The Social Center—and Şakır Bey

Never heard of a campus bar before (except at universities), but who’s complaining? Actually, our social center on the Koc campus has been an important part of my life in Turkey. One of the highlights has been our distinguished bartender, Şakır Bey, as well as social events ranging from our weekly potato night to a variety of special events. So lucky we are!
Şakır Bey serves as a host for many of us on campus. (SHAH-kur Bey, which is like Mr. Şakır, only Şakır is his first name—that’s how you address men in Turkey.) A retired naval officer, he has been the social center bartender for the past 11 years (after 25 years in the military). When I first arrived two years ago, I couldn’t understand why everyone was up in arms about the possible termination of their bartender. I mean, really! How much difference can a bartender make?

Well, I didn’t know Şakır Güner. He’s one in a million, and he’s made every single person on campus feel appreciated and important. “Benim genc arkadasim” he calls me, and I call him the same (gench arkadashEEM= my young friend). We’re both retiring this year. Need I say more? Şakır Bey is friendly, professional, and efficient. He takes care of everyone without imposing himself, and he’s always ready for a game of backgammon (tavla) with anyone who has time to spare. My friend Sue is coming for her second visit, and her first question was whether she’d get to see Şakır Bey again. That’s how wonderful he is. Unfortunately, he’ll be retired when she arrives.


I regret to admit that we leave Şakır Bey sitting alone in the social center too many nights. He’s there five nights a week from 5:00 to 10:00, and we just can’t get down there every night. When I do go down for a beer, we chat in my limited Turkish and his limited English, teaching each other as our conversation progresses. It’s a real treat for both of us. Our favorite topic of conversation is retirement. I’m going back to my wilderness home in Grand Marais, and he plans to travel with his lovely wife, Meliha. They’ve purchased a summer home on the Black Sea, but their first travel excursion will be to the beautiful city of Antalya on the Mediterranean coast in July. His eyes glow as he speaks of it.


Back to the social center We just had what might have been the best event yet: last Sunday three very talented actors presented a production of The Love List, a hilarious Neil-Simon-like play by Canadian playwright Norm Foster. Take three gifted actors —Larry Bent, Dan Kapp, and Lisa Kapp—a snappy, intelligent script and mix them with an appreciative well-fed audience, and you’ve got a hit! The play is about a 50-year-old man who puts together a 10-point list for a dating service, then faces the reality of his choices. It’s great!




(Especially in this era of computer dating, it’s pretty on target). You have to see it to find out about item number four (which I’ll leave to your imagination). I recommend it highly to our community theater for future production. At any rate, we thoroughly enjoyed our evening, many of us laughing until tears streamed from our eyes. I call that a successful event.p1010232.JPG

We’ve had other enjoyable events at the social center: a wine-tasting party (also organized by the Kapps), a Halloween party, numerous game nights, a Thanksgiving Dinner, a Christmas dinner, and a weekly gathering for baked potatoes and fixings—the famed Potato Night. It’s been a great way to get an easy meal, to connect with friends, and to just get out of the lojman for a while.


Gotta love that social center—and especially Şakır Bey!

(play photos by Tony Paulus)

Death to America? WHAT???????

I’ve lived in Turkey nearly two years now, and I wonder if my view of the world has changed. I wonder, too, if I’ve changed. Scary!

I’ve had a great time here, filled with incredible experiences. I’ve toured countless mosques, learