As Turkish As I Want To Be

When Sami Kent went to live in Istanbul, he found Turks were interested in the life his father had made in the UK. No-one asked why he had left in the first place

As Turkish As I Want To Be
A villager checks her drying laundry in Ikizdere in Rize Province in the Black Sea region of Turkey on June 7, 2021 / Bulent Kilic / AFP via Getty Images

Turks, I noticed, tended to keep their pants on. In the changing rooms of the local pool, from the old men whiling away their mornings to the little boys with Spider-man swim caps, it was down-to-the-briefs before scuttling away to the single, private booth. From there they’d emerge a few seconds later: trunks on and modesty preserved. I, only a half-Turk and conditioned for years in changing rooms further north, would take it all off. One day, before my boxers had even reached my ankles, a voice came from the other side of the lockers — bouncing off the walls and full of curiosity — nerelisin? “Where are you from?”

It’s something asked early and often: Memleket? “Your hometown?” A question not only for migrants to Turkey but also for those within it; a friendly recognition, really, that every Turkish family has a story to tell — journeys from villages to cities, each with their own pioneers across Anatolia and beyond.

In the first few weeks after I moved, I would answer honestly, “London” — the place where I’ve spent nearly all my life — but was met with a shake of the head. My father was Turkish, so my memleket had to be too. I soon tried “Ankara,” where my baba had grown up, but still no. You can’t be from the city. “Rize,” I learnt to say. Yes! “Ah, a Black Sea boy!” they would say, as I slotted into a more familiar groove. That would explain my fair hair as well — tucked in the northeast, Rize is only a day trip up the coast from the blonde hair and blue eyes of Russia. Forget the fact my mum was from Peterborough, eastern England.

People were far more interested in my dad, anyway — in the figure who left Turkey at 19. Where does he live? What job does he do? How long has he lived abroad? No one ever asks why he went.

The stories of Turkey my baba told us when we were children have an odd effect. The further he gets from events, the more colorful they become in the telling; the further I get from when I first heard them, the blurrier they become in remembering. Both vivid and unclear, like a kaleidoscope mid-twist. Did he really used to drown street cats for fun? Was he really the slated Eurovision candidate in 1976, only for Turkey to pull out in protest? Was he really by Taksim Square a year later, when police fired on demonstrators and left dozens of people dead?

In a sense, it didn’t matter. This was the character arc we molded for him, and we loved him for it: the dad with the larger-than-life tales from home. And the migrant success story: The student who came to England, met his future wife in his first week there, and never looked back.

And what was Turkey in this? An anecdote, a set of stories. And the place we holidayed every year: the glorious food, the glittering coast, and the backdrop of my first memory, thrown off a boat at 3 years old, lifejacket on, bobbing in the waves.

A part of our lives, certainly, but not a central one, and experienced always through the prism of our baba — our translator, our tour guide, our inveterate over-orderer. After all, he never taught us Turkish beyond the phrases for abusing referees.

One reason, I’ve always told myself, was political: that 1970s England can’t have been the easiest place for a young brown man called “Osman,” and he wanted his own sons to be as English as possible. But the other reason was personal, in the way that the personal is also political: that dads aren’t always around to raise their children. And that by the time he regretted it, it was already too late.

And so, my own Turkishness was lightly worn. Even the slights — a colleague calling me “Samir,” a stranger asking me where I’m from — were mostly funny. Another “Turkey” anecdote, another addition to our set.

Yet as I grew older, and into my 20s, something else was happening: The stories coming out of Turkey were becoming darker and darker. A failed coup, hundreds of thousands imprisoned, the country with more journalists in jail than almost anywhere else. My own interest in Turkey’s politics had always come in waves, but now, a journalist myself, it had become impossible to ignore.

So I moved. The government had just lost its first major elections in nearly 18 years, and it seemed like things were brewing. Besides, I was 28. I thought, if I don’t go now, when will I ever? And now, nerelisin? It’s a question I’m asked almost every single day.

I love how Turks say my name. The depth of it, the leaning into the first syllable: Saaaami. Officially, I am “Samuel Kent,” the name in my passport that no one has ever called me but seems 100% English. Around the time I was 9 years old, I found out I had been named after my baba’s childhood friend, Sami Fresko, from the Turkish Jewish family who lived next door. I switched from “Sammy” and told my classmates how it was pronounced — the long “a” and the short “i.” They called me “Salami” instead. I dropped the pronunciation, but the “i” was there to stay.

