Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Şimdi asker

The first time I walked into a provincial bus station and was greeted by the chaotic mingling of drumming, chanting, and singing echoing off the building's concrete walls, I had no idea what was going on. Now I readily recognize the caravan of cars clogging the road, horns honking, with Turkish flags draped off the back of vehicles, flying out the windows, and wrapped around young men's shoulders. It's a sure sign that families are sending their boys off to the military.

Absolutely the largest and most raucous crowd I have yet seen doing so gathered at the main İzmir otogar (bus station) last night, their chants of "Bizim asker, şimdi asker" (Our soldier, now he's a soldier) reverberating throughout the building. Young men were hoisted onto shoulders and thrown in the air as their headscarfed mothers wailed and even collapsed to the ground. One had to be pulled off the bus as she clung to her son. Even when it's not so dramatic, the scene never fails to choke me up. The boys are so young and the emotions so unfamiliar to me.

In the U.S., at least where I come from, it's easy to be insulated from the realities of military service. Though I know a handful of people who have served or are still serving in the armed forces, most had already returned to civilian life by the time I met them. And though I worry about friends working as journalists or for NGOs in Afghanistan and Iraq, I have yet to have to watch news reports fearing for a loved one on the front lines.

In addition, despite the friends I have with military backgrounds, it's all too easy to retreat into stereotypes about the kind of people who enlist. In Turkey, you can't do that. In the same way as you can't judge a woman's politics in Iran or Saudi Arabia by whether or not she covers herself, military service says little about a Turkish man -- everyone, whether anarchist, Islamist, or nationalist, has to do it. Of course, the wealthy and well-connected can generally draw easier assignments, but knowing that your soft-spoken friend, your hipster coworker, your pal's little brother, or that nice guy at the cafe down the street could each be plucked from their lives and sent to some remote military post makes strangers' goodbyes all the more poignant.

1 comment:

abuzer said...

This reminded me a old (and impossibly corny) joke:

Person A: How many letters are there in the Turkish alphabet?

Person B: 29

Person A: No it is 28.

Person B: You are wrong, I am pretty sure that it is 29.

Person A: O simdi asker.