Posts filed under ‘Identity’

Teaching Turkey: A New Adventure

We leave this morning to begin a new adventure. Our ten UNC students should be meeting us in Istanbul over the next few days for a summer field seminar, Turkey: Layers of Identity. I have met these students only briefly, so, in addition to the excited anxiety that comes at the beginning of each new course I greet, I also get to contemplate seven weeks abroad in daily contact with nine strangers (and two friends). My hope is that, by the end of our stay, we will have cohered into a group of learners and teachers–and that we will all have learned an enormous amount about travel, about working together, and about the fascinating and complex society, polity, and culture of today’s Turkey.

This is a Burch field seminar, an innovative combination of study abroad and research sponsored by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Instead of the students attending various courses or going on a guided tour, the program encourages students to work with faculty on a topic central to the professor’s research. My current research is on the creation of collective identities in the Middle East. Although I’m concentrating on the 1920s and 1930s, our summer project both draws on that research and, I hope, will contribute some insights to my work. At the same time, it offers students an opportunity to focus on a particular topic while exploring a new world area. In theory, the Burch seminar program embodies the best of the “research university”–a place where teaching enriches research and research informs teaching.

William and I leave in a few minutes to get to Istanbul a few days before the students arrive, a little time to make sure we can find their apartments and walk through their neighborhood. I’m carrying the books I will need to write lectures, but mostly, I think, Istanbul will be their text. It is a remarkable city, and I can’t wait to share it with these students. My first visit was more than 25 years ago, and it hardly seems foreign. It will be fascinating to watch these students experience it for the first time. Another adventure, and I approach this one with anticipation, anxiety, curiosity– and excitement.

The new blog: Teaching Turkey

May 13, 2008 at 1:10 pm 1 comment


Our driver began speaking Turkish with me immediately. I asked how he knew Turkish. “I’m a Turk,” he answered. As we made our way through Syrian customs and passport control, he spoke Arabic with the officials. Back in the car, as we crossed into Turkey, I asked when he learned Arabic. “I’m an Arab,” he responded. We arrived in Antakya (Antioch) two hours after leaving Aleppo, half of it at the border. Before the city became part of Turkey in 1939, no border crossing would have been necessary.

The book I’m working on tells the story of how Antakya and the province around it were detached from Syria and joined to Turkey. But it focuses largely on national identities, how people decide to which national group they belong. Our driver made it quite clear that no choice actually needed to be made. He claimed that 70% of the people of Antakya spoke Arabic in addition to Turkish. Since only Turkish is taught in schools, however, many remain illiterate in Arabic.


The city seems much more than a few kilometers from Aleppo. The color is striking on the Turkish side of the border. Syria has a monochromatic color scheme: the streets, the buildings, the walls, are all made of stone, and everything is white. Turks paint their houses, sometimes outrageous colors (lavender apartment blocks?). Turkish signs and billboards are all in Latin characters. And most women don’t cover their heads on the Turkish side of the border. Turkey’s enforced secularization actually prohibits women students and state employees from covering. Women at Mustafa Kemal University in Antakya stop at a phone booth right inside the gate to remove their scarves as they enter campus. I waited to make a phone call as one student checked her hair in the little mirror above the phone. She giggled when I asked her if the mirror was hers. Apparently, it is a collective mirror for use after removing scarves on the way in and replacing scarves before going back into the street.


Our days in Antakya were enlightening and enjoyable, thanks largely to our “host,” Koray Cengiz. He runs the local university’s international exchange programs. I found him through “couch-surfing,” a movement my daughter introduced me to. Koray made us a reservation at Mustafa Kemal University’s guest house, scheduled appointments for me with local historians, introduced us to some of his friends, and walked and walked through the city with us. By the end of our visit, we had learned about the Erasmus program, teaching English in Turkey, the city, and the university. He had learned more than he had probably ever wanted to know about Antakya between 1936 and 1939.


  William consults on 1936 map: Where are they now?

William and I walked the routes of the myriad demonstrations during that period, nearly all of which focused on the bridge over the Orontes River. We found the best Iskender Kebab in town (maybe even in Turkey), and sat looking at terrific photos of Antakya in 1940. Our waiter called the phone number attached to the photos, and soon we sat in the office of the photographer looking through prints he had made of his first professional shots, when he was still in his early 20s.

