February 10, 2003 - Turkish Times: "When we first arrived in Turkey in the early 1960s, there was no television, no McDonalds, no Coca Cola, but there were five-lira banknotes"

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Turkey: Peace Corps Turkey : The Peace Corps in Turkey: February 10, 2003 - Turkish Times: "When we first arrived in Turkey in the early 1960s, there was no television, no McDonalds, no Coca Cola, but there were five-lira banknotes"

By Admin1 (admin) on Monday, February 10, 2003 - 9:48 am: Edit Post

"When we first arrived in Turkey in the early 1960s, there was no television, no McDonalds, no Coca Cola, but there were five-lira banknotes"

"When we first arrived in Turkey in the early 1960s, there was no television, no McDonalds, no Coca Cola, but there were five-lira banknotes"

"When we first arrived in Turkey in the early 1960s, there was no television,
no McDonalds, no Coca Cola, but there were five-lira banknotes"

Albert Nekimken, Special to The Turkish Times(Peace Corps Reunion Photo Gallery)-

During the weekend June 21-23, the National Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Association(webpage)organized a 40-year commemoration in Washington, D.C. of the founding of the organization by President Kennedy. At the same time, there were parallel reunions by some of the 1,200 former Peace Corps Volunteers who had served in Turkey during the period 1962-1970.

One of the enduring legacies of the Peace Corps has been the way in which it spawned a proliferation of organizations among returned Volunteers who served over the years in a particular country. Because country programs were opened and closed at various times over the past forty years, many of the organizations-like the Arkadaslar group of returned Turkey Volunteers-are ageing like fine wine.

At our opening reception at the ATAA offices on Friday afternoon, old friends found each other, stories were swapped, bios updated and old friendships renewed. An appropriate amount of Turkish raki, Efes bira and mezeler fueled the animated conversations, which were followed by special dinners in various parts of the city that had been arranged for the benefit of groups from particular years of service in Turkey. Some participants had been in contact over the years, and some had not, so there much personal catching up was in order. Precious memories swirled around the room-Afyon and Eskisehir in 1963, Ankara in 1965, Tokat in 1966, Adiyaman in 1968, Istanbul in 1969, Gaziantep in 1970. Projects at which volunteers had worked ranged from childcare, to teaching, to agricultural development, to development of the tourism infrastructure.

Yet, as we talked and we looked at each other around the room-all in our 50s and 60s-we felt a shiver of mortality. Some among us had already passed away. Many were retired. There had been no new members of the group for almost 30 years, despite our efforts to embrace returned Volunteers from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan other Turkic-speaking countries (they preferred to form their own groups). Worse, as we exchanged stories about our most recent return visits to Turkey, we realized that few Turks under the age of 40 had ever heard of the Peace Corps. In a country where most of the population is under 25, this means that those who have any direct experience with the Peace Corps, or who have heard of it constitute a rapidly diminishing minority. This realization made our memories bittersweet.

Does Anyone Remember the Five-lira Banknote? We do!

When we first arrived in Turkey in the early 1960s, there was no television, no McDonalds, no Coca Cola, but there were five-lira banknotes. Because it was a principle of the Peace Corps that Volunteers would live on the same salaries, and under the same conditions, as their Turkish colleagues doing the same work, we learned to watch how we spent our kurus (50 kurus for a loaf of bread). Those who were successful felt rich on a monthly salary of 500-800 lira. It was also a time when Americans were frequently asked, "Alman misin?" (Are you German?). Those who learned that we were Americans rather than Germans were usually disappointed; Americans were an adequate substitute for "the real thing." Unfortunately, the increasing political polarization of Turkey during the Vietnam War period and afterwards affected the Peace Corps adversely. Also, over the 18 years that Americans served in the Peace Corps in Turkey, genuine development did occur and officials could claim with some justice that Turks could now do much of what Volunteers had been doing. Nevertheless, we left with regret.

During the later years especially, some of us were accused of spying, on the theory that, for Americans to be willing to come to Turkey and live in small towns and villages all over Anatolia (with no central heating or instant coffee, and often with no running water and/or electricity), they must either be spies or fools. When we pointed out that few of us was living near anything that merited the services of a spy, there was only the remaining alternative. But those who knew us personally seldom thought that we were fools. For them, we had to be either spies, or saints-and few of us were genuine saints.

What Will I Ever Do With "English"?

A complete assessment either of the Peace Corps in general, or of the Peace Corps in Turkey in particular, has yet to be made, but for most of us who had the privilege of serving in Turkey as Volunteers between 1962 and 1970, the experience was not just positive, it changed our lives. And, while the number of those who remember the Peace Corps is on its way to becoming a historical footnote, those footnotes have grown up.

Recently, I attended a reception in Washington, D.C. for a group of visiting mayors from all over Turkey who were participating in an official educational visit. There, I found myself chatting with a man who turned out to have been a student of English at Gazi Osman Pasa Lisesi in Tokat during my tenure-albeit in my Turkish colleague's classroom.

Other returned Volunteers have discovered that their former students and colleagues moved on to very responsible and influential positions in government and business. For me, it was not surprising that many of my students of English in Tokat in the late 60s had difficulty imagining how knowing English would ever produce any benefits in proportion to the agony of effort required to learn it. Yet, optimism springs eternal and makes fools of us all. During a totally unannounced return visit to Tokat in the mid 70s, a young man accosted me on the municipal bus and asked if I was, indeed, his former English teacher. When, in a fit of pride, I asked him how learning English as my student had changed his life, he replied, "It did, it did. After you failed me in English, I gave up and dropped out of school!" Accordingly, over the years, one learns to exercise increasing amounts of caution before asking foolish questions whose answers can't be predicted.

