The Karagöz puppets set their sights on Lefkoşa – and Nicosia

English: Map of the districts of Cyprus, named...

Image via Wikipedia

When I last left you, I was down in the dumps, perhaps a poor choice of metaphors given the topic at the time – the fact that a set of Qu’rans had been dumped in the garbage bin and burned…somehow this incident about which I have no unique connection hit me hard – and in some ways catapulted me to the bottom of the pit of post-tenure depression, which I now understand to be a documented phenomenon (you can read about that here). The response from readers was both faith re-instilling and heart-warming, but it took a few days to sink in.

Perhaps to perk me up in those few days and perhaps to get me to the task of finding a new academic raison d’être, the karagöz puppet troupe have been in high gear – jumping on the new iPad (gift from M., thank you!) whenever they have a free moment and even when they don’t. I just had a sense that they were REALLY up to something these last few days…and this morning I found out what it was. You see, those puppets, well, they have a new destination in mind.

“Wake up, m’lady, wake up!” Esma the hippie puppet said, as she fanned refreshing morning air towards me with her fresh rose petal fan.  “You need to get up to hear THE BIG ANNOUNCEMENT.”

Half-sandy-eyed, I sat up in the dizzy-movement way of a non-morning person who moves to quickly for her non-caffeinated body – and soul – to handle.  “Announcement?” I croaked, “big announcement?”  Looking around for the dog and the husband, I noted that those two early birds were already up and out of the house on their morning exploration of the nearby pond – and all of its resident canine charms (i.e. squirrel scents).  With nobody around to overhear me talking to the imaginary puppets, I realized I could speak – err – croak – freely. “What’s this about an announcement?” I questioned , begrudgingly exiting the comforting heated flannel sheets.

Karagöz zipped in from the kitchen at warp speed upon hearing this question.  He was so excited that I couldn’t understand a word he was saying for once.  Before long, the chorus of dancing ladies pulled him back with a cane – akin to old-time theatres in which a performer had over sung a song or overstayed his welcome on stage. Replacing the renegade Karagöz with an extra-large glass of tea loaded with sugar to get my brain going, the chorus of dancing ladies made way for the two elder statesmen Hacivad Bey and Yehuda Rebbe and, of course, the matriarch of the puppet troupe, my fairy godmother puppet, Perihan Hanım.

“We have come to announce,” Perihan Hanım began, “that we know the solution for you.  We know you are burned out – maybe some would even say burnt to a crisp with all the work you have put in at your university.  And this, m’lady, this is when you need to start planning for the next phase – and, m’lady, the next phase includes a S-A-B-B-A-T-I-C-A-L.” With a flourish of her sparkly green wand, Perihan Hanım stepped back and made way for Hacivad Bey, who said “we have seen you looking around at options for that year of yours – that magical year when you will do a project for your own professional development – and we have seen that you are either going to propose to write an academic book as part of a local fellowship OR that you are going to apply to take the year and teach in another country.”  Clearing his throat, Hacivad Bey continued.  “We see that you have looked at the Fulbright program – and that you are considering Hungary, Sri Lanka and Cyprus – as all might be interested in a social worker with some expertise in your specific research area. We were sad to see that Turkey was not calling for a person with your skills, but we have a solution.  We, you see, we the puppet troupe in your head, have decided what the best choice is for you.”

Yehuda Rebbe stepped in at this moment.  “M’lady, you have been wondering if it is the right choice, Cyprus, as M. and the dog are not so sure on Hungary and as it looks like Sri Lanka isn’t looking for  your exact specifications, as much as M. would like to go there again, and we know that you have been a bit nervous about the idea of Cyprus as you would likely have to reside on the Greek side, but, m’lady, we puppets have decided that if you are true to your word about being interested in the joys and challenges of cross-cultural life – what better place to go than the lovely capital of Nicosia – which – you see – is actually my birthplace!

