Becoming Turkish-American in Iran

It’s different when it’s your country at stake

Becoming Turkish-American in Iran
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for Newlines

“Welcome aboard Iran Air. Please put on your headscarves,” the flight attendant announced from the intercom. The proudly secular Turkish women with whom I was traveling sighed audibly and rolled their eyes as they took out elegant Vakko scarves and wrapped them grudgingly around their heads.

Seeing their annoyance, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes as well — at them. How could it be that we hadn’t even begun our two-week trip to Iran and these elite, well-educated Turks were already so disdainful of their more conservative neighbor?

But of course I knew why. I had spent the better half of the year researching Turkish-Iranian relations while living in Istanbul, the city of my birth. It was 2008. The headscarf, always a politically charged symbol in modern Turkey, had become even more so in recent years.

Just a few months earlier, against a backdrop of protests and threats of a military coup, the Turkish parliament had elected Abdullah Gul as president. Gul was the cofounder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), whose roots in political Islam represented a departure from the militantly secular politics of Turkey’s founder, Kemal Atatürk. The move meant that for the first time in Turkey’s history, Atatürk’s presidential mansion would be inhabited by a first lady who wore a headscarf. While the West heralded Turkey’s democratization and the empowerment of the historically marginalized Muslim majority, for much of Turkey’s Kemalist elite, the move was a harbinger for a more conservative turn that would leave Turkey looking increasingly like Iran. It was common in those days to read provocative headlines from the country’s mainstream newspapers evoking Iran’s history as a cautionary tale for Turkey.

Even still, I assumed that if these Turks paid to be part of a tour group, then they were seeking to understand Iran beyond the sensational headlines. That, at least, was why I had signed up. While Turkish newspapers fixated on Iran’s reactionary Islamism, American newspapers were consumed with the story of a rogue regime hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons. But as a Turkish-American whose Dede (grandfather) would often speak about his ancestors migrating to Anatolia via Iran, I was always curious about this enigmatic country that seemed both dangerous and beautiful at the same time. This trip, then, was an opportunity to juxtapose the omnipresent images of violence, religious extremism, and oppression against the romantic poems of Khayyam, the architectural marvels of the Safavids, and the ancient ruins of Persepolis.

Descending into Tehran Imam Khomeini International airport, I grew both more excited and apprehensive as I realized that I was embarking on an adventure foreclosed to most Americans. I handed over my passport to the Iranian customs official, my blonde-highlighted hair — one of many poor decisions from my 20s — peeking out from under my headscarf. He appeared confused. The passport was Turkish, but the name and physical features of this young woman in front of him were decidedly not. He looked me up and down, looked back at the passport, looked me up and down, looked back at the passport. My heart raced — had he figured out I was American? Would they kick me out? Throw me in jail? Just as I imagined the worst, he began reading my last name out loud, “Ma-kurd-ee.” He pointed at me, “Kurd?” I gave a sheepish smile. Despite all the suffering and discrimination Kurds had endured throughout the region, this still seemed better than being identified as an incognito American with a Scottish last name.

Throughout my travels across Iran, I reaped the benefits of my dual Turkish-American identity. At one particularly quaint Iranian tea house, the owners, who were of Azeri origin, recognized we were a Turkish tour group and serenaded us with Turkish folk songs. After several glasses of strong black tea and exuberant, high-pitched singing, we played tavla (backgammon) together in Persian (many of us had grown up learning the Persian numbers when rolling dice). It was one of those intimate moments that can only happen between peoples with a shared border, and I was grateful to take part, even if I only knew half the lyrics and was a pretty mediocre tavla player.

Another day, I slipped away from the tour group to roam the streets of Isfahan, the majestic former capital of the Safavid dynasty. My awkward attempt to adhere to the government-imposed dress code with a shapeless dress worn over flared jeans stood in stark contrast to the beautiful Iranian women who masterfully donned loosely draped hijabs with form fitting tunics and made it obvious to anyone within earshot that I was a tourist. Intrigued, or perhaps just amused by the sight of me, a young college student approached me to strike up a conversation. “Hi. Where are you from?” he asked in English. “Turkey, but I’ve spent some time in the United States,” I responded. After a few minutes of walking together he asked, “Your English is great. How long did you live in the U.S.?” “15 years,” I said under my breath. He paused, noticing how young I looked. “So, you’re American then?” I froze. Sensing my nervousness, he quickly added with enthusiasm, “I love America! I’m studying American film at university.” It was then that I noticed he held several textbooks about cinematography. I smiled and responded proudly, “Yes. I am American.” At that moment, it felt important to demonstrate that the peoples of our countries could get along, even if our governments did not.

However, when we passed Tehran’s shuttered American Embassy a few days later, I couldn’t be more grateful to hide among our Turkish tour group. The building is known today as the U.S. Den of Espionage because it hosted the plotters of the 1953 coup to overthrow then-Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. Displayed proudly on the exterior gates are large, vibrant murals with images of a burning Statue of Liberty alongside text that reads “Death to America,” and “America is the Great Satan.” For my Turkish peers, such sentiments were understandable. After all, Turkish suspicions of American meddling are so strong that there is a term for it among analysts — Sèvres Syndrome. But for me, even knowing the complicated history of the United States in the region, I recoiled at seeing anti-Americanism so visibly and unabashedly displayed.