Now, talking to police officers, to government officials, it brings me a little more into the fold. “Oh, you have a Turkish name!” as they try to place whether I’m “one of them,” in this country where they are always a little suspicious of those who aren’t. And, of course, some part of me wants to be taken in, and I remember each sting when I’m cast outside by people with an innate authority in Turkishness that I could never have. “You sound like a sat-nav when you say that.” “You’re like a tourist.”

There was an irony in it. In conservative towns across Anatolia — reporting on an earthquake in Elazığ or writing history from the Black Sea — I was warmly received within Turkey’s nationalist embrace. Baban Türk sen Türksün (“your father’s Turkish, you are Turkish”). In the logic of patrilineal bloodlines, I was a son of this land, too.

But my liberal friends in Istanbul were less sure. And it wasn’t so much my scratchy Turkish or my cultural reflexes, but the fact that I could come and go. As my best friend once explained to me over a beer, “in Turkey we say coğrafya kader (geography is fate). And by not being born here, you’ve won the lottery.” Nearly every time all of us met, the conversation would turn to the plummeting value of the lira and their various plans to escape, all the while knowing it wouldn’t happen. For them, some part of their Turkishness was bound up in the idea that they were stuck there.

This was a generation that, for their entire adult lives, has only ever known one leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the prolonged clampdown on their freedoms his rule has overseen. All took part in the Gezi Park protests against Erdoğan in 2013; all, to some degree, were left broken by how little it had changed. They found my work — talking to activists or writing about political prisoners — a little quaint. That I would report on them would imply I thought things could be any other way. Burasi Türkiye, they would say, “This is Turkey.” As one friend said to me, even my walk was naïve.

This difference — between my freedoms and theirs — became almost absurd in the pandemic. As cases in Istanbul surged again at the end of 2020, the government implemented a curfew. But journalists and tourists proved exempt. As my friends stayed indoors, I could roam the streets of their city, now turned over almost exclusively to seagulls, stray cats, and a few wandering backpackers.

I was beginning to learn Turkey not on my baba’s terms but on my own.

I was half-in and half-out then, but something was changing, too. After years of study, daily conversations, and countless embarrassing silences, my Turkish was good enough to conduct interviews, develop friendships, and read Turkish novels. I was seeing parts of Turkey — its capital and my baba’s birthplace Ankara, or the Kurdish city of Diyarbakır — not as holiday destinations but as places where Turks lived and worked. I was beginning to learn Turkey not on my baba’s terms but on my own.

Yet it was with my own family where this change was most profound. Previously, I had known my babaanne, my grandmother, through my baba’s distant relationship to her, as well as her slightly awkward visits to our London home: a mostly silent guest who ate not in large family meals but in regular tiny snacks, like a garden bird. Then there was my dede, my grandfather, who I never knew but knew at least that he was our favorite: a 5-foot-3-inch ladies’ man who had a bottle of rakı and a cigar every night, until the habit killed him. And dearly loved by my father.

From afar, and in my childhood, this was a character I wished I had known. Of course, I still do, but perhaps now I see that some “character” traits are not easy up close, not least for the Turkish housewife bound up with them. As I learned during long talks with my aunt on her terrace, the lights of Istanbul twinkling below us, “characters” get drunk, cheat, and can beat their wives, too. Even now, I hesitate to write these words: to not speak ill of the dead, and not embarrass my babaanne either, who loved him, nonetheless. In her own way, she led her own remarkable life. And partly I know, too, that my hesitancy comes not only to protect her but my baba too, to not rupture our shared stories of the past, the lightness of our Turkishness.

More or less every morning, my baba whistles the same mournful tune. “Aldırma gönül,” “never mind, my heart.” The words come from a poem by the writer Sabahattin Ali, a dissident socialist imprisoned in the 1930s. In the last few years, my mum and dad have traveled across Turkey in a way they never would have before. My baba, now more than 40 years since he left, has found an appetite to rediscover his country once more. What was once backward has become romantic.

As part of their travels, they visited Sinop, a small, ancient town on the Black Sea. It was there that Ali was jailed, his prison since turned into a museum. Entering the cell where he wrote “aldirma gönül,” and reading the words on a plaque on the wall, my baba broke down and wept. “The bullet that’s fired will end / the road you’re going on / the prison you’re lying in / never mind, my heart, never mind / … there are still more days to see.”

