Last Friday afternoon, I went to the Barnes and Noble store at the Waterside shops. My intention was to check out some new books and just sit in peace, type a story on my laptop and have some strong dark coffee. I must confess I also like the smell and feel of new books and there is no better place than a book-store to smell and feel as many books as possible by walking through the many aisles. After my walk-through, I sat down, turned on my laptop and started to look up current news items in the Middle East and North Africa by checking out various world newspapers’ websites.
A gentleman dressed in khaki pants and a rich looking polo shirt sat next to me. As I searched through the websites and started writing notes on Syria, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia he started to watch me. Finally, he said “Looks like you are interested in world events; are you a professor, attorney or a politician?” I politely responded “No, I am not any of those but I write for a local newspaper and I am doing research for my next article”. He then asked me what I thought about all the recent events in those countries I was looking up. I thought this is great.
Someone is really interested in the events in the Middle East instead of the latest results from the Masters! So I gave him a 10 minute passionate report about the Arabs, Palestine, Israel, Libya, Syria, Muslims and what this all may mean to us as Americans. He listened intently and then turned to me and said “by the way where is Syria anyway?” I was crushed and brought down to earth very quickly. Trying very hard to hide my “feelings of the moment” I responded; “North of Israel, South of Turkey, and West of Jordan; somewhere in that general neighborhood” and shut down my laptop.
On the drive home I decided not to write about the events in the Middle East this week. They were getting too complicated to fit into a 900 word article. Then I remembered a conversation I had some weeks ago with Dr. Jory Westberry, Principal of the Tommie Barfield Elementary School here on the Island. I was telling her about the elementary school I attended in Istanbul from 1955 to 1960, and how she listened intently to every detail and told me; “You must think of writing about this in the Coastal Breeze”. Elementary school days were a long time ago, but somehow memories of attending elementary school in Turkey were very fresh on my mind.
After attending pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, time finally came for me to go to elementary school. We lived in downtown Istanbul and my mother registered me in an elementary school ten minutes away from our home. It was the same school she and her brother attended when they were young. I anxiously waited for September as that summer did not seem to end. It was an exciting time. Turkey had become a Republic only a short 30 years earlier after almost six hundred years of Ottoman Empire had come crashing down.
Under the rules of the new Republic, Western looking schools were opened all around the country. Old Madrasas which educated children based on the Koran were all closed by the new government under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of modern Turkey; a new alphabet was established; Turkish replaced the Ottoman language and many young and idealist new teachers were spread out all around the country teaching the kids of modern Turkey. It was an exciting time for the country. As was the tradition, a number of black smocks were purchased for me to wear to school along with the white collar attachment which indicated that I was an elementary school student. My mother bought me a small book bag and we also purchased an ink-well since everyone had to learn to write properly using a pen which you dipped into the inkwell after every word you wrote!
School opened on the first day of September. Holding my mother’s and my father’s hands I walked through the front door, into a large garden where many students were playing. Teachers, also wearing black smocks were walking around with authoritative looks. My father approached an older lady who was going to be my first grade teacher and said “Ms. Ulviye, this is my son Tarik; his meat is yours, his bones are ours” and with that let go of my hand and I was left alone with this tall, strong, serious looking lady with snow white hair and big, thick glasses.
What did my father mean by that scary expression? What meat? What bones? Ms. Ulviye looked down at meand said “follow me and the others in to the classroom”. With that, she walked briskly towards the three story concrete building with about 30 kids in tow, including me. We walked into the school building and after passing by a number of classrooms, we entered ours. There were 30 wooden desks with small wooden chairs behind them. We all sat down where Ms. Ulviye told us to sit down and with great anxiety looked around to get used to our new surroundings. We were told to open the top lid of our desks and put our book bags inside the empty box. There was a small, round hole on the top of the desk where we were told to place our inkwells. The teacher asked everyone to put their hands on the desk, palm down and she inspected our fingernails to see if they were clean; then asked us to show our teeth to make sure they have been brushed.
Later on, we were to find out that there was actually a grade on our report cards called “cleanliness”. Ms. Ulviye then sat down and started to tell us how the first grade class she had last year was the greatest, and discipline was perfect. Then she pointed to a spot on the wall behind her and said “this is the spot where our “falaka” used to hang! We all knew what that was! An instrument of extreme torture which was banned by Ataturk from all modern schools! It was a wooden bow with a rope which was tied to both ends of the falaka.
Those who did not behave in class would be asked to come forward, take their shoes and socks off. They would then be asked to lay down on the floor and the teacher would tie their feet to the bow exposing the soles of their feet. Then the “falaka stick” would appear and the teacher proceeded to beat the bottoms of the feet of the unruly student until they got red. Then the rope would be loosened and the unruly student would be asked to stand up in the corner till the class was over. When Ms. Ulviye pointed to the spot where the falaka was, I began to understand the meaning of my father’s instructions “the meat is yours and the bones are ours”. This gave the teacher to mold me as she saw fit; using whatever method she chose.
I was very upset and wanted to go home right then. But it was the first day of school and my father was already at work and my mother was at home. Ms. Ulviye asked everyone their names and got down to teaching us immediately. By mid-morning a school janitor arrived with a large tin can marked “US AID” which contained American cheese and another can containing powder milk. We were all made to eat a piece of cheese and drink a glass of milk. Thank you Uncle Sam! I started to get hungry again by 11 AM and wondered how and where I was going to eat. At noon, we were taken to a “lunch room” by one of the janitors. There on the tables were our “sefer tasi”. These were two or three layered, metal containers held together by a vertical handle bar.
My mother had prepared my lunch and sent it to school before noon. The sefer tasi (loosely translated to “mess kit” which was used by the Turkish military during wars to carry their food. Sefer actually means an expedition and tas means a metal container.) They were heated and delivered to our lunch room. School provided drinks (water) and bread (nice, thick, black bread). After lunch, the empty containers were sent back home.
We studied reading, basic history, penmanship and math and yes; geography. And we all behaved real well under the shadow of the “falaka” which was banned and removed but its power was still there, on the wall, behind Ms. Ulviye’s desk. And we learned to read and write in Turkish, about who Turkey’s neighbors and enemies were. We even learned where Syria was; right there in that elementary school in Istanbul under the presence of the “falaka” in Ms. Ulviye’s first grade classroom.
I often wonder what the first graders in Tommie Barfield would think of having the threat of a falaka and stick on the wall behind their teacher’s desk. As for me; I am very happy to have left all that behind; but once in a while when someone at a bookstore asks me where Syria is; I fondly remember Ms. Ulviye and the threat of the non-existent, yet most powerful “falaka” on the wall.
Currently a member of Marco Island’s Code Enforcement Board, Tarik Ayasun has given many years of community service to various organizations.