Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Turkish Black Face: A Culturally-Grounded Perspective

Rima Gungor is a junior at North Central College. She is the co-captain of the Model United Nations team there and just won the award for Outstanding Delegate in her committee at National Model United Nations in New York City this past week.

Our Internet world was afire last Wednesday. The object of debate was a Youtube posting of a commentary made by a Turkish pundit on the Turkish Channel Flash TV. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen the left and the right agree in the last year. In fact, one of my favorite blogs, Dr. Caliendo’s “This Week in Race” linked to one of the most conservative blogs, “Atlas Shrugs,” and one of the most liberal blogs, “The Young Turks,” in the same entry.

Unfortunately, because no translation was immediately available, the intent was interpreted by all as shocking, possibly mocking, racist and insensitive to the history of slavery in the US. But the actual message had been, as one Turkish blogger put it, “Lost in Translation.” There are three reasons why Turks would never insult Obama in that fashion:
  1. It does not have the same history, thus concept of racism, as we have it in the U.S. “Blackface” does not have the same connotation in Turkey as it does here. The Turkish people are a mix of many different ethnical/racial groups.
  2. President Obama is the son of a Muslim. As such he is thought to be part of the Umma, and as Malcolm X found after his pilgrimage to Mecca, in the Umma, all interact as equals.
  3. Hospitality is one of the most important Turkish values. To insult a guest, whoever they may be and wherever they may come from, is beyond the pale.
The famous Kurdish/Turkish author Yasar Kemal puts it best. In an interview about his friend, the African-American author James Baldwin he said, “As far as I was concerned, Baldwin was not Black” “for there are no Blacks in Turkey in that sense. We don’t have the category. There are only people with darker skins.” Baldwin spent many years off and on in Turkey during the 1960’s. It functioned as his refuge from the oppressive racism and unequal treatment of Blacks in the U.S. Kemal says further, “Baldwin used to say: Yasar, I feel free in Turkey.”

How can that be possible in a nation whose predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, had been a center of slavery for centuries? The Empire imported an estimated 10,000 slaves per year, except during raids or after winning wars when the numbers could go as high as 50,000, from all over the reaches of the empire and beyond: the Balkans, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, Russia, Greece, the Middle East, and Africa. They included every age, color, race, ethnic background, economic class, educational and skill level imaginable. Because of the various skills they had, they were given positions that ranged from advisors (to the rulers), artists, scientists (astronomers, alchemists), architects, metal workers, eunuchs, doctors, interpreters, military personnel and commanders, teachers, scribes, and also farmers, maids, cooks, tailors, shoemakers, grooms etc. It was not the color that mattered, but the skill that determined how “free” and powerful a slave could become.

Because Islam also regulated the ownership of slaves, both slave and master had duties and responsibilities, and manumission was urged upon the owners of slaves. None were considered of an inferior origin based on race or ethnicity. Over the centuries Islamic scholars debated various interpretations of the Quranic statements regarding slavery, the results of which were various degrees of freedom for slaves and regulations of purchase. For instance, it was determined that slaves could not be purchased from outside the Empire, people of the Islamic faith could not be slaves so they were freed, then people of the “Book” (all three monotheistic religions), then families, then slaves in general, until finally, between internal pressure from religious leaders and external pressure from foreign nations, slavery was abolished in 1857. Not all slaves were freed immediately, and not all were sent back to their country of origin or wanted to leave. It took some regions of the empire longer to comply with the law. Some were given land with which to begin a new life. Some stayed where they had been working, worked in the business and rose through the ranks. Most intermarried with the local population; they had assimilated into the population and were simply all Turks. The freedmen were not segregated out and discriminated against in the same manner as in America, and they had the same rights as everyone else did. That is not to say that many were not treated brutally. This was not, however, a result of prejudice against their race or nationality but rather an abuse of power.

In recent years many Turks have begun to research their roots beyond their Turkishness. Among these are the approximately 2,000,000 Turks of African descent who have founded an association to help them research their history and roots, and connect to Africa. This development has not changed anything for them in Turkish society. They are Turks, with all the associated rights, but as elements of their history and culture emerge, these are recognized.

If the commentary was unrelated to racism as we know it, why the “blackface”? It’s meant to emphasize a Turkish proverb that explains that if a Turk asks someone for something it embarrasses him deeply turning his face darker (like blushing) and if the person he asks this of does not give it his or her face will turn twice as dark, out of deep shame: “Isteyenin bir yüzü kara, vermeyenin iki yüzü.” Shame and pride are an integral part of the Turkish culture. The Turks believe that the face darkens when a person feels extreme shame.

Known for his provocative commentary, Gokhan Taskin thanks President Obama for his visit, proceeds to explain the reason for the commentary and darkened face, and makes requests that he feels Turkish leaders are too embarrassed to do. Click here or see the embedded video below to see the full translation of the commentary.

We Americans often tend to view the world from our own sometimes narrow perspective. We interpret events according to our history and experiences without realizing that the world does not have those same experiences, and views things from an entirely different viewpoint. We exhibit the same behavior at home. We house many cultures, races, religions, and political perspectives in our diverse nation, and often do not honor or allow them the freedom and space of expression, understanding, and respect that we require for ourselves, directing towards them instead treatment unbecoming to the most democratic nation in the world.

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