than a mile north; the city of Konya’s Ottoman-style government buildings were still occupied and used as such; the village’s houses were built entirely of mud-brick, as they had been for generations.
There was no electricity, running water, or reliably passable road that could accommodate transportation beyond jeeps or horse-drawn wooden carts, and just one telephone in the only tea house.
The people there were religiously conservative. In my three-month intensive training I had been taught the basics of the Turkish language, the current idea of community development theory and practice, and lots about local cultural norms and customs. This included the villagers’ strict observance of the five pillars of Islam: open profession of faith in the merciful one God and his last prophet Mohammed, alms giving, pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime, ritual prayer five times daily, and daily fasting during the holy month of Ramazan, which coincided that year with my first days there.
Thankfully, I was assigned the first of my two years with a fellow volunteer who had grown up on a Mennonite farm in northern Indiana. I was fortunate, because I grew up almost totally deprived of farm experience in Amherst, Massachusetts college town.
We arrived in Islik in late August via village bus from Konya to a village seared under dry summer heat.
Dust funnels whirled in the distance. What trees there were had to be tended in family compounds, as they could not survive the dry winds from across the plains in the open. The entire landscape, all 360 degrees of it, was near arid, the only plant life visible being the cultivated parched grain fields surrounding the village. It was harvest time.
The village itself seemed like a monotone of dust and gray-brown walls. Having loaded our furnishings onto the roof of the village-circuit bus, we came to a stop in the middle of a dusty, brown, nearly barren square. After a few calls from the bus assistant, our landlord, Mevlut, appeared to show us where to take our cots, mattresses, kitchen implements, what have you, to his neighborhood “guesthouse.” It was a mud-brick, dilapidated-looking structure of one room with an ante-room set above a straw and donkey storage bin.
With his and others’ help, we got our furnishings and belongings up the stone stairs and set them onto the mat-covered, whitewashed dirt floor of the 10×20-ft room. Shared by related families in that part of the village, our compound had no walls to separate us from casual passers-by. To our great relief, the first evening Mevlut invited us for a meal in his family compound’s guest room.
What I saw inside its cooling, three-foot thick adobe walls was surprising and comforting at the same time. Tacked onto the main wall just below the requisite photo of modern Turkey’s revered founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was a collage of old magazine photos of the Kennedy family — the two kids, Jacqueline, and John himself. Now what could this display of respect and affection be about? How was it that in the midst of this remote land, without ready, two-way communication, where most of its inhabitants could neither read nor write, the American president’s family merited a place on the guest room wall just below Turkey’s founder? In this remote village of about 340 families!
Over the succeeding months we were frequently visited in the evening by the men of the village, young and old. We’d sometimes play cards, smoke sub-standard cigarettes and talk. Mostly they came around, I guess, out of curiosity. We were the entertainment. But as time went on and our Turkish got better, conversations about life in America, our families, work, customs, wealth, schooling, and religion became more involved.
So, too, did discussions about world events. I can still feel the intimacy that developed among us as alien presences. Their will to understand their foreign visitors proved penetrating and persistent, exceeding ours by far. I recall an early, potentially inflammatory question, perhaps asked many times over until we could understand it, that went something like, “Did you know that it was Johnson who had Kennedy killed?”
Yet, as I ponder the conversations, I am struck with how civil they were in tone. They did not argue or press the truth. Instead, they probed, pushed for fuller response, stretching our abilities to reason in this new tongue. Here we were among men whose lives—with the exception of compulsory two years’ military service in a remote part of the country—had in all likelihood been spent within a radius of 10 miles or so whose curiosity was as boundless as it was constant.
After the visitors, I often found myself spending solitary evenings inside by the light of a kerosene lantern. It was during these quiet moments that my mulling over of villagers’ questions developed into a pattern of introspection. I wrote letters to my mother and father, college faculty that I had liked, and others that entered my imagination (none of the letters to the latter got sent anywhere, of course).
On especially self-probing occasions I came to insights about the social, religious, cultural influences that made me who I was as person, son, brother, American, Catholic, and human being.
So what is it exactly that these rural sheep, goat, and grain farmers gave me there and then that still sits in my mind like a library compendium, an album of pictures and recordings that, over time, morphed into a progression of insights on the meaning and means of communication between strangers?
Foremost, they made me think. Yep, here was I fresh with my University of Massachusetts political science degree being pressed by what in my innermost private moments of frustration I silently dubbed a “gang of illiterates.” But over time, I became aware of the veneers and conventions of received education and culture layered deep within me.
By all that was holy, here I was among them, a representative of modernity and the great American experiment. I was stymied that all my “superior” background and education were getting us nowhere. Alone, late one cold night, I paced up and down by the dying embers of the sheet-metal stove. A stream of questions took shape in the silence. They revolved around one overriding question: just who did I think I was to tell them how and why they should change? And into what?
I wasn’t prepared to explain in clear and logical terms what I had been trained to bring them: modern benefits like “community development,” “cooperation,” forming irrigation cooperatives, following the advice of their government agriculture extension agent, and so on.
It took me a long time to comprehend that in their world any change in practice involved risk beyond their means. My world was an abstraction, even to me; theirs was flesh and blood. I had nothing at stake. They had their very way of life on the line.
So weeks turned into months, seasons turned, winter froze everything, even the breath, blankets got covered with dew by morning, every morning without end. I got down. This was hard, harder than I had ever gone through in my previous life of comfort and social underpinnings of friends, family, and teachers.
Finally, though, something came together, not at once, but in the way of a slow dawning that incubated in my physical and emotional state as it got worn down and exposed to their relentless search for why I was there among them. By late winter I came to accept that I had so far been unable to give even a whit of satisfaction to my inquisitors. They had gotten to me. If you want to be unkind, you could call this a humiliation. Yep, my “band of illiterates” had done it. Not only my outside skin was exposed to the harsh and unforgiving winter winds as they howled through the thatched roof of the house, but so were my insides. This hurt.
What got me through? why did I persevere? In the end, it was, I believe, the accumulation of all those journeys into introspection after the departure of my visitors. I realized that the dialogic encounters were turning into a refuge, a place and moment of connection between the pinnacles of two cultures. And they changed me where it counts, deep inside.
What does this have to do with our state of affairs today? A lot. Our future as culturally shaped beings depends on growth, on change, change that can deepen only if it penetrates the mind and heart. And that involves peaceful, constant, and long encounters with the “other.” Peace Corps is one way of doing that when we’re young enough to become vulnerable and not run away. When our will to learn is stronger than our fear of what we have not yet come to understand. There are other ways, too.
Michael Basile was a Peace Corps volunteer in Turkey in the 1960s. The Turkey program began in 1963 and ended in 1971. This reflection was originally published in Buralarda a publication by volunteers assigned to that country.