By the end of our stay, I became convinced I had never seen such a bi-national city. On one hand, Turkish flags and pictures of Ataturk were everywhere. I was surprised by the huge number of flags displayed, and Koray explained that flags were flying throughout Turkey in response to the recent attacks on Turkish soldiers further east. There were few remaining signs in Arabic, even fewer than we had seen in the summer of 2001 when we stayed in the city for just one night.

On the other hand, the bazaar looks and sounds like Syria’s suqs, though more of the shops have glass fronts. There is a distinctive smell in Aleppo’s markets that I noticed in Antakya, too, some combination of cardamon-flavored coffee beans, roasting nuts and corn, grilling meat, and open barrels of spices.

On the bus back to Antakya from Istanbul, we sat in front of a father and son whose conversation mixed Arabic and Turkish within sentences. As we stood waiting for our bags in Antakya, I greeted the man, explaining that we were living in Aleppo for a few months. He immediately responded with a dinner invitation, which I was sad to have to decline. The amazing propensity toward hospitality seems as ubiquitous among Turks as among Arabs–no national choice necessary.

 Thanks to Russ for posting the previous three entries. really is blocked in Turkey!

November 17, 2007 at 3:34 pm Leave a comment

Amman: Images of The Other

Syrian food is likely among the best in the world, but after two months in Aleppo, we wanted to find something else when we returned to the big city of Amman on Thursday.   We decided to start at the Irish Pub, who advertise a Happy Hour during Ramadan, which means that if you buy one drink between 5 and 7 you got the second free. The Irish Pub looks like it belongs on Franklin Street, the main street that skirts the University of North Carolina campus.

irishpub2.jpg  irishpubsign1.jpg

Outside, groups of people had flooded the streets, apparently on their way to Eid celebrations. We saw similar scenes the next two evenings, people out in huge numbers, especially the 20- and 30- somethings out in the Shmaisani district, fashionable women dressed remarkably well, whether in long coats and matching headscarfs or the latest jeans and jackets. (Cowboy outfits seem the popular new holiday attire for the girls 4-8 year old set this year.)

diner.jpg meccamall.jpg

On the way to losing the French restaurant we had read about, we drove past the enormous grounds of the US Embassy in Amman. Apparently it is that big so US officials can live inside the compound for protection. (Is an embassy an embassy–that is, an institution set up to engage those of another country–if its members must be so completely separated from the people of that country?)

Frustrated at our inability to find what we sought, we stumbled upon Zee Diner, an effort to recreate a contemporary American diner, which in itself reflects recent efforts in the US to revive the 1950s and 1960s diner, which grew up alongside American car culture. It looks a bit like a set for a Jordanian filming of Grease. US license plates hung on all the walls, along with framed photos of old cars (no juke boxes). The menu was hamburger-heavy. Most striking was the clientele, affluent high-school aged Jordanian kids who were being cool and speaking fluent English with their friends.

I think I understood this a bit more the next day watching TV, which was repeatedly interrupted to advertise the newest season of US sitcoms that were to begin airig in Jordan in mid-October. They are all portraying and promoting an affluent (idealized?) American youth culture: clothes, cars, friends, jobs, sex and alcohol. The upscale and interestingly-named Mecca Mall sells the products they will need to enter into that consumer dreamworld. US culture, superimposed on Jordan’s elite youth, whom Malik suggested would know more about America than about Jordan and their fellow Jordanians when they become the new leaders of the country in a decade or two.

jarash3.jpg jarash.jpg williamchecksouttheacoustics.jpg jordanianpipes.jpg

No transitions seem to work from there to Jarash, a remarkably intact set of ruins for what the books claim is a typical Roman city. There seemed little overlap with Petra, except that both are striking remnants of a society that has evolved over many, many centuries. We visited the Temple of Artemis, Jarash’s patron goddess. William fulfilled the requisite speech-making in the north ampitheatre to check out the incredible acoustics, a good thing since there was a bag piper playing in the south ampitheatre (amazing what the British leave strewn around their former empire). Then on to the Amman coliseum and its attached folklore museum. A couple years ago, the government pushed a “We Are All Jordan” campaign, whose posters remain visible in many places. I’m fascinated with the disparate elements this society gets to put together to fashion that identity, and how politics, antiquity, royalty, Palestine, and US cool all fit into it.

The evening was spent with more of Malik’s wonderful friends. Mostly journalists, they answered many of the questions we had been developing over the past three months. They talked about diversity within Jordan, the challenges of being a loyal opposition, the complete comfort with which Christians and Muslims live together in Jordan, press freedom, the challenges facing the Middle East in the age of empire.

