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I live in Istanbul and in many ways I really love this place. Two months ago, I was really ashamed of this city and found myself apologizing to others because of how we were treated on the streets. A few American friends were visiting the city and we were able to meet up and have a cup of coffee after I finished work. Walking down Istiklal to one of my trusty cafes I was victim to more harassment that I have ever experienced within a five minute time frame in Istanbul. At 7pm on a Monday night, men were following us, calling out, groups trying to surround us and dominate us. We were four foreign women. Harasser after harasser we were followed and shouted at consistently throughout our entire walk. I was mortified.
I have walked down Istiklal with three other foreign women before and have never received some much negative and aggressive attention. It was because my friends Asian-American, whose parents were from China. It was racist harassment by multiple men, multiple groups, and my friends and I were targets because we were different. Harassment isn’t just sexual. It can be racist and it can be just as hurtful and threatening. We should find ways to open the dialogue about this too.
Once we were walking home and it was dark and late. We weren’t wearing anything provocative, not that it should matter. There was a man waiting for the bus or whatever, and when we passed by he started to come towards us and shout. He asked us if we were Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or whatever; we didn’t respond, but just acted as if we didn’t speak Turkish. Then he said “$1oo,” and touched my friend to get our attention.
That’s when I told him to keep going on his way in Turkish, and he got scared and left us alone.
Let me start by telling the truth: I love Turkey. Istanbul has been my home for over two years now. I studied hard to learn Turkish and now know it at an advanced level. I have generally been treated with respect, if not with a special kindness reserved for guests, by the thousands of people from Turkey whom I have met. Yet another, smaller truth – a sadder one that I don’t like to think about – is that I had never been called a nigger before I came to Turkey.
This may come as a surprise to those who read the article “American Minority Students Defy ‘Typical American’ clichés in Turkey,” published in the Hürriyet Daily News on March 26, 2011. The author of the article states: “[L]ack of physical diversity [in Turkey] results in Turks greeting American racial and ethnic minorities with curiosity instead of contempt, marking a stark difference in how the students are treated as minorities in their own country.”
I do not entirely discount this view. But through my own experiences and those of others, I know that there are other, less PR-friendly stories to being a foreigner of dark complexion living in Turkey.
The most recent incident happened in Gümüşsuyu, a well-to-do neighborhood just off of Taksim Square in central Istanbul. I was walking and texting at the same time when I noticed a large group of adolescent boys approaching from the other direction. I remember the familiar thought passing through a corner of my mind that there could be trouble – a feeling that had started to come to me unheeded after walking the streets of Istanbul for two years. I tensed up but kept walking, my eyes focused on my cell phone.
I was right to be worried. “Zenci!” (pronounced zen-jee) one of the group yelled, followed by the laughter of some of the other boys in his group. I was so shocked I stopped walking. The way he shouted that word at the top of his lungs in the middle of the street, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, hit me with the force of a physical blow.
Without thinking, I turned to him as he was walking away. I lifted my sunglasses and for a brief moment caught his glance as I, too, started to yell, in a Turkish mangled by emotion. “Seni anlamadığımı mı sanıyorsun? Kimsin sen? Gerizekali! Rezil!” (“You think that I don’t understand you? Who are you? Idiot! Scoundrel!”) As I yelled the group kept walking, and some of them mimicked me. But for the few seconds that I caught his glance and bore down on him with my fury, I could see surprise, apprehension, and maybe even the slightest bit of (albeit quickly concealed) shame.
They kept walking, and I continued on my way in the opposite direction, shaking. I was just thinking that what I had done, yelling in the middle of the street, would perhaps be considered “ayıp” or “shameful” in the eyes of some Turks, when a well dressed, middle aged man got out of his parked car and asked me in fluent English, “Why were you
screaming?” “He called me ‘zenci’ and thought I wouldn’t understand” I replied. “Oh” the man said, with a look that made it clear he thought that I had overreacted, that I had been silly or stupid to react at all.
It would be wrong to say that every person from Turkey who uses the word “zenci” does so with the meaning of “nigger.” I am by no means an expert on Turkish and
have not done academic research on the term. As far as I can tell, many people use it innocently, with the same intended meaning as the neutral and perhaps politically
correct term “siyahi,” or “black person.”
At the same time, however, it is clear when the word “zenci” is being used as a term of ridicule or degradation towards a person with a dark complexion. Just to mention one instance, I witnessed some Turkish boys yell “zenci” tauntingly at black African men as they walked down the bustling pedestrian thoroughfare, Istiklal Street . (Racism, like street harassment, is sex-blind.) And Cem Yılmaz, the famous Turkish comedian, has at least one sketch where he jokes about the genitals of “zenci” men.
Even when not meant maliciously, the use of the term reflects an ignorance that stands in contrast to Turkey’s status as a rising, modern power. At the moment the İHH (the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Aid, of Mavi Marmara renown) is waging a large campaign to get Turks to do their part to help drought-stricken Somalia. The Turkish government has also put aiding Somalia on its agenda, as part of its broader outreach to Africa. Yet a friend tells me that in the conservative town of Konya in central Turkey many Somali refugees living there only go out at night due to the discrimination, jeers, etc. that they face during the day; and a Senegalese friend recounted to me how he gave up on going on vacation after someone made a racist comment to him before he got on a bus, to name just two instances.
To state the obvious, none of this is specific or peculiar to Turkey: racists and racism exist in every country. Indeed, it can be said that the “birth place of modernity”, Europe, has become a hotbed for racist policies and ideas against Muslims, and the United States is still grappling with the issue.
Yet while in the US and parts of Europe there is a history of discourse on racism and race relations, my sense is that this is not quite the case in Turkey. My opinion stems partly from the fact that different Turks have told me unconditionally that “Turks are not racist,” a view that I believe – depending on its reach – has negative implications for minorities who are citizens of Turkey as well as for foreigners living here.
Of course, my knowledge of Turkey’s history, culture and society is by no means omniscient, so I very well could be wrong about my diagnosis of the problem of harassment against foreigners of dark complexion in Turkey and its implications. But the truth remains that this specific form of discrimination exists in Turkey. As a person who loves Turkey and has made it a second home, I sincerely hope that this truth will be faced and addressed within my lifetime.4 comments