Of Atatürk, Obama and navigating U.S. politics as a couple post 9-11


Ataturk and Obama in tapestry format, taken by me in the Gaziantep, Turkey bedestan last summer

So, having spent a great deal of time remembering how I “dreamed of a burqini” my first summer in Turkey while obsessing over my own body image challenges, cross-cultural marriage is, of course, about a lot more than this.  As a professor of social policy, I would be remiss not to mention something about how the political becomes personal in my Turkish-American marital life.  So, let me take you to Gaziantep, Turkey, where M. and I visited last year, in order to introduce the topic of the day – navigating U.S. politics as one Turkish-American couple.  While Gaziantep is a left-wing city in the southern-central part of Turkey near the Syrian border, it is most famous for the regions copper mines and pistachios – not to mention the famous imam çağdaş lokantasi, I will leave talk of the culinary wonders of this place for another time.

Rising early to avoid as much of the intense heat of southern Turkey as possible, we ambled through Gaziantep’s lovely bedestan, admiring old copper bowls, antique ceramics, dusty kilim rugs and a range of thick, silk fabrics.  Catching the headlines from the International Herald Tribune, I read with interest that President Obama was once-again stumping on the benefits of the stimulus package and what was dubbed “the recovery summer.”  Talk of the U.S. faded in an out with talk of current Turkish politics…and I reflected on how easy it felt, to be here in Turkey, away from the U.S., not worrying about Sarah Palin, et alia.  M., on the other hand, would spend much of the morning pouring over all of the newspapers – as he does not buy one – he buys all of them – the left wing one, the centrist one, the right wing one, etc., in order to get the full picture.  His reading is often punctuated by phrases of frustration, and calling me over to explain to me the latest political upset, or concern he has with something that has gone on.  While he loves visiting Turkey, I am sure he would not say it is easy to be here in Turkey, away from the U.S., not worrying about Sarah Palin, et alia.

Child with old copper bowl in Gaziantep - thanks to babazar's re-use photostream af Flikr

Navigating politics in cross-cultural relationships can take the form of challenges in the areas of religion, cultural practices, approaches to life, table manners or what to wear – but it can also relate to actual politics and the ways that each member of the relationship experiences the current goings-on.  Perhaps I am thinking about this as the anniversary of 9-11 is coming up, and in many ways, it is the aftermath of 9-11 that has shaped the political realities in which M. and I live here in the States and in Turkey. I am going to address the general socio-political realities of living in the U.S. as a person from a Middle Eastern country AND current Presidential politics as they both impact our lives.

So, on living in the socio-political environment in the present-day U.S. Although M. is by no means a practicing Muslim and often jokes that I know more about Islam than he does, it is often assumed he is Muslim, given his Turkish nationality.  Of course, his nüfus card (Turkish national identity card) states that he is a Sun’ni Muslim as are the majority of Turks, but this is another story.  As I have written about here in months past, assumptions stemming from thinking can sometimes be a bit of a downer and/or eye-opener for me.  Luckily, we don’t have to deal with TOO much ethnic profiling post 9-11, unlike many, many others.  M. does not appear (to me or many others) to “look Muslim.”  He has short hair, no beard,  tattoos and usually wears very informal, non-religious-looking clothes (if you ask me).  While he has been stopped and searched on several occasions in the most liberal of places here in the Boston area, we have not had to deal with any big problems.   Most troubling, perhaps, was the assertion that “voting is only for citizens” that we heard from staff at our local fire station where we went to change our voter registration after moving.  They said this upon hearing M.’s heavy accent.  To my great delight (but not M.’s), the woman who took our complaint in city hall was in full hijab (modest Islamic dress in this case including a veil around her hair).  As 9-11 approaches this Sunday, I am hopeful that M. will not be bothered – and indeed that nobody will.  I hope that the early stupidities leading to, for example, the horrible beatings of Sikhs in Texas, for example, will not be repeated in some sort of remembrance-induced patriotic zealotry.

Moving on to the navigation of presidential politics in present-day U.S., let me preface all of this by saying that M. is a better citizen than I – following every single tiny local election, making sure to get out an meet every single candidate in person to make sure he knows who he is voting for and why.  He takes part in all of this with pride and a sense of commitment that is inspiring to me.  Perhaps it is for this reason that when I am faced with others’ ignorant assumptions of his non-citizenship, or the idea that he married me to become a citizen (which is not the case, he has been a citizen for years) that it hurts so much.

Always interested in politics – and more importantly true participation in the political process as a normal, everyday citizen, M. seems to me to be reacting against the fact that this was less possible in Turkey. Let me say here that Turkey is by no means a dictatorship (another stupid question I get a lot, along with “when will the Arab spring reach Turkey?” though it is not an Arab state), although I know that there are worries in the Turkish press and elsewhere that Prime Minister Erdoğan sometimes appears to be heading in this direction (click here for The New York Time’s carefully worded analysis on this matter).  In any case, it is clear that M. relishes the possibility of being truly involved and still speaks with pride about lobbying a state Congressman in person via a Move On visit recently.

These days, however, M. and I are having an increasing number of conversations about President Obama.  In the last election, we supported him fully with our time and our money spent to get him to the White House.  As a social worker with some community organizing experience, I was thrilled to see him take his thoughtful approach to the process of change through a long campaign to victory.  I still believe in him and very much admire his principles – although I am deeply saddened on two fronts – his stance on the Patriot Act and his recent seemingly anti-environmentalist moves. And I really don’t know what to do about this.  My left wing friends will say that I am way behind the curve, that they ditched Obama a long time ago, but somehow, I have not been able to let go.  While I consider many issues beyond my personal realities when voting, I am feeling somewhat swayed this year, given the Patriot Act re-up.

