Saturday, June 5, 2010

Mavi Marmara

Outside our 5th floor window, the white cruise ship with the huge red star and crescent flag in the nearby Bosphorus Strait loomed over Sirkeci Station. In the week I’d lived here, I was used to seeing ferry boats docking, but any vessel this big was usually across the Golden Horn at the larger Karakoy docks. For quite some time that afternoon as I worked in our apartment, I could hear various people on a sound system, occasional music and organized chants. Helicopters circled overhead. I was just far enough away not to really hear what was said, but by the sounds of it, the mood was festive, with a more than a ting of expectancy. This could not be a normal holiday sendoff, but I was too tired to leave my ivory tower to check it out. Eventually, to fireworks and the Turkish national anthem, the ship left harbor.

Later when Abit came home from work, he turned on the news. “What was that event at Sarayburnu Port?” I asked, pointing out the window toward where the ship had been. “Oh, that was the Mavi Marmara. It’s full of people taking aid to Gaza.” And there it was, on TV.

I’d been proud of Prime Minister Erdogan’s efforts to speak for the majority of his Turkish citizens, to focus the world’s attention on the 2008 military operation against Gaza and later the UN-outlawed blockade. Erdogan became a national hero when he had the guts to speak his mind and walk out at Davos. Perhaps he lacked a certain diplomatic polish, so passionately and publicly cursing Shimon Peres like he did, but I admire a politician who’s not afraid to speak his mind to the world. Turkey may have been Israel’s closest ally in this fractured neighborhood both countries live in, but being a real friend means telling that ally when they’ve done something wrong.

I remember thinking, “What brave people on that ship – I hope nothing happens to them.”
Then I completely forgot about the Mavi Marmara, the aid workers and the Gazans, until this past Tuesday afternoon. Caught up in our new Istanbul life (and a problematic wireless connection), I was oblivious to events until then.

I now wish I’d had enough curiosity to walk the short distance to the Bosphorus shore.  If I’d known what the rally was about, would I have felt comfortable mingling with the crowd? Just as I wish I’d had enough courage to walk the 20 minutes west to the Fatih Cami on Thursday, where huge crowds held a service for the nine Turkish men, ages 19 to 61, murdered on the Mavi Marmara, their plain wooden coffins draped with the red star and crescent flags that had graced the side of the cruise ship. One crowd, jubilant, yet with full knowledge that they may never return. The other, in deep mourning and asking how in God’s name another country believed they had the right to kill as they did. How would either crowd have felt to have this American woman in their midst?

I don’t have the guts to put myself in harm’s way, even though I know that one person can make a difference. I still perhaps naively believe that dialogue, elections and leaders can bring about change their citizens want, but this year that belief has been sorely tested. I wish President Obama had Erdogan’s audacity. Obama needs to speak the truth about the United States’ dysfunctional relationship with Israel.

I have no ties to Israel, only good memories of design trips there, the same itineraries taking me to Istanbul and Tel Aviv before heading east to Hong Kong. I have no ties to the Palestinians, yet have had my view of the conflict completely changed by living in Turkey and hearing their side – a perspective sadly missing from the American MSM. Israel all too frequently calls itself “the only democracy in the Middle East”. They are not. Because I too live in the neighborhood, what happens between my two countries with Israel and the Palestinians matters greatly to me.

These past days the opinions I’ve read online made my head reel. The television coverage here has been comprehensive; the interviews with the survivors riveting. There is hand-wringing, flag-waving and plenty of emotion; in all my years here, I’ve never heard “Allahu akbar” chanted in Turkey as much as this week. If the West is worried about Turkey becoming increasingly Islamist, Israel’s actions added fuel to that fire.

But Turks are talking about this from all sides, and as I’ve seen happen before with big issues (like whether to grant permission to the US to use Turkey as access from the north in the buildup to the Iraq War), truly taking the time to deliberate what the country’s reaction should be. One late-night news debate had a closing song over images of the injured returning to Istanbul: Sting’s Desert Rose, with the haunting vocals of Cheb Mami. One telling lyric: “These dreams are tied to a horse that will never tire.” I could not think of a better way to sum up the will and strength of the Turkish people.

Yes, Turkey has much in common with Israel besides democracy and military partnership. Turkey has treated its minority populations with the same paranoia, fear and violence. True, those minorities have also used violence in attempts to make themselves heard. In fact, the PKK attacked and killed 6 Turkish solders in Iskenderun the same day as the ‘flotilla fiasco’. At least one of the solders killed was Kurdish. Nothing is black and white in this part of the world.

31st May 2010 will be a day long remembered here for more senseless deaths in this troubled neighborhood. “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”, Gandhi said. Will blindness in this region prevail? Or will we someday be able to mark this week as the one in which we all truly began to take seriously the words “Never again?”

What Israel did Monday was wrong, just as Turkey’s past actions have been wrong. The difference between the two countries is that Turkey has had the courage to start looking at its history, to open public dialogues, and to make real change.

Israel and the US – do you?


  1. I wish we would stop funding Israel. That might make the "playing fields" more even. It's all just horrible. I think about all the kids that are growing up in such terrible conflict- Middle East, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and even in our own streets. Guns everywhere. Life is meaningless to many of them. How can they grow up into functional adults with "normal" life expectations? Yet, somehow some do.

    When I was a teenager, I read everything I could about the holocaust and lots of Jewish authors. Now, I feel that Israel is doing the same thing the Nazis did to them. Palestinians have been by no means sheep led to the slaughter, yet they have been slaughtered. The irony, to me, is that they are all "cousins", tied to the land historically. I long for the day when they become "kissing cousins".

  2. Thank you for your bravery, Catherine. This is such an important local perspective, and speaks to a huge rupture that has taken place in the Middle East. With Turkey further reconsidering their alleigance with Israel, I fear that Israel will be even more on the offensive than they are now. The USA and Israel do need to really look at themselves and their actions, the repercussions of bad decisions. Such a sad and strange time in the world.

    Thank you for speaking out, Catherine. I stand with you.



  3. Appreciate your comments! 'Rayela' - your cousin correlation is exactly right. As an outsider, I can see the strong family ties between the cultures here perhaps more than those who grew up in this region, taught to not trust those 'cousins'. But within a big dysfunctional family, disagreements cut closer to the heart and take on exaggerated importance.

    Sezin, I will be following Turkish news with great interest to see what direction they decide to take. Hopefully cool heads will prevail - anger will provoke action, but let's pray it is rational. I trust it will be. As for the US, I know Obama has given some interviews I have not seen, so off to do that now. Would love to see your amazing commentary on this tragedy in print somewhere soon - courage, my dear!

  4. Very well done, Catherine. And rest assured, I think here in America, people are opening their eyes to the whole Israel/Palestinian thing.

  5. Thank you Kim - I hope and pray you are right!

  6. Dear Catherine, Thank you for posting your first person account and for your bravery to voice your thoughts. I'm thankful to Anastasia for pointing at the OpEd article by Michael Chabon in the N.Y.Times I second all he writes. And I'm relieved to know I'm not the only one. Just this Friday evening I was at a Sabbath gathering of "critical" Jews led in discussion of this matter by Lawrence Bush. I felt and feel relief their thoughts and mine run along the same lines as Chabon's.

  7. Thank you Judith! Great to hear about your gathering. I have to believe there are many who think like you and I do, and we have to speak out in the hope of changing someone's mind and making a difference somehow.