Almost 600 miles east of Tehran is Mashhad — literally the “place of martyrdom.” Declared “Iran’s spiritual capital” by then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mashhad houses the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth imam in Shiism. Millions of pilgrims from all over the country visit the shrine every year, carrying with them emotional wounds that have not yet healed and hopes and dreams that have not yet been realized. To enter the shrine, female visitors must don the chador (a full-body cloak). For our Turkish tour group of secularists, it was bad enough that we were forced to wear a headscarf throughout the trip, but now an even more conservative covering? This was too much.

Fortunately, our Turkish tour leader had anticipated their indignation and purchased colorful patterned sheets to put on in lieu of the black chadors. Everyone reveled in this small act of defiance, but once inside, we became engulfed by the intensity of the place. Iranians of all stripes clung tightly to the iron grate around the shrine, praying with an angst I assumed could only come from experiencing unspeakable tragedy.

I felt overwhelmed by the emotive displays of religiosity, and I climbed back onto the tour bus unsure of what to make of the experience. I both admired how closely those making the pilgrimage clung to their belief system — it was as if their prayers put them in a trance — and felt uncomfortable with how different it was from my own, largely secular upbringing. Like many of our bus rides back to the hotel, the conversation turned to Turkish politics. But that day it quickly became heated. The topic of discussion was the controversial case in front of the Constitutional Court to shut down the AKP for allegedly seeking to impose an Islamic state. Even though I knew better, I couldn’t help but interject in what seemed to me to be a shockingly undemocratic and illiberal argument. The case against the AKP was specious and based entirely on leaders’ rhetoric taken out of context. Instantaneously, everyone on the bus turned to me in unison and began yelling that I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation. That I was an American and couldn’t understand.

I was devastated. How could they see me only as an American? Had we not delighted in learning Persian words and proverbs together by identifying those that were similar to Turkish? (For example, “health to your hands” is used whenever someone makes food in both languages.) Had we not filled our bellies with Persian cuisine while comparing it to our favorite Turkish foods? (Their kashke bademjoon was better than our patlican salatasi, but our Urfa kebap was by far superior to their kabab kaboodieh.) Had we not bonded over Rumi’s poems as we debated whether he should be considered Iranian or Turkish? (He was born in the Persian empire but lived and died in Konya in modern day Turkey.) I felt betrayed. These Turks welcomed me when it was convenient, but the moment I offered a different opinion, I was cast out. More than anything, I felt like a fraud. I had spent much of my young adult life trying to claim that I could help bridge the divides between these two cultures. But that seemed foolishly naïve if the bridge stopped halfway.

Over the years I’ve thought of that moment as I struggled, like so many other first-generation Americans, to come to terms with my dual identity. In time, I realized my demand had been unfair. I was selectively choosing when to embrace my Turkishness but offended when Turks did the same.

In truth, the ability to cherry-pick the positive aspects of my Turkish identity meant that I could never fully grasp the stakes involved with the negative ones. Yes, I had grown up learning about how my grandmother lost seven uncles in World War I. I’d heard how my parents were scared to go outside during the violence of the 70s and 80s. But I never directly experienced the consequences of these stories. More recently, I’ve observed closely the demise of Turkish democracy, the arrests of my friends on trumped-up charges, the altering of the social fabric as a result of the region’s conflicts, but I have never really felt that my world was crumbling around me. Because even as I’ve frequently visited or spent portions of my adult life living in Turkey, I have always considered the United States to be home. And that has meant that the threats that feel existential for my Turkish friends and family often feel hyperbolic to me.

It’s a bias I have become acutely aware of during my time working as an American in the Middle East. I may be able to translate the Turkish perspective to an American audience, but I do not represent it. Whatever policies I may believe are best for Turkey, I won’t have to face their repercussions on the ground.

Two weeks later, we touched down at Atatürk International Airport. “You know,” one of the women in our group said as she slowly took off her headscarf, “the Iranians know us so well, they listen to our music, watch our TV shows, travel to our cities, but we still have so much to learn about them.” There was a heaviness in her voice. While the eye-opening journey from Tehran to Yazd, from Shiraz to Persepolis had shattered many negative stereotypes, it also underscored for these Kemalists just how fragile their own way of life was. If Iranian society — so liberal that one of its most treasured poets wrote mostly about wine — could succumb to such an oppressive theocracy, what did that portend for Turkey? It likely felt safer to hold on to a one-dimensional misperception and imagine that the whole country was as religious as its leaders.

Today, even after Turkey’s democracy has unraveled, even after many of these women’s fears were vindicated, I’d still like to believe that there was no choice but to give the AKP experiment a chance. But as I think back, I also wish I had been more sympathetic to the experience of my Turkish friends and family who increasingly felt like strangers in their own country.

In recent days, Washington D.C., the city I’ve called home for much of my life, has been upended by violence, rooted in the same polarizing culture wars that have damaged Turkey. And as I reckon with the fact that I share little in common with my American compatriots who have wreaked havoc on the Capitol, the plight of my Turkish compatriots is forefront in my mind.

Now that my own values and lifestyle are in question, will I view those standing up to these threats as alarmists, like I believed Turkish secularists to be, or as defenders of freedom? Will I give those challenging my way of life the benefit of the doubt, as I preached to my Turkish friends, or will I approach them with extreme suspicion given our country’s history? To be sure, the situations in the United States and Turkey are not perfectly analogous. But perhaps that is precisely the point: Only those whose country is at risk of backsliding can truly appreciate the stakes.

If nothing else, I am now painfully aware of the need to approach with extreme humility any efforts to understand the struggles of a place that, ultimately, I do not call home. As a Turkish proverb notes, “iğneyi kendine çuvaldızı başkasına batır” — know your shortcomings before you judge others.

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