It was 7:10 in the morning when I returned to my room from a nice and warm shower. I noticed that I had just received a missed call. It must be the driver, I thought. But then I thought he said yesterday that he would pick me up at 7:40. I was going to have a minor procedure at a clinic in another town. The clinic provided pick and drop service.
I called back right way. “Hello, Muhammad! I am here,” an ultra-masculine voice in a seemingly thick Arabic accent on the other end spoke.
“Hi, Thank you, but I thought you were going to pick me up at 7:40. But it is ok. Please give me five minutes to put some clothes on. I will be there shortly.” I spoke at once without giving him a chance to say something back.
“Ok, no problem. Take your time,” he sounded a bit frustrated, or maybe it was how I felt because it is in my nature to be overly apologetic even when I don’t have to be. Anyways, I put on clothes and my overcoat and went out.
“Good morning,” I smiled as I got in the car. He did not look at me and I don’t remember what he said in response. I apologized once again but told him that we had agreed on 7:40 last night. “It was not me who called you last night but someone else from the clinic,” he said.
“Oh! Ok. I did not know that. I am sorry for the misunderstanding.” At that moment, I also realized why this man sounded different on the phone from the one the night before.
As the car moved, I settled in my seat in the back. The apologetic self in me again felt it might be disrespectful to sit in the back because, in Pakistan, where I am from, it is culturally rude to sit in the back of the car when a stranger drives. Normally, only government dignitaries with exception of course, who treat their drivers as servants tend to sit in the back.
Then I thought it is ok. In this culture, people don’t care. A little while later, I asked him where he was from. I regretted the question right away because I don’t like it when a stranger asks me the same rather soon in a conversation.
He said he is from Turkey and had come to the States some twenty years ago. When I heard “Turkey,” I wanted to talk to him more because there is something about Turkey that fascinates me.
I don’t know exactly what it is but I am enthralled when I meet Turks. I had Turkish classmates in Government College University Lahore, Pakistan, twelve years ago. I had come from a small city in Balochistan to Punjab’s metropolis Lahore. Meeting them there and talking to them in English was my first experience with foreigners.
These guys seemed wealthy as one could tell from their clothes and lifestyle in Lahore. I could hardly afford a meal in the cafeteria while they used to eat wings at KFC and other fancy places. They said they were Muslims and yet they had girlfriends back in Turkey. This did not make sense to me but I was enthused.
For someone like me who had grown up in a traditional household in a small village, all this was fascinating. Having a girlfriend, talking about her openly and showing her pictures to friends was just mind-boggling. I could not believe how something like this was possible in a Muslim country.
But, when Zeynep, my 6o-year old driver said, he was from Turkey, I had a different thing in mind about his country to share with him and possibly know his views. Twelve years later, my fascination about Turkey was not about how can a Muslim man in an Islamic country have a girlfriend, but about something serious —the oppression of Kurds.
I have been reading a book Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence by Aliza Marcus on the Kurdish struggle in Turkey and wanted to know his thoughts on the whole situation of Kurds and the Turkish government.
The book details the history of Kurdish nationalism and oppression against it by the Turkish governments for decades. Successive Turkish governments imposed Turkish nationalism on Kurds. They changed the names of Kurdish villages, banned Kurdish language in TV channels and incarcerated Kurdish activists among committing other extreme forms of injustices.
The history of the struggle is long and I don’t have time to give the details here, but long story short Turkey’s policy of oppression forced some Kurdish groups to pick up guns against the State. The Kurdish Workers’ Party or the PKK under Abdullah Ocalan declared war on the Turkish State in the 1980s.
In the ensuing violence, at least 40,000 people died on both sides. The PKK insurgents killed thousands of soldiers and many pro-government Kurdish.
So I asked Zeynep what he thought about Kurds. His response was rather shocking. He said he wants to kill them and he did kill them when he was in the military.
He said Kurds are worse than animals. They killed young soldiers who had nothing to do with the State’s policy. These soldiers were just doing their job. They were innocent. He claimed.
We went on and on for at least two hours, as he dropped me back at my apartment. I said to him I understand that the killing of innocent soldiers is wrong and tragic but I asked what did you expect form Kurds when the Turkish government had been oppressing them for decades.
As I challenged him with tough questions, he softened his position and yet oscillated back to his nationalist and cultural belief at the same time. He was angry although his anger had slightly waned.
As he was driving and in moments of silence, I thought about Zeynep’s beliefs. I wondered what it is that prevents members of a majority group from seeing the pain and suffering of the marginalized and suppressed from minority groups.
One problem that post-colonial theorists such as Gayatri Spivak say is that the privileged groups read their subjectivity into the lives of the oppressed groups. It is the privileged groups who construct meanings or knowledges around identity, security and rights in society.
The oppressed are silenced and ignored in a systematic manner. In Pakistan, for instance, most people from the Punjabi ethnic group, although the poor among them are the victims of the system themselves, have similar attitudes to the suffering of the Baloch and Pashtuns. According to them, Pakistan is one and the same for all Pakistanis.
They believe the problem is not with the system but rather with those who point fingers at it. Their privilege, even if is just a privilege of living in safety and dignity, hinders them from seeing the pain of those who don’t have the same rights. That is because the social and political world is constructed by those in power in such a manner that dismisses the alternative conceptions of justice by the powerless and the voiceless.
I ended my conversation with Zeynep on a pleasant note. I don’t know how much I changed his views on the issue but I have been thinking about this for weeks. Today I found some time to write a few lines about it. I will share more thoughts on this topic some other day.
PS: Zeynep is a fictional name for privacy purpose.