A BBC news report published on 20 November 2013 referred to an “alarming lack of language skills” in the UK. That should come as no surprise to anyone who has lived there for the last twenty years where, on top of the general lack of interest, language departments have frequently been first to be culled when it comes to education cutbacks. I was however pleased and surprised to see Turkish in the top 10 list of languages that the British Council recommended learning.
These recommendations were, of course, based on the business interests of the UK and future job prospects for UK graduates. This could not have been further from my mind when I enrolled at SOAS to study Turkish in 1993. I had already survived about ten years in the job market without a degree, so I chose this new life solely to experience the heady pleasures of the pursuit of knowledge, after which I was fully prepared to come crashing down to earth, probably landing in a mundane job that possessed the sole agreeable quality of meeting the rent.
The question I get asked most frequently is why I chose to learn Turkish in the first place, and I always find it quite difficult to answer because it was something of a random, momentary decision which then had a significant impact on my life. The recipe for this random decision came together over a few years, in which my general enjoyment of life, coupled with a laissez-faire attitude to the future, called all the shots: first on the list of ingredients was an ill-planned trip to Mexico that wrestled itself free of my poorly held grip, taking control of its own destiny and delivering me not to South America but Turkey instead; the second most important ingredient was my love of music, which made life endurable through all my years of ups and downs and therefore contributed to my total lack of interest in any sort of traditional career; the third ingredient was that as well as falling in love with the music of Turkey I also fell in love with the language.
Every language has its own music and, like music itself, preferring the sound of one language over another is a matter of personal taste: some people are enchanted by the sound of Russian; for others it is the romance and poetry of French or Italian; some people find German harsh, others love it as the ultimate language of philosophy; but for me it was Turkish that possessed the fatal attraction. In 1990, the ill-planned Mexico trip took me and my fellow traveller to the suburbs of Trabzon, where we somehow became good friends with the local cobbler and his friend, a bar owner. Our only forms of communication were sign language, odd bits of German and an eight year old boy who was learning English at school. I was so overwhelmed by the hospitality of the two men that I became determined to learn some Turkish, so I could at least try to show how grateful we were. It was not an easy task to find a Turkish-English phrasebook in Trabzon at that time and I had almost given up the search when a smiling shopkeeper produced an archaic tome that, judging by the type of haughty English used, seemed as if it had been written for the sort of people who have servants. It was only one step away from being completely useless but at least from there I could open the door and look inside. Soon after this, I was lucky enough to stumble across some beautiful music which I later learnt was recorded by prominent protest musicians of Turkey at the time. I fell in love with the music immediately and returned to England with three cassettes in my bag. Maybe it’s hard to imagine the value of those cassettes in these days when music from all over the world can be found on the internet; but it was the only Turkish music I had for several years and I spent hours listening to it and trying to unscramble the lyrics written inside the cassette covers.
Fast forward a few years and add the following ingredients: my frustration with the musical world, dissatisfaction at work and a general desire for life change. I decided to apply for university. Growing up in England in an Arab-English family, Arabic was the language my parents had spoken when they didn’t want me to understand them. So several years after leaving home, I planned to return and finally thwart them by studying Arabic. But as with the ill-planned trip to Mexico, things didn’t go according to plan; surprised to see Turkish on the syllabus at SOAS, as I didn’t even know it could be studied in the UK, I applied to study Turkish and Arabic – thinking I might finally be able to decipher the lyrics on my three cassettes – and finally opted for Turkish with Middle Eastern History.
The Turkish department was small, friendly and headed at the time by the warm and infinitely diplomatic Dr Bengisu Rona, who skilfully steered her course through the choppy sea of dreams that had led students to embark on the Turkish Degree. It was a curious assortment that made up the department: sober faced academics eager to shed light on the minutiae of Ottoman History, dewy-eyed lovers struck by the arrows of a Turkish homme-fatale and a few oddballs like me that fitted neither category. For the third year of the course we were dispatched, along with our perfectly packed grammatical constructions, to the Bosphorous University in Istanbul. I was having a fantastic time studying and performing in London and had no desire to go anywhere, so I initially turned down the opportunity to go. Thankfully my friend and fellow student, Jane Carpenter, convinced me it would be a great experience ‒ as it turned out she was right and I was wrong. The year in Turkey proved to be a whirlpool of experience that taught me to see life in a different way, question many things I had previously taken for granted and helped me to better understand the world in general. Not a bad catch for something I never wanted to do in the first place and in the end I was sad to go back to London.
Graduating a year later, I had the idea of doing postgraduate research into a controversial event in modern Turkish History known as the “Fatsa Olayları”. But it was not long before the reality of finding a supervisor for a controversial contemporary subject, and a distaste for entering into more student debt, caused me to drop the idea and head back into the labour market. After a brief flirtation with freelance translation, I opted for a non-Turkish related job with a steady salary to support me while I continued on my musical path. However, as the years passed my relationship with Turkish music and language grew deeper, almost without me noticing, until I finally became a full-time translator and musician.
Looking back, I can see that despite taking a step back after university, the years since I graduated unravelled themselves somehow always intertwined with Turkish, like two strands of wool that wove themselves together over time. My musical career is the subject of a separate website but I think it relevant to add one musical note here. Being a musician has taken me to many parts of Turkey, bringing me into contact with people from different regions and different walks of life. The long road journeys can be relentless and sometimes as I approach a new town in Turkey, to be greeted and taken to the house of a host I have never met before, I forget my nerves and think how privileged I am to be in this situation ‒ privileged to have seen what I have through being a musician and to have met so many beautiful people in a snapshot of life, captured with the good and the bad from diverse parts of Turkey. Moreover I wonder how life would have been if I had never decided to enrol on that course.
I greatly admire people who have a definite direction, plan their route and succeed; but for me it is the least planned journeys that have been the most successful. To that end, and to return to the start of this piece, learning a second language does not only have value as a route to career enhancement: if you let it happen, it can open your eyes and make you into someone you never knew you were. It is only through understanding the language that we can really get inside the culture of another country and by doing this we are so much better able to understand our own culture and see ourselves more critically as others may see us.