- One cool thing about Quakers is that, by tradition, we don’t use the Nordic/pagan names of the days of the week that are common in western society, but use a simple counting-off system: First-day is ‘Sunday’, Second-day is ‘Monday’, etc. In practice, among the members of my Quaker meeting in Charlottesville, VA, we quite frequently use the Nordic/pagan names, to be more generally understood; though sometimes, amongst ourselves we use the counted-off names, which were once an integral part of what was known as Quaker ‘plain speech.’
Going to Meeting for Worship on a First-day often puts me in a reflective/spiritual mood that lasts long after the meeting itself. That happened today; so I thought I’d put these ‘First-day thoughts’ onto the blog. I may do so again, in the future. Anyway, here these ones are. ~HC
The trip turned out to be a big one. Qatar, in early May, was a lot more thought-provoking than I’d expected– thanks in good part to a friend who lives there who took me to the old downtown and talked a lot about what the conditions of life are like there for the country’s numerous Arab-national expatriate residents. The UNESCO conference was also a lot more substantive than I’d expected– and it gave me the great gift there of spending a lot of time with someone I’ve long admired, Allister Sparks.
London was good, too. Mainly, to catch up with some old friends and colleagues; to spend some good time with my best friend from Oxford days, the economist Bridget Rosewell; and to catch up with two of my sisters (though I did see them back in April, too.)
But the most memorable parts of the trip were the two weeks I spent in Turkey and the week I spent in Syria. Both these legs were with Bill the spouse. We had planned that part of the trip as a bit of an indulgence, to mark our 25th wedding anniversary; but it all proved extremely informative, as well as enjoyable.
I hadn’t been to Turkey since 1976, when I drove through the country with my first husband in the Fiat 127 we had bought shortly beforehand from Jihad Khazen for 250 Lebanese pounds (!) That trip was part of the longer drive we undertook from Beirut to the UK that summer.
This time, before Bill and I went I thought quite a bit about Mary Fisher, a young London woman who was one of the “Valiant Sixty” of early Quaker leaders, back in the mid-17th century. Some 18 months ago, Friends Journal published a terrific article about Mary, that focused on the journey she undertook in 1658 to go and share her version of the truth with Ottoman Sultan Mehmet IV. I don’t have my collection of FJ’s to hand right now– and the full text is sadly not available online. But what I recall from it is that Mary persuaded a small number of male Quakers to go along with her on the trip– but they all turned back when they received advice from the British consul in Smyrna that there might be “brigands” ahead…
So anyway, she proceeded on her own, and caught up with the Sultan and his court in Adrianople (now Edirne), north and west from Istanbul. And she somehow, without speaking a word of Turkish, talked her way into his exalted presence and got an audience in front of him and his courtiers. He asked her to speak her promised message; and after a short period of silence in the Quaker fashion, she did just that. It was doubtless a classically Christian testimony, as proclaimed by all those foundational Quakers in the 17th century.
The Sultan apparently listened to it with due respect, and thanked her for it. He then courteously asked if he could give her an armed guard to ensure she could return to Smyrna in peace; but she declined the offer, returning quite peaceably enough on her own… Sometime later she was one of the first of the English Quakers who, suffering from repression at home, migrated to north America to find refuge there. She was persecuted by the Puritans there, too; but she ended her days many years later in, I believe, South Carolina…
In the current era, Turkey has been ruled since 2002 by the AKP, a party that is avowedly Islamist but is also committed to pluralism and democracy. It has been ruled very well indeed by them. In 2007, the party was re-elected, with a stronger mandate than before. I was really interested to go there, see some of the country, and meet with Turkish friends and colleagues, though sadly our attempts to meet with a few of the officials who’ve been working on their very innovative Middle East policy did not work out.
I’m actually in the middle of writing a longer, more composed piece about Turkey and the “neo-Ottomanism” of the AKP’s foreign policy, as some have termed it. So I shan’t repeat those thoughts here. I’ll just note that the AKP has done brilliantly well in its time in office in giving real life to the old Kemalist slogan for Turkey: “Peace at home, peace abroad.”
In 2003 Turkey was, of course, one of the many member-countries of NATO that opposed the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. But unlike France or Germany or other members of “Old Europe” that opposed the war from a safe distance, Turkey was on the front-lines, and its opposition had real consequences for the conduct of the war.
The AKP’s own main foreign policy watchword has been “zero problems with our neighbors”, and it has worked hard to implement that. The fact that it is not an ethnonationalist party means it is not a captive to the parochial (and quite frequently tension-inducing) claims of ethnic Turks elsewhere. The AKP’s record so far shows it is possible to think that (at least one form of) an Islamic/Islamist concept of governance and relations among different states could actually be more eirenic than a strictly ethnonationalist one… Interesting.
Of course, one would hope that a religion-informed approach to governance and the conduct of foreign affairs would always be more eirenic than one based solely on material interests or the “special” interests of one particular ethnic grouping. But it does, evidently, depend on what kind of religion you’re talking about. In recent world history, for example, Christianity has been associated with militarism at least as much as, if not considerably more than, with the lessons of the Beatitudes.
Anyway, I thought that if the spirit of Mary Fisher were abroad in Turkey today, she might be pretty impressed with what the country’s present rulers are doing.
So here is what we did on the trip. Bill and I met in Istanbul and had about five days there. I know that Orhan Pamuk has written a lot about the city having an essentially “melancholic” air, but I have to say we found it humming, very well-run (after 15 years of AKP control of the municipality), and really amazing. Like Venice, it is built around waterways– though Istanbul’s waterways are on a much larger scale. As in Venice, too, at every corner you turn as you walk around the streets your eye is caught by yet another religious monument of stunning age and beauty…
From Istanbul, we took a bus to Bursa, roughly 150 miles away. A bus with wi-fi, no less. Also, pre-assigned seating, and a uniformed attendant who every half hour or so pushed a little cart laden with compliementary hot tea, cold drinks, and cake along the aisle. Turkey, like Spain, has a really high-functioning inter-city bus system. Why on earth can’t we have one in Virginia, Gov. Kaine???