“Nicosia?” Hacivad Bey said with surpise, “well, surely my learned friend, you are referring to the wonderful metropolis of Lefkoşa!”

“No, my equally learned friend, I am referring to Nicosia.”






Absorbed by their debate – I realized that the central cross-cultural conflict that exists in Turkey – that set in motion in 1974 – was manifesting right here on my flannel bedcovers in the form of a Rabbi of Greek Cypriot origin (what are the odds?) and a learned Sufi of Turkish-Cypriot origin. Cyprus, an island off of the southern coast of Turkey, is half Turkish and half Greek – as well as the subject of much political strife.  What better place for cross-cultural consideration?

Waving her arm as if casting the debating friends aside, Perihan Hanım stepped in.  “It is decided,” she said with pomp and assuredness, “you are applying for a Fulbright Scholar position in Cyprus.  You will apply to teach on the Greek side and on the Turkish side.  You will learn all about the different brand of academic hell over there – and you will have fun doing it!  You will have to do some crossing of the infamous Green Line if they accept you, but what better place to continue your cross-cultural exploration of life than Cyprus?  We have been whispering into M’s ear at night for several nights -and he is ready to do this as well – for as much vacation time and leave time he can acquire of course – you will have to do some of this on your own.  As for the dog? Well, he doesn’t much like the idea of leaving home, but it will all work out in the end if it is meant to be.  He supports you in your efforts to do this.  Now, get up, and start writing letters of inquiry.  The future is yours if you will just try.”

Before I knew it, the iPad was in my hands, and I was composing notes to academics on both the Greek and the Turkish side of the island of Cyprus regarding letters of invitation – a requirement of the Fulbright Commission in that country.  So, dear readers, keep your fingers crossed that I may write to you, yavash yavash, from Nicosia a.k.a. Lefkoşa during academic year 2013-2014!

Typing away madly, I saw a flash of white out of the corner of my eye.  There they were, the whole puppet troupe, riding around on the dog, with a banner flowing out behind them, it read “Cyprus, or bust!”

Bebe Ruhi sadly questions Americans and Qu’ran burnings

On Islamophobia (click photo for source, credits)

When I last left you, I wrote about my early exposure to Islam.  Specifically, I wrote about my parents’ interest in Persian rugs, and the carpet-weaving community’s practice of always leaving at least one mistake in their work as “only Allah is perfect.”  You can read more about all of that here.  While this was hardly an exhaustive introduction to the tenets of Islam, I do feel luck to have been raised by parents (one agnostic, one Christian) that was more than open to learning about other cultures and religions – as imperfect as those efforts may at times be and as imperfect as any human can be in their efforts to be respectful of, sensitive to and aware of different cultures and religions.

Efforts to open my mind continued in my high school – and in fact my first exposure to the idea of feminism was through the writing of Fatima Mernissi, who wrote about Islamic feminism (on how Islam and veiling in particular allow women to be treated as respected equals, more on this another time).  While in college, I lived as a non-Jewish person in my University’s residential Hillel House, where I learned about Judaism and keeping kosher.  Flung heart-first into the experience of religious intolerance, I experienced our Hillel House’s post-traumatic stress after members of the Aryan Nation senselessly broke into that house on a school break – intentionally defiling the house with feces, urine, spray-paint and meat on the dairy dishes.  It was confusing and heartbreaking – why would someone do this?  I wrestled with this question on gut and mind levels for a long time.  Even though I have answers, the whole thing still makes my stomach hurt.

Later, while practicing as a social worker in New York City, I worked with many Muslim immigrants, mostly from Yemen and various parts of Africa.  Tasked with investigating child abuse and/or neglect, my cross-cultural thinking was put to the test.  I often wrestled with the question “if it is right in one culture, should that be able to stand in a second culture of residence – and vice versa.”  While I disagreed in a very personal way with some of the ways the tenets of Islam were implemented in some of the families I worked with when it came to disciplining adolescents walking the cross-cultural tightrope of their new culture and their family culture, I did my best to be fair in my decision-making and to respect all I worked with to the best of my ability.