Bab al-Hara is finished, but the producers have promised a third season next Ramadan. I’m waiting for the whole 2007 season to be released on DVD. I don’t know a similar phenomenon, where the streets clear out as men and women, from school age to well past retirement, urban and rural and from all classes, stop what they are doing and watch TV for an hour each night. Seems to be a popular culture phenomenon. And this one is quite historical. I will muse for a while, I think, on the implications of Jordanians and Syrians in 2007 watching a program about the French mandate where the only real bad guy was a French spy. What is this about? Maybe people just loved the music and the costumes? Is there some role this plays in the construction of modern Syrian/Jordanian identity?

October 15, 2007 at 8:37 am Leave a comment

Che and Bashar

In honor of today’s BBC’s story on images of Che, here is my current favorite, from a Christian-owned sweet shop in Aleppo (with a reputation for the best ice cream in the city). In the middle is Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Hizbullah.


Che images were ubiquitous throughout Morocco.   From the coastal town of Essouira: 


From Casablanca: chesmall.jpg

In Syria, the most common images are of Bashar Assad, the President.

 basharbuilding.jpg basharsuq.jpg

While in Morocco images of the King portray him engaging in an activity related to the theme of the establishment displaying the photograph (often with his wife or a child), Bashar’s photographs are usually only pictures of his head. He is often shown with his father or his deceased brother, very rarely with his wife and children.


Still, the photos can be displayed in fascinating ways.


October 6, 2007 at 8:47 am 4 comments

To the Mountains!


Kassab should be only about two hours from Aleppo, but we took the long route: bus to Latakia and then a “microbus” to Kassab, in transit about 5 hours. Even though none of the vehicles was air conditioned, the ride was a welcome relief from Aleppo’s overwhelming heat. People seem awed by the heat, reassuring us that the temperature is higher than any time in the last 75 years, informing us that the mercury had climbed to 50 C; our response was to head for the mountains as soon as we found ourselves an apartment.

The apartment is terrific. It is actually one large and one small room in an old Ottoman-style house, redone by a remarkably talented artist/designer/restorer. We celebrated with dinner with two UNC students, visiting Aleppo toward the end of research summer grants in Jordan, and then considered getting out of town while waiting for the apartment to be ready.

 When the power went off the next morning at 7, it took away any ambivalence. William and I both really like Aleppo and are delighted to be getting to spend some months there, but the heat had been overwhelming. Without power, which gets turned off a few hours a day in rolling blackouts, neither ac nor fans helped at all. So we checked out, stored our stuff, and were on the road.

We didn’t take the opportunity to see Lattakia, home of the ruling family and, for a brief time, center of the area the French hoped to separate from Syria as a separate Alawi state. We thought about two days at the beach there, but decided to continue on to the mountains.

The driver who took us between the bus stop and the microbus hub was a moonlighting science teacher, who asked William what he thought of Syria (many people ask us!) William answered that America and Syria are friends. The driver initially looked surprised, then grinned, “People to People,” laughed, and gave William a high-5.

Kassab sits less than 3 kilometers from the Turkish border in some spectacular mountains. It is right over the line from the Sanjak of Alexandretta (the place I’ve been writing about all year), and, the hotel’s proprietor tells us, has been an Armenian town “for 2000 years. Turkey has been around for 70.” There is a large framed 1982 Syrian Ministry of Tourism map in the restaurant/patio of our hotel that shows the international border going straight across northern Syria from Aleppo, while the currently recognized international boundary that has Antioch (and all of the former Sanjak) as part of Turkey is marked “undemarcated border line.”


Signs here are bilinguial (Arabic and Armenian), and intermittently trilingual (add English). There are two large Armenian churches, an Armenian cemetery, a brand new large mosque, a municipality building, and a small downtown that seems to cater, depending on the establishment, either to upscale tourists staying for summer vacations, or to the locals who live here year round. A large office at the end of the main street has photographs of a generic young girl in prayer (her head covered) and Hizbullah’s Nasrallah. (He does seem a remarkably popular figure in Syria and Lebanon, at least to judge by the poster count.)

The place we’re staying is run by Armenians, and the guests are both Arabs and Armenians. (As usual in Syria, we are a bit anomalous.) One extended family group just spent a couple of days here en route to a vacation in Istanbul, leaving this morning for the next stage and another 30 hours of driving. A tour bus pulled in for breakfast, bringing a few dozen people that the Jordanians guessed to be from Damascus. All the modest dress coexists with Armenian women wearing sleeveless dresses; thinking about spring break, I find it amusing that the beer in the shops seems to be primarily for the locals, not for the holiday-makers.

