Of a Turkish Girl

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By Peter Sourian

This story occurred several years ago at Bard College in upstate New York, where I taught Literature and Writing for the last 45 years, until June 2010.

I was in my office, preparing to teach a class, when I looked up and saw an attractive young woman standing in the doorway.

“Come in and sit down,” I said, and so she did.

She was really quite beautiful, pleasant and friendly, and I soon understood that she was intelligent.

What did she want?

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She told me that she was Turkish, and that she was a student here, majoring in American History.

“Is it true,” she asked, “that you have occasionally offered a tutorial in Armenian history, to small groups of students, or individual students, if they request it?” I said that I did. Interestingly, these were often students one of whose parents was not Armenian, students who had been taught little or nothing about Armenia.

“I would like to have a tutorial with you in Armenian History. Would this be possible?”

“Yes,” I said, though I already had a heavy schedule of classes.

I told her that I would give her books to read, and have her write two papers on subjects I’d assign, and give her an examination on the material at the end of the semester.

Then I said: “I find it interesting that you, a Turkish woman, want to learn about Armenia and the Armenians.”

“Well, I’ll tell you why,” she said. “I came here from my home in Turkey, in Istanbul, a year ago to study History. I’m concentrating in history here at the college. Well, what did I learn? In the first semester in my course in American history I learned from the American teacher that the Americans had treated the Indians very badly, and that they stole the land from the Indians. After that my American teacher taught us how the Americans forced the Blacks to be slaves, that they bought and sold them like cattle, and that they whipped and even killed them if they didn’t and that they raped their women, and castrated men. Then our American professor had us read about how Japanese-Americans were put in internment camps in California in the 1940s, and then I learned what terrible things the Americans did in Vietnam in the 1960s — ”

I interrupted. “Sure. That’s all a part of American history. Yes. Americans know all that.”

“Yes,” she said. “But to be sitting in an American classroom and hearing an American teacher say these things about America was new to me. If a teacher in Turkey said even half of that sort of thing about Turkey he could be thrown in jail for insulting the Turkish nation. What I have learned from this experience is that Western civilization permits dissent and is generally not threatened by it. Indeed it tends to feel that this is a critical part of what America is. Generally, people are not going to be thrown into jail, or even simply disappear for telling unpleasant truths about the United States of America.

I began to realize that in my country — which I love — and in many other countries as well, History is only what makes your country appear to be wonderful in every respect, simply a means to glorify your country, without regard to Truth if the Truth contradicts any aspect of its glory. Without ever thinking about such a question, what I came to understand is the way you teach History here is to say only what makes your country appear to be wonderful in almost every respect. I realized that in my country History is something very different from the Western conception. So I want to learn about the history of my country – the good and the bad. I’m not going to find out about the Armenians back in a History class in Turkey. So if I want to learn about my own country – the bad as well as the good – I have to go to the West. Loving my country doesn’t mean I should close my eyes to everything that doesn’t make it seem wonderful. In fact, if I love my country, I should always be trying to make it better.”
I was impressed by what this lovely and intelligent Turkish girl had said, and reminded of how lucky we are to have been bequeathed this Western intellectual heritage, even with all its human limitations. On her own she had understood that although she was a citizen of a rich, powerful country, she was at the same time impoverished.

So we made an appointment for her to come back the following week, and the girl left.

Right after she left, my office neighbor, Professor Leonard, rushed in to see me.

“Oh, isn’t that just wonderful!” she cried, having heard us.

“What?”

“That she wants to learn about what really happened to the Armenians in Ottoman Turkey!”

“Oh, she won’t be coming back next week,” I said.

“What do you mean, she won’t be coming back. She just said th — ”

I myself had only just then realized what even the girl herself did not yet realize.

On the weekend, I said, that girl is going to telephone her parents in Istanbul, who are going to ask her what she’d been doing that week. She would tell them that this Armenian professor was going to give her a tutorial on Armenian history.

“Oh no, he’s not! No, no, no,” her father will say. “You don’t go back to see that professor. Or else you are taking the first plane back to Istanbul!”

Sure enough, the girl never returned. I would see her on the campus occasionally and she would smile and wave and I would smile and wave back.

(This piece, published for the first time in English here, will be published in a volume of works by Sourian in Armenian translation prepared by Aram Arsenyan in Yerevan)

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Peter Sourian, Professor Emeritus of English at Bard College, is the author of Miri, The Gate, The Best and Worst of Times, and At the French Embassy in Sofia. The first two novels have been published recently in Armenian translation, along with a collection of his short stories. A frequent writer of fiction, reviews and articles, Sourian has been a television critic for The Nation (1975-81) and a member of the National Book Critics Circle, the National Advisory Panel to the George Polk Awards Committee (1979-90), the US Graduate Student Fulbright Program (2008-09), the Anahit Literary Prize Awards Committee and the editorial board of Ararat magazine.]