It is, perhaps, these facts of my upbringing as well as the fact of being married to a person from a Muslim majority country and the ways he is sometimes misunderstood or stereotyped that lead me to feel so upset about the most recent Qu’ran burnings in Afghanistan by U.S. armed forces and the reactions of some of those around me.  It is always painful to me, cringe-worthy even, when friends or family in Turkey work to make sure that I understand they do not associate themselves with the worst that call themselves Muslim, much as I distance myself from those soldiers that decided to burn religious books in a garbage purge.

It may sound cliché, but my extreme disappointment and upset over this incident so far away renews my commitment to making some kind of a difference in the lives of my students – a few of whom I overheard last night joking about this incident in Afghanistan.  My heart sank, my anger surged, and I said nothing.  Normally, I am fairly “out there” but I am trying to be more mindful of and attentive to the power of my role as a professor and the need to ask calm questions to encourage them softly to look at their statements and views in a way that might bring some learning and transformation.

Today, I am just left with Bebe Ruhi, the ever-questioning Karagoz puppet in my mind, who has tears running down his cheeks, and rocks back and forth, asking these questions over and over:

How can these kind and loving students who are training to be social workers be so mean in their comments? 

How can you get them over this hump of ignorance?

How could these American soldiers be so disrespectful?

I know people are ignorant and in pain about 9/11 and whatever they are experiencing on the ground, but how could they be so stupid and inflammatory?

I know soldiers get all worked up with what they are expected by their governments to do – and sometimes experience moral conflicts, but why does this keep happening?

How does this type of behavior square with the alleged religious tolerance the United States supposedly represents?

What is wrong with Newt Gingrich, that bombastic idiot, for questioning President Obama’s decision to apologize for this? What on earth is wrong with an apology?

M’lady, can you explain Americans to me?

None of these are new questions or particularly unique ones.  Many of them have many documented answers already.  Today, I am feeling down, and I just wish these questions would be less present in life as they are just so painful sometimes.  Must be a blue day.

The oppositional Q, or, “only Allah is perfect”

My very own "oppositional Q" in an embroidery sampler, made when I was 8 years old, in 1977

It was midnight, I couldn’t sleep, and cleaning out my closet seemed like a very good idea for what to do with myself. At the back of the closet, I found a set of framed photos, silk-screened prints and paintings that had never made it onto the walls of our home – and I also found an alphabet-themed sewing sampler, completed by me at the age of eight.

Picking it up and dusting it off with a soft cloth, I marveled at the different colors of each of the letters of the alphabet – brought to life through embroidery floss across a rainbow spectrum.

I remember that autumn day, after an especially nice after school snack on the warm stones of the back steps with my Mum. I had a hot mug of milky tea in hand as she pulled out a new sampler from a crinkly blue and white Aegean-colored paper bag from Woolworth’s. “It’s a sewing sampler pattern, Liz, it’s an alphabet! Perhaps we can practice your vocabulary words while you sew one letter per day, let’s get started today!”

I don’t recall my reaction, but there I was, minutes later, sitting in the bright yellow flowered chair, freshly-pressed sampler cloth clicked into the embroidery hoop, needle at the ready.

All of this came flooding back to me, now a 43 year-old adult in a mango-colored room in the middle of the night, just 12 miles away from my childhood home. Wrapping a blanket around my shoulders in the chilly New England winter, I plopped down into a comfy chair and stared at this window to my childhood. I began to remember sewing one letter per day, while my Mum quizzed me on vocabulary words starting with that very same letter. While I later bombed my standardized math tests, I aced the vocabulary one. I also remembered her reading to me from Vladimir Nabokov‘s Speak, Memory! in which Nabokov relates with great zest his childhood conversations with his mother about how the colors of the alphabet on his wooden blocks were just, well, all wrong. We read that section of the book over and over again, debating the colors of the alphabet – before choosing the color of the embroidery floss to be used on the next letter in the sampler, the next day.