William is spending some time with the two young medical students we met on the microbus. One is from Kassab, and the two have shown him around and introduced him to the family. My own reckless adventures in eating (was it the shwarma from the street? the water from the tap? the unpeeled fruit? the uncooked tomatoes?) have left me in the hotel room instead, reading the guidebook and old New Yorkers that we brought with us from NC.

The drive out of Kassab Thursday was spectacular. For miles, we drove on a winding road through mixed forest, including a national nature preserve. Every few kilometers, we saw plastic tables and chairs ready for picnics. At some of these areas, men stood behind grills ready to make kebabs. Real restaurants dotted the road, offering spectacular panaromas along with the food.

We had taken advantage of the private public transportation of the Middle East. Fifteen-passenger vans are ubiquitous. They form lines at transportation hubs and wait until they are full. Privately owned, the vans provide public transportation at a very low cost (the three hour drive cost 125 Syrian, or $2.50, the hour drive from Lattakia to Kessab was $.50) to a population that does not yet rely on privately owned vehicles. We stopped for lunch/coffee at a travelers stop by the side of the road that served pizza, a variant of grilled cheese sandwiches, and various salads.

Arrived back in Aleppo in time to move into our new place! Temperatures had dropped into the low 100s. Life is good.

August 4, 2007 at 3:57 pm Leave a comment

Communities and Transitions

We arrived safely in Aleppo yesterday, before I could write my last Morocco blog.

I’d been thinking about the definition and importance of communities for a while. My research is on collective identity. My friend Greg Gangi has talked about the need for community in order to create a sustainable society. I live in an “intentional community.” During my last few days in Morocco, I found myself musing about the connection between community and fear. (The first paragraph of Chris Hedges’ recent piece seemed to fit here.)

It seems that, in every Moroccan city, people leave their homes to take to the streets. They stroll, or talk, eat, attend performances–but it is striking to an American to see so many people simply out at night. I first noticed it in Marrakesh, of course, as huge numbers congregated on Jama al Fna, but that seemed such a unique place! We noticed it again in the desert city of Zagora, as people seemed to come from everywhere and walk toward the river, just to be out and among others. In Fez, we walked with Muhammad’s family along the boulevards in the center of the new city, people just walking to be out and together. In Rabat, the main street was the site of both a concert and huge numbers of people simply walking together, or sitting and drinking coffee together and watching other people walking together. In Casablanca, Katie and I were just out for a walk when we saw big groups gathering by the fountain in the square. They seemed just to be walking around the fountain, families or friends in groups. In Casablanca, as everywhere else, the large groups brought out the vendors, and people bought ice cream, popcorn, orange juice, pastries, grilled sausages, or fava beans and chickpeas sprinkled with salt and cumin. The fountain wasn’t even on for the first half hour we were there. The point seemed to be out in the evening, just to be out and among people.

At each stop, we mused on this outpouring of people into collective areas. In Chapel Hill we seem to do this intentionally three times a year: two officially sanctioned festivals and Halloween. In each case, we seem to be afraid of the appearance of huge groups of people, and make sure we have significant police presence. In the US in general, even in Kansas (my previous residence), people seem to be frightened to go out at night.

I found myself wondering about the possibilities of creating communities when we are frightened to collect informally, just to walk the streets together. And I wondered why people here seem so unafraid to be together informally, and what that implies. (Needless to say, I find it ironic that Americans warn me of the dangers of being in the Middle East; people in Morocco and Syria seem to feel safe enough to be out in crowds, while those doing the warning seem nervous even on their own streets.)

Our last day in Rabat, I found myself in the middle of a new effort to create international communities. Someone a couple of years ago created a web site for “couch surfing.” If you have a spare bed or a couch and would be willing to host travelers, you sign up. Those who have used the system post comments on the web site about their hosts/guests to discourage people who would abuse the system or endanger its participants. Some months ago, Katie tells me, the site’s founders began suggesting that local couch surfers meet. When we arrived in Rabat, Katie contacted one of the local hosts, who invited her to the first Rabat Couchsurfers Meeting, held at the park with the tomb of former rulers Muhammad V and Hassan II. I accompanied her to the event, partly because of my own anxiety. I was fascinated at this effort to create international communities.


