Turkish city embraces all identities

Editor's note: In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great forged a path from Greece through the modern Middle East to Persia. It was a path of conquest that empires would follow through the ages. Traces of each can be seen today in the culture, monuments, continuing military presence and people along the route, which ended for Alexander in Babylon, in modern-day Iraq. In this project, GlobalPost correspondent Theodore May sets out to see how Alexander’s influence lives on. He will be blogging about his travels at Backpacking to Babylon.

ANTAKYA, Turkey — Sitting down for lunch in Antakya, Turkey’s southernmost major city, I went for an old standby — hummus.

I hadn’t had chickpea in any form for months, and I was excited.

When the bowl came, I scooped up a mouthful in a chunk of bread and threw it in my mouth.

It quickly hit me that this was not the hummus I had come to know and love. In fact, this hummus was too rich to be any good.

I summoned the waiter over.

“What is this?” I asked him.

“Hummus with butter,” he replied, as if it were obvious.

Hummus with butter. An old Middle East specialty — but with a Turkish twist.

The streets of Antakya (formerly known as Antioch, of Biblical acclaim) themselves showcase a melding of cultures, as Arabs and Turks plow the streets side by side, wandering into stores marked with signs in both Turkish and Arabic, speaking a combination of the two languages. Churches dot the city, and a small but vibrant Jewish community calls the city home. Alawite Shi’ites also make up a portion of the population.

Turkey is not a country heavy on diversity — for example: more than 99 percent of the country is Muslim, according to the CIA World Factbook — but Hatay, the province of which Antakya is the capital, seems a region straddling several worlds.

This may have something to do with its history.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, European forces redrew the map of the Middle East and made the Hatay a part of Syria. In 1938, though, a local government comprised mostly of those loyal to Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, declared the Hatay independent. A year later it became a part of Turkey.

Modern Hatay, though, occupies a curious place in Turkish society. Its diverse languages, ethnicities, and religions sometimes are at odds with the strong forces of Turkish nationalism, which seeks to forge a common identity for the country and its citizens.

“This part of the country remained a part of the French Mandate area that included Syria until 1939,” said Resat Kasaba, an adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Washington. The “1920s and 1930s were when the policies of forging Turkish identity were at their peak. Antakya was not part of Turkey until then.”

Simply put, one gets the impression from visiting Antakya that its historical background has made it into a city where Turkish nationalism comes part and parcel with its legacy of diversity, rather than exclusive to it.

Local press reported earlier this month that the state is taking 10 Hatay religious leaders to court for holding Muslim religious classes. The leaders come from a group that speaks Arabic as its first language.

Beyond religious teachings, students are not allowed to study Arabic in schools, even though locals estimate that 60 percent of Antakya’s population speaks Arabic, much of it as a first language.

“Arab people want that,” said Mithat Kalaycioglu, managing editor of the Hatay Gazette, who, himself, speaks Arabic. “But the first language [of the state] is Turkish, and we live in Turkey. We’ve got a problem because if we teach Arabic, then the Kurds will want Kurdish, etc. All countries have a first language.”

Resat Kasaba added nuance. He noted that some second languages are taught in schools, but most of them are European languages, and the primary subjects are still taught in Turkish.

“Kurdish and Arabic speakers learn the language at home as their primary language,” he said. “I have also heard that some families in Antakya send their kids to schools in Syria for language training.”

In setting out the principles of statehood, the Turkish Constitution said of the country, “Its language is Turkish.”

The tensions that exist in the Hatay today may stem from the current political tensions between Islamists and nationalists. The nationalist parties have always fiercely defended the idea of a Turkish identity above others, including religious identity.

In that vein, the people of the Hatay, with their buttery hummus and bilingual store signs, may be touching a nerve in a country unaccustomed to the celebration of diversity.