Noticing that my cold toes were calling me with ping-y chills, I curled my legs underneath me on the pillowy chair, and as I shifted my weight, all of a sudden I saw it, the letter Q. There it was, that letter Q, sewn in a burgundy to coral spectrum-toned embroidery floss, perhaps a queenly-choice for color? I can’t remember. But more important than the color, was the shape of the Q itself, plastered to muslin cloth in an eternal unhappy embrace. The shape of the cross-stitches does not belie the grumpiness and anger and resentment that must have coursed through me that day. Short crosses, long crosses, out of the line crosses. I was clearly not a happy camper when that Q was stitched.

Looking at that oppositional Q, I began to remember the arguments that led to my begrudging give-in to sitting and sewing that preceded the alphabet discussions ranging from Wordly Wise vocabulary quiz-books to Nabokov. In retrospect, I am sure Mum was trying to engage me by “starting where I was at,” given that my love of words, etymology and collecting alphabet books had already manifested as a young child. Also, this was also a very l-a-d-y-l-i-k-e way to spend one’s time, something to be encouraged.

Come to think of it, the "S" looks pretty oppositional and surly as well

So, there it sits, the Q that symbolizes the height of my childhood protests against the way things must be – and against the attainment of proper behavior, maintained honor and overall ladylikeness (Kenne, the Karagoz Puppet who is the Queen of Manners and Maintenance of Ladylike Behavior sniffs her disapproval at this moment).

From now on, I decided in that midnight moment, I am going to call it “The Oppositional Q Sampler.” It was that very Q that ended my potential to be a fabulous seamstress. And it all ended through what I had learned from my Father, the important life lesson that nobody is perfect – or as they saying goes amongst carpet weavers - “only Allah is perfect.”

But let me start before the moment The Oppositional Q was born and go back to my earlier childhood in New England – not the expected place where a few of the more informal tenets of Islam might be taught during the 1970s. Many Saturday nights were spent sitting by the old stone fireplace with my family, the glowing coals of a perfect fire heating the tips of my toes as the deep blue dusk crept across the windows and up onto the roof in wintertime. We spent so much time sitting in that space, atop one of my parents’ prized Persian carpets.

“We bought this carpet for you two,” my Father would say, looking at me and my sister, “because it has patterns to stimulate your imagination.” Leaning back in his chair to watch us play, curls of blue-grey cigar smoke curling into S-shapes before him, he might gesture over to the other side of the living room to the other carpet, saying “and that one, that one is a renegade carpet that we purchased for you as well – as it is covered in humans and animals in a Persian hunting scene – which is apparently unusual, to show life forms when, after all, only Allah is perfect.”

“Only Allah is perfect.” I grew up hearing this phrase from my Father, so it was a familiar one by that point. Now, what is odd about this is the fact that my Father is not a Muslim, nor has he ever lived in or even visited a Muslim country, to my knowledge. I doubt that my Father even knew much about Islam before I met M. and decided to become betrothed to the tall man from Turkey and we all got a little bit more interested in Turkey, the Middle East and Islam. Let me tell you that my Father is an old-school New England Yankee, with frugal Unitarian roots, but somehow, he and my Mum became enthralled with Persian carpets.

And it was in the study of Persian carpets (as everything in my parents’ life appeared to involve a passion for learning and studying) that my Father learned the phrase “only Allah is perfect.” And it stuck in what I consider to be the most pure and true of ideal cross-cultural moments that move on to last a lifetime. Apparently, as I have learned from my Father in later years, and later confirmed with a rug salesman during a Turkish translation that M. facilitated, all practicing Muslim rug-makers leave a purposeful imperfection in their artistry when weaving carpets. Presumably an effort to rein in the potential for hubris. Usually, my Father would restate this phrase when something had gone wrong – and I think it was a brilliant way to try to instill a very good message to what must have been a very tense young girl.

