"Turkey Is Safer than New York"

It was September 10, 2001, when Seyhan Erden Arkonaç started to teach at New York University, leaving his position in Boston at North Eastern University due to the change of his wife’s job... 
After his first class in this city, to which he hadn’t come very willingly, Seyhan E. Arkonaç tells how he felt:  “After the first lesson I went to my car. I had parked it in a way that the Twin Towers were standing in front of me. They were so impressive that I said to myself ‘maybe it is not going to be so bad to live in New York’ and the class was just fine. And the next day was September 11!”
We talked about the reactions in the Turkish community against America in the five years following 9/11 with Seyhan E. Arkonaç, who is still teaching at New York University, in the department of economics.

You have been living in the USA for 20 years, and you had the chance to observe closely what has happened in New York in the last five years. How did 9/11 affect the Turkish community in New York?
We may categorize the Turks living in the US into three groups in respect to their identity definitions: Those who define themselves by their Muslim identity, those who define themselves by their Turkish identity and those who define themselves by their professional occupations.

For me 9/11 affected most the groups that identified themselves with their Muslim religion. I may give an example from my own close circle: The lady who is working with me wears a headscarf. She told me something that happened to her sister-in-law. Her sister-in-law was working in a big department store. After 9/11 they asked her to take off her scarf. But she didn’t want to take it off. Thus they fired her.

We always hear stories that they sue the company and receive compensation. However, this poor woman has little English and has money neither for the court nor for the lawyer. She is all left alone and still looking for a job since 9/11. According to the lady that works with me these days the safest job for them is to work with a Turkish family as a cleaning lady. Of course this is very sad; because both the lady that is working with me and her sister-in-law are actually tailors. Though they could be working in much more qualified jobs, they have to accept working as cleaning ladies.

What about those that you categorized as defining themselves by their occupations and Turkish identities in the three groups you mentioned? Were they affected by 9/11?

Of course. As now the Americans have a different attitude towards the Turks, the Turks have changed their attitude as well. Everything has its due response.  For example, at my children’s school, when I tell a mother that I’m Turkish and she asks me questions like ‘how is Turkey, is it safe, can we go?’ I cannot stand it. And after 9/11 I also have started to use the same event, I answer them ‘Turkey is safer than New York.’ My reaction has come to be this. Also when I say that I’m Turkish, they ask whether I’m Muslim. I used to say ‘No, not really, I have never said a prayer in my life.’ From time to time I even had said that I was an atheist; but after 9/11 I say ‘yes, I’m Muslim.’ Another example: my son has an Iranian friend. We went out for dinner one day.

Everybody asked for something, and that boy asked about one dish. The waiter was listing what the dish contained, and there was pork in it. Then the boy said, ‘I cannot eat that because I’m Muslim.’ I was quite curious, because I know his family; they have nothing to do with being Muslim. In America, with his American friends he says things like ‘I’m Muslim and I’m proud of it’; the only reason is somehow to react. My daughter also has a similar reaction. She and her few Pakistani friends have made up a Muslim group; rather they call it like that. They greet themselves with a special M sign that they do with their hands. But actually none of them knows about their religion. All this is rooted in the urge to react against the attitude towards Muslims after 9/11. I observe that such reactions have also increased in the two other groups that I have mentioned.

We observe that there has been a significant increase in anti-Americanism in Turkey in the recent years. There are even those who think that the Americans had deserved something like 9/11 for a long time. How would you interpret such reactions?
It is true that there is such a reaction in Turkey. There is a school of thought that the Americans deserved 9/11. My first reaction was also something like that. Though I was in New York that day and was feeling very sad, I thought that way. When I went to Turkey after the August 17 earthquake in 1999, I remember I thought how come the USA could have such luxury and how come there is no balance in things at all. One of the first things that I thought after 9/11 was that ‘there is not that much luxury here anymore’.

9/11 was the first time that the Americans felt terrorism. Thus, not only in Turkey but all around the world people happened to feel that way. Of course the attacks were horrible, many civilians died, this can even not be questioned, but many people thought that ‘the USA was very luxurious, now not so much.’ That’s why I find such reactions quite understandable.

It is known that there are many illegal laborers in New York and its periphery. How did 9/11 affect them?
Before 9/11, there were many Turks who came here illegally, stayed for a while without working permits and then received them; however, because of the fears after 9/11 they either went back or even if they stayed here, they accepted the working conditions that their employers imposed on them, though these would be quite unfair. Since they are afraid of the American authorities and worried that they may not find jobs, they have to accept less qualified and much lower paid jobs than those that they are able to do. Not only among the fugitives, but even among the businessmen the worries have increased.

Particularly after the Dubai Ports Company was not granted the management of six ports in the USA and the arguments that followed, the Turkish businessmen, who do not see themselves as Muslims, say so only when they are asked; even those who do not identify themselves with their nationalities, started to get worried. They thought ‘We are Muslim too. What if the same thing happens to us some day; what if our businesses are impeded as well?’”

Many people see 9/11 as a turning point.  Do you agree?
My reaction in the first twenty-four hours after 9/11 was: such a thing has never happened before, this will change the whole world, and nothing will ever be the same. Later I found out that this was not the right reaction, because actually such things happen all over the world. I think these reactions are related to the fact that after 9/11 the immunity of America suddenly vanished. However, there are many more people who died more horribly in many other countries than those who died on 9/11. I think 9/11 will be lost among them in history, maybe in American history it will take longer to be forgotten; but in world history it may even have started to disappear!
Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07