Who is a Turk? Professor Kardam Explores Turkish National Identity
“Let my being be a gift to the Turkish entity. How happy are those who say they are Turks!” For years, Professor Nüket Kardam recited those words proudly and enthusiastically along with her elementary school classmates in Istanbul. Looking back as an adult, having spent many years abroad, the words of the Turkish pledge of allegiance today give her pause.
What began for Nüket as research for a biography of her paternal grandfather became an exploration of national and cultural identity. Last year, she received the Leslie Eliason Excellence in Teaching Award, giving her the opportunity to engage in serious research in her native country. She found that she had to use a dictionary to read the ornate Turkish of her grandfather, a very respected medical doctor and philosopher in the early decades of the last century, but that was only after she had had his writings translated from Arabic script to the Latin script of modern Turkish. She also learned that a lot had been hidden in her family’s ethnic background, such as the fact that her grandmother was a descendent of a Kurdish leader, and that her family had adopted an Armenian child.
Examining her family history led Nüket to an exploration of the very deliberate creation of a national myth to fit the establishment of a new nation, the Republic of Turkey, after the war against the occupying powers was won. New school books defined Turks as a strong and honorable race from Central Asia, in effect shedding all the complexities of the reality of a country that combined a myriad of ethnicities.
Even though Turkey is very unique example, at the nexus of East and West, Asia and Europe, modernity and antiquity, Islam and secularism, still questions regarding national and cultural identity abound in today’s global society. When Nüket shared her research with students in her Introduction to Development class recently, she found that she had struck a nerve with students struggling with their own set of questions related to identity and origin. There is already talk of organizing a conference about intercultural identity, and students have asked to form research groups of their own. Perhaps we are all Turks after all?