After two days in Rabat, mostly spent walking through Sale, in gardens created by an eccentric Frenchman, and among “old stones” stretching from the Romans, through the medieval Muslims and into the present, we returned to Casablanca to the most friendly and helpful hotel staff ever. We found “Rick’s Café,” an effort to create the setting that Bogart might have presided over (they run the film nonstop in the lounge upstairs), and spent our last two days in Morocco walking (and walking and walking).

Our own community decreased in size. Ian flew back to the US to move into an apartment and begin the next semester. Katie bought a bus ticket to Madrid to start the next part of her adventure , and William and I flew off to Beirut. Thanks very much to Ian for his intermittent comments, and to both for letting me use their photos. I’ll miss them, their insights, and their humor enormously!

July 27, 2007 at 1:59 pm 2 comments

Berbers on the Train

Trains don’t go to Essaouira, so we made our way back to Marrakesh just long enough to buy train tickets and food for the 7 hour ride to Fez. William managed to get the man squeezing oranges to fill the 1-liter Carolina Speakers water bottle while Katie and I bought bread, cheese, yogurt, and cookies.

There were two men in our compartment by the time we got there. I can’t remember how the conversation began, but one of the men, a physician, told us that the big problem in Morocco wasn’t religion, it was suppression of Berbers. He was unimpressed with the new effort to teach Berber in the schools. He was reading an Arabic newspaper, so I asked whether there were any Berber papers. He said no, it wasn’t important, and anyway, there were so few Berber intellectuals. I began trying to explain about Benedict Anderson and his argument about language, literacy, and culture being central to the development of national identity, but couldn’t find the words in any common language to convey the argument.

When the two men got off some hours later, we took over the whole compartment. I was half way through the book Ian had given me (Gaimon’s Neverwhere) when a young man took a seat with us. He told us that he taught History at Kairaween University, and proudly showed us photos of his wife and six-year-old son. I was completely delighted to meet a colleague, a Moroccan historian, so I asked him what he taught. I couldn’t quite understand his answer. I asked him what his research was about, and he seemed a bit angry. I decided he must be a graduate student, who didn’t want to talk about how his research was going. Then he explained that he really taught young children. Katie handed me the Lonely Planet guide, pointing to the paragraph that read, in part,

I didn’t pay much attention, and I was really curious. How do you explain Moroccan history and Berbers to your students? I asked. Well, he answered, there are Berbers in some places in Morocco. They live in caves. And some still live in the Rif mountains and a few places in the desert. My parents are Berber, he continued, and they taught me a couple of Berber words. He went on to confuse the basic chronology of Moroccan history, and I finally became suspicious. Poor man. It hardly seems fair to encounter a historian on a train when you’re just trying to get hired as a guide.

We have encountered “guides” in many places in Morocco. It is fascinating to hear them tell stories about places. Some seem quite freely to make things up that they think their employers would like to hear. Fiction as history does seem quite entertaining!

We spent our first day in Fez wandering the streets of the old city, literally downhill into the suqs. Main street of the old city survives as a major shopping area for local residents. You can find not only clothing here, but also shops specializing in buttons, others selling trim, one selling spectacular upholstery fabric. All the shops are small, and the variety of food, hardware, kitchen goods, clothing is quite astonishing. There are young men at every information sign posted, all offering their services as guides. Many of the monuments in the old city are also located in this labyrinth of streets, many in the process of being restored, a great thing unless you’re a traveler who wants to visit them. We did get a glimpse of the tomb of Moulay Idriss, and stood in the square of the copper-sellers where local lore has it that Leo the African stayed for a while.

The French legacy in Morocco seems huge today. I mean, in addition to killing many people. They created a category called Berber. They built new cities right next to the old cities, and I’m really curious about the consequences on the local urban and economic fabric. And Lyautay decided that non-Muslims were not to be permitted to go into any mosques. Was he worried that Christians would convert? Was he worried that they would take over the mosques and Muslims would be angry? Concerned that their own soldiers would desecrate holy places? Throughout Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean, it seems, anyone can go into mosques, a policy consistent with the historical universalism and interest in conversion that Muslims have embraced. Over many months with art historians during my dissertation research, I visited and admired many Ottoman mosques. Some French colonial ruler decided that Muslims should not enter mosques, and Moroccan officials seem to believe simply that this is the way things must be. So we have not been able to see, appreciate, admire any mosques in Morocco.


July 17, 2007 at 4:52 pm Leave a comment

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