What Will I Ever Do with "Turkish?"

On the other hand, few returned Volunteers could imagine how their experiences in Turkey would change their lives. While a some never made return visits and lost contact with their former colleagues and students, an amazing number retained life-long friendships. Personally, I am now corresponding by e-mail in Turkish with the children and grandchildren of friends I made in the 60s. Some of us went into government service when we returned from Turkey, some went into the Foreign Service (where we produced more than one Turkish-speaking ambassador and chief consul). Others of us went into teaching and business where we had more limited, but important opportunities to benefit American society with our experiences in Turkey. As a teacher, for example, I was able to send one of my students in California to Turkey as an AFS exchange student. (Significantly, while I lost contact with my former student, I am still friends with the family in Istanbul that hosted her in the summer of 1972.) For those with fewer opportunities to speak Turkish, what we are able to remember constitutes a secret language that we use whenever possible among the select group of the initiated.

It comes as no small tribute to the Peace Corps overall that, during the first few years of its existence, it was credited with doubling the number of Americans who could speak non-European languages. In the case of Turkey, thanks to the Peace Corps, Turks no longer find it a total novelty to encounter Americans who speak Turkish, even if with a terrible accent. (To be honest, I realized with some regret recently that the Turks who were the most complimentary of my Turkish invariably wanted to sell me something. My own friends simply hardened their ears and guessed what I probably really wanted to say.)

Now, the effects of Turkish are extending to our families. For example, when we lived in Istanbul during the mid-1970s while I completed my dissertation research on revolutionary Turkish theater, my wife found it difficult to throw herself completely into language study, asking, "What will I ever do with Turkish?" Quite unexpectedly, we found ourselves living once again in Istanbul in the 1990s while I worked as an investment banker. Suddenly, knowing Turkish held the promise of opening up wonderful new experiences, friendships (and shopping) that she had never imagined. She regretted not having been a more diligent student years earlier. She learned that one never knows when fate may bring you back to Turkey, or reward your knowledge of Turkish.

Once, while she was shopping in Kmart in Crofton, Maryland, she heard a man nearby speaking Turkish to his daughter. After quick introductions, we became life-long friends with a Turkish astrophysicist who was working temporarily at NASA's Goddard space center. Subsequently, he returned to work at TUBITAK's Space Research Center in Gebze; his daughter, who lives in Germany, is now taking her bar exams and our friendships are advancing to the next generation. And so it goes. We learned that our next-door neighbors in Maryland were Turks and (are we lucky, or what?) later we discovered that our new neighbors in Virginia were chefs from Bolu who work at a Turkish restaurant nearby. None of this would have happened if it hadn't been for the Peace Corps and the opportunities that it opened for us in Turkey: one small step for a relatively small government agency; one giant step for returned Volunteers as individuals and gourmands.

Bana Ne Gerek? Baklava, Borek! (Aziz Nesin)

At the end of the 60s, during particularly heated political discussions, English teachers like me were routinely accused of "brainwashing" our students, even though we had only a vague idea of what that might mean apart from producing students who were able to sing "Blowing in the Wind" on key and with reasonable pronunciation. Most of us were highly indignant because we knew that, in truth, the reverse was happening: Turklesiyorduk (we were becoming Turks).

What we have learned most forcefully from our Arkadaslar organization, from our association with ATAA, and from the reception held for us at the Turkish Embassy on Saturday, June 22, in Washington, D.C., was that each of us had been transformed by our experiences in Turkey and with Turks. In some respects, we came to appreciate better our own country and culture, but, more importantly, our lives gained a new dimension of experience. We didn't merely enjoy the mezeler, the political updates on today's Turkey, and Tom Brosnahan's presentation of nostalgic travel photos collected over the years, we inhaled them. Stephen Kinzer made a well-received presentation based on his recently published book about Turkey, The Crescent and Star. However, I sensed some unease on his part because we were not a passive audience. When he summarized his insights and conclusions based on his years as a New York Times bureau chief based in Istanbul, we challenged him, corroborated his views, or compared them with our own experiences from Urfa, from Side, from Kastamonu and from Erzurum. Kinzer brought to the table his substantial global experience as a journalist; we brought our experiences from villages and towns across the country over a span of forty years. (Many of us have returned several times with family and friends; some, like me, have advanced our professional careers in Turkey.) In some ways, it was an unfair competition. Our comments weren't always politically correct and our generous host, Ambassador Faruk Logoglu was put on the spot on a few occasions when we discussed sensitive subjects, such as the status of Kurds, or the human rights situation, but we were united, Kinzer, the diplomatic staff, ATAA executives and the returned Volunteers in our profound respect for the achievements of Turkey and our admiration for Turks as a people and a civilization.

We may be on our way to becoming a mere historical footnote, but we will go out singing Zeki Muren songs, quoting Aziz Nesin, eating baklava and fighting the misinformation spread by all those who either don't know, or who don't want to know, Turkey as we do. We leave it to history to judge who was brainwashed by whom.
(Peace Corps 40th Reunion Photo Gallery)

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