So, I can remember the phrase being issued quietly from the olive-green silk chair where Dad smoked cigars (which had to be when I was very small as both the chair and the cigars were none too long for the world based on our protest). I remember him intoning this phrase when I was battling a perfectionist moment in house-of-cards building and when I failed to ace my Mother-provided daily vocabulary quiz or struggled with a math problem. Mum had a passion for etymology that I have inherited, and I think that maybe she didn’t quite embrace the “only Allah is perfect” vibe as much as my much calmer Father did. She was a good Episcopalian after all. ;)

Example of the kind of embroidery sampler my Granny would have made while growing up in rural Spain - and it would have been per-fect.

The phrase was bandied about a lot, as I recall. We were a very imperfect family (and which family is not). The use of this phrase had its limits, though, when it came to my mother. In order to explain this, I have to take you into back into the realm of embroidery. You see, my Granny, a lady of a different era than we might be able to imagine today as coming from our lifetime, had grown up in southern Spain, in the town of Aguilas by the sea.

Raised by British nannies in a cool, dark stone house that protected her fair skin from the ravages of the sun, she grew up in the shade of the home’s inner courtyard, making lace and embroidering her trousseau to the sounds of the Mediterranean across the street. Her only schooling outside of the home consisted of a 6-month stint at a girl’s finishing school in Liverpool, England.

When I first went to this house in Aguilas in the year 2000, I stood in that courtyard and closed my eyes, listening to the progeny of my Granny’s waves still just on the other side of the courtyard wall, almost 100 years later. I kept expecting to see some errant embroidery, left behind on the garden wall, or on a marble side table.

This is a happy girl engaging in some after-school embroidery. This is NOT me as a young lady.

Granny, the ultimate lady in every respect, was perfection when it came to sewing, lace-making or embroidery – and she passed this on, perhaps one degree less, to my own Mum. And it was, therefore, a necessity that I too should engage in this activity. The problem was, as I realize now, I hated it. Hated. It. And the other problem was, both my mother and my Granny, they didn’t care that I hated it. Each day after school (or after swimming, in the summer months), they would sit me down for sewing hour.

I would rather have been anywhere else – preferably reading, as I recall, up in the tall hemlock tree in back of the house – away from everything and able to spin magical tales in my mind after finishing book after book. When I was done with the books, I would drop them to the hemlock-needle-padded floor below before climbing down again. But there I stayed, embroidering, the good girl, boiling inside with resentment and sharp anger like the accidental pricks of pins into my finger tips as I held my embroidery loop. I only mastered the cross-stitch – which sewing enthusiasts will tell you, is the bottom of the barrel.

And this brings us back to that oppositional Q and the big secret of the way the sampler was finished. I don’t recall exactly why I was so out of sorts on the day the Q was being sewn, but I do recall my Mum’s increasing frustration with me. Perhaps it was a bad day for both of us, lord knows, there were a lot of tough days while growing up. After finishing the Q, I turned to my mother, and likely spat out the words – “there, it’s done. Can I read now?”

What I recall are her protestations at the messiness of the Q and her request that I cut out the stitches to fix it in a more proper manner. As if my soul was a firehose ready to pressure-push out my feelings, I turned to my Mum with what can only be described as a “wicked pissed” look, in New England parlance, and gave this retort “Only Allah is perfect, Mum.”

I think my Mum gave up on her efforts to get me to embroider that day, some might say, her efforts to fit a square peg (me) into a round hole (ladylike behavior). The horrible truth is, she finished most of the rest of the sampler for me and we never discussed it again. She had it framed and I have dutifully carried it with me from home to home for the rest of my life, never putting it on my wall. And there it sits, in my closet, the oppositional Q, reminding me now, in my mid-life challenge time, “only Allah is perfect.” I am sure there is a lesson to be found there whenever I need one.