My dad’s Turkishness was never light; I just didn’t feel its weight before. How could it ever have been? By the time he left, he had already seen two coups, violence on the streets that killed thousands, and a reeling economic crisis. Hazine yetmiş sent’e muhtaç, as they used to say, “a treasury in need of 70 cents.” Now, I can’t not hear the lyrics when my baba whistles and think of what they might mean. The pains of living in Turkey, and the pains of leaving it.

Writing this piece, for the first time, I asked why he did. There were of course the bigger answers I expected. “The constant terror” of gangs of the far left and far right. The petty corruption of everyday life, turning him against not just “Turkey” but Turks themselves. But I was struck, as well, by the chance that took him to England too: to pursue a career in music (unpursued); to chase a teenage romance (mostly not chased); the sight, when he got there, of a government tractor trimming roadside hedges and thinking this was a place that had “solved all its problems.” I asked him if it still hurt him to see Turkey beset by so many. Less than it used to, he replied, and less than for his friends who stayed. “I don’t feel under siege.”

It’s a country, over the last few years, on a seemingly irreversible fall. By one measure, only Burundi has made bigger strides backward over the last decade in squeezing the freedoms of its people. My work took me closer to all of it: Kurdish mothers imprisoned with their babies on spurious terror charges, doctors summoned by the police for questioning public health policy, teenagers afraid to speak their minds. And everyone, my babaanne included, telling the same old joke when someone criticizes the government: Silivri soğuk, “Silivri’s cold.” An hour outside Istanbul, Silivri is one of the world’s largest prisons.

But this prison, too, one day will end.

“My baba left,” I would say to friends, who were still a little mystified I had moved by choice, “and now I’ve come back.” I could never stop myself from saying “back.” In a way, it makes no sense. I had never lived in Turkey before. But it acknowledges something that feels true: that the arcs of our stories stretch beyond our own lifetimes. But nor was this fate, either, that oft-cited kader. I made it to be so — I planned, I studied for months, I left my job, I grew a terrible moustache.

Often, I think, we talk about our identities as though they are something fixed or innate, to give them the importance it feels they deserve. “You can’t discriminate because I was born this way.” But perhaps it’s best to think of your identity as a project, too, a mixture of what made you and what you chose to give importance, of the roots you wanted to water. How else to explain the differences between me and my brothers, who speak no Turkish, and for whom Turkey is mostly a beloved place to holiday?

In my own case, this element of will made me doubt myself as well. Had I moved merely to seem more interesting, or to Orientalize my own family? But it’s the choice that gives the identity its power, too. I am Turkish because I wanted to be.

I did, in the end, manage to visit my memleket near Rize. The village of my “hometown” is called Balıkcılar — “fishermen” — and is set on a few steep hills just off the Black Sea. Deep in the northeast of Turkey, it’s over 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from Istanbul, but work had taken me nearby.

Every family has their own pioneer, and Abdi Aytaç is our own, the great-grandfather who left at 17. In fact, he’s a village celebrity: famous for making it all the way to France, before returning and running unsuccessfully as a far-left candidate in Turkey’s first elections in this conservative, religious heartland.

At the mention of his name at the local tea house, I was in. A tea slid in front of me. Dozens of grizzled men began to offer, to me and to each other, their amateur genealogies, their half-remembered histories of this village of 500 people. Amid their thick, Black Sea Turkish, I thought I caught words I had learned from textbooks, the bewildering array of terms Turks have for various relatives: baldız — one’s wife’s sister; bacanak — one’s wife’s sister’s husband; dayı — one’s mother’s brother.

They drove me to a house nearby, up and up the hills, and I looked at the scene behind us: the January sun on the tea plantations, the occasional splash of an orange tree, and the sea stretching out beyond.

Me, two middle-aged men, and an old woman — who covered her head as I entered — sat in a living room, curved around the fireplace. A tray of coffees came in as we tried to work out who we were. Again, the back and forth, the pinning of certain words to certain names. The enthusiasm in the room rose. They started to shout with excitement, they shouted over each other, they shouted to their near-deaf mother.

We’re all related. The old woman, past 90 and still sturdy, was my grandmother’s cousin, Abdi Aytaç’s niece. She asked if my babaanne is still alive. “Yes,” I said, “she lives in Istanbul.” She began to cry.

She hugged me. She was looking at my face, at my nose, the slight hook of it — the same hook on my brothers, my father, my grandmother. She hugged me again. “You look just like us!” she said.

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