That bus was extra fun because a short way into the ride it drives onto a vehicle ferry that takes it– and you– across the Sea of Marmara to the other side. I’ve written about this elsewhere a bit, though perhaps only on Twitter?
We stayed a couple of nights in Bursa, which was the place where the Ottoman order was born, before the Ottoman state took over Istanbul. Then we took a bus to Ankara: fascinating to see the rolling, fertile plains of the Anatolian plateau, especially as pulling out the MacBook and catching up on email was also, on this bus as on the last one, an option.
We spent about three days in Ankara. The best thing there was the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations. Amazing! You get a real sense of all these different civilizations having rolled over the land-mass, from palaeolithic times on. (You can do a great panoramic tour of the whole museum if you click here: Great technology!)
Fabulous to see the strong feminocentrism of the neoliths there. Female fertility and nurturing were definitely central values for those societies!
From there we went to Kappadokya for two days of intensive sightseeing. We must have seen about two dozen totally amazing Byzantine churches, some dating backing to the fourth century CE, many in ultra-precarious locations in the rugged terrain there. We also saw one of the many complete “underground cities” the Greeks built there, to which they would retreat whenever marauding armies of Medes, Persians, or Arabs would be coming by. The one we saw could accommodate around 20,000 people– and their livestock and all their supplies– for quite a period of time, given that they had also carved deep ventilation shafts out of the soft tufa rock. And understand this, too: This was only one of 37 such underground cities in the area that are now known about.
Okay, moving on… we drove from Kappadokya to Antakya/Hatay, where we hired a taxi to take us across the border to Aleppo, in northern Syria. Again, many interesting cultural observations– especially given that many of the residents of Antakya are ethnic Arabs. Plus, of course, for a long time the Syrian government deeply resented the fact that in 1939 or so, when France was still ruling Syria, it just summarily “gave away” Antakya province to Turkey, as a way to bribe Turkey not to get into the same alliance with Germany that the Ottoman state had been in in 1914.
Now, however, Syrian-Turkish relations are extremely warm. (I need to write a bunch more about that later.)
Finally, one week ago today we drove from Aleppo down to Damascus, and we were there till yesterday.
Damascus was looking good. We were staying in one of the many boutique hotels that have been opened up in the lovely old homes in the Old City. We were just a couple of minutes walk away from the Street Called Strait (or as some say, Straight.) We were lucky enough to have a small swimming pool there, too. So no-one should feel too sorry for us!
In Damascus, too, we caught up with numerous colleagues and friends. We also had a number of good high-level encounters, as I’ve mentioned on the blog before: including with the Syrian foreign minister and with Hamas head Khaled Meshaal. Bill and I were tag-teaming in these meetings. I was doing my journalistic interviews and– with our Syrian interlocutors especially– Bill was interviewing them for a project he’s working on for the US Institute of Peace, that’s looking at various peacemaking efforts involving Syria since 1991. (In the most recent of which, of course, Turkey was also heavily involved as an intermediary.) Anyway, it all worked out pretty well.
I completely acknowledge that compared with the travails and dangers that Mary Fisher faced as she pursued her particular form of a mission to achieve international understanding, my experiences on this trip were very de-luxe.
There was another difference, too. Mary Fisher was sincerely hoping to convert Sultan Mehmet IV to her religious views. It took another century before Quaker peace-seekers like John Woolman would go about their task without seeking to convert their interlocutors to their views as they went.
During the tensions and armed clashes that erupted in the 1750s between the English settlers in North America, on the one hand, and the French settlers and their “Indian” allies on the other, Woolman set out westward from Philadelphia simply to go and meet some of the Indians concerned. He wrote this in his journal about this mission:
- A concern arose to spend some time with the Indians, that I might feel and understand their life and the spirit they live in, if haply I might receive some instruction from them, or they might in any degree be helped forward by my following the leadings of truth among them.
So he was traveling to the Indian communities mainly to learn about their situation. (I like the terms “feel and understand” there.) He acknowledges the real possibility that he might “receive instruction” from them. And only after that does he mention the possibility that the Indians “might be helped” by some of what he said with them. Very different from Mary Fisher, bless her.
As for me, I was mainly in the trying to “feel and understand” mode in my meetings in Damascus. I have told most of the people I deal with there about the fact of my membership with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), and have told some of them that the traditional Quaker concerns for peace-seeking and for truth-telling are a big part of my motivation in doing what I do. But I have no desire at all to try to “convert” them– or anyone else– to Quakerism. If I seek to “persuade” people in general of anything, it is mainly to persuade them that the use of violence is very rarely, if ever, productive; and that powerful non-violent means do always exist for attaining goals that are just. (And this is, after all, a truth that many religions have discovered over the centuries; Quakers have no particular monopoly on its discovery.)
But if this lesson about the disutility of violence is one that needs to be “preached” to anyone, surely it needs to be preached most of all to those who are the biggest users of violence! In the Middle Eastern region, these people do not reside in Damascus, or in Gaza. They reside in Israel and also– sadly enough– in Washington DC.
So that’s where I have now come back to, and where I intend to step up my efforts to persuade as many people here as possible that there are inclusive, non-violent ways in which– in coalition with others around the world and basing their efforts on international law– Americans and our government can help to de-escalate the tensions in the Middle East and lay the foundations for a fair and sustainable peace in the region.
This effort is only about 62 years overdue at this point.