M., however, has completely moved away from supporting President Obama – hurt in large part by his signature on the renewal of the Patriot Act earlier this year which has major implications for civil liberties.  Let me reiterate, M. is not a practicing Muslim, is not a “terrorist” and does not sympathize with “terrorists” it is more the principle of the matter.  Often fearful that he will be targeted as a result of his nation of birth, M. worries when he receives unsolicited mail from Muslim organizations or gets stopped and searched in the airport.  So, for our household, the decisions we face with respect to the upcoming Presidential elections – and the debates M. and I will have about who we will each vote for -will relate to this issue first and foremost.  Most of all, he is dismayed when people react to his statement that he will not vote for President Obama again by asking “will you vote for Palin (or now Perry or Bachman, etc.)?”

When we first met, M. took great pains to explain to me about the origins of modern Turkey – and specifically the reforms put in place by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.  He still often explains to people new to Turkey about the fact that Turkish women’s suffrage was granted before that of Switzerland, for example.  He also speaks with a respectful criticism – saying that while many reforms propelled Turkey forward in many positive ways – the means taken in the early years of the modern Turkish state were somewhat dictatorial at times. While the at-times over-the-top focus on Turkishness and national pride appears to me to have led Turkey into trouble, to say the least, respect for Mustafa Kemal is palpable.  This is how I felt about President Obama before and at his election – palpably proud, deeply moved.  Therefore, when we visited Gaziantep last year, I was not at all surprised to see the tapestry version of President Obama secured in a position of honor, below Mustafa Kemal, surrounded by garlands of dried kabak and biber (squash and peppers).  “Obama!” cried the shopkeeper as he heard my English, “Atatürk  and Obama yes!”

Now, in September of 2011, as thoughts about the Patriot Act, whether M. will be searched this weekend during our travels, and sadness over 9-11 swirl around my head, I cannot help but wonder whether one year later, President Obama still occupies the same position of honor in the Gaziantep bedestan – or for that matter, whether he will win my vote.

Entrance to Gaziantep's bedestan

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11 Responses to Of Atatürk, Obama and navigating U.S. politics as a couple post 9-11

  1. Alan says:

    thoughtful piece Liz, I’d love to engage you and M on the politics of Obama but this is not the place. Suffice to say that J and I looked at the team he had around him pre-inauguration and knew damn well he was no reformer – our US family who supported him were upset at our stance at the time but I know they feel totally betrayed by him now. If US was not such a powerful and dangerous player on the world stage it wouldn’t matter except to US citizens. But . . .
    I’d give you my other blog but you might never speak to me again 😀

  2. Jack Scott says:

    There’s always a sense that America’s president is also our president as whatever the US does affects the rest of us.so profoundly. I had high hopes of a complete shift in direction but, after early promise, this doesn’t seem to have materialised. In part I think electoral system really holds back effective administration. Presidents only have a narrow window of, say, two years before they are distracted by the re-election process. Everything else gets put on the back burner. In a way it’s not Obama’s fault. He did enter office during the worse recession since the Great Depression. As Clinton famously remarked ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ I’ll resist the temptation to comment on Erdogan. I’d probably be arrested.

  3. Liz Cameron says:

    Hi Jack,

    Thanks for the response. I think the reality of the Obama situation is really starting to kick in for me – and my hopes and dreams created some sort of myopia around, for example, some of the known issues with the US presidency that you suggest (the 2 year window, the electoral system issues). I have felt that regardless of his philosophy of Presidential approaches, for example, the deck has been stacked against him so thoroughly…but I also do agree with Alan in many ways around his cabinet, true ability (intent, not sure) for reform. All in all, feeling down about it. Can’t comment on Erdogan for similar reasons, but have been very observant of in-person and newspaper commentary around concerns about his tenure in power in either role…and the implications therein. For example, a friend of ours fears the onset of an Iranian-style movement with sharia law – I have always felt this was an over-worry…time will tell.

  4. Liz Cameron says:

    Thanks, Alan. I agree with your assessment here, and recall myself caught up in the bubble of hope. It is really just dawning on me now (to which I apply the Homer Simpson cartoon character’s famous verbalization “duh”). I agree on the US as a powerful and dangerous player on the world stage – in ways that have always and still and probably always will trouble me deeply. Both M. and I are now eager to see your other blog – feel to send it along. In the meantime, we look forward to a fun, roiling debate over Obama et alia with you all in the future!

  5. omentide says:

    As someone desperately trying to get her head around the socio/political climate in Turkey, I find this really interesting., Sadly my language skills onlyu permit me to read one daily Turkish newspaper a week.

  6. Liz Cameron says:

    There’s a lot to figure out, isn’t there! 🙂 I would recommend that you look online at the English-language dailies out there – may be harder to get them in Selcuk unless it is high tourist season? Today’s Zaman, Hurriyet Daily News (formerly Turkish Daily News) and one other I have forgotten the name of. Stephen Kinzer’s book (Crescent and Star, Ithink?) helped me a lot when I was first learning about the politics of the place – an accessible book that provides an historical foundation you will need. The NYT bit I linked to in this post mirrors what I heard a lot of from the Istanbullus in my life…thanks for your comment and I look forward to keeping up with you on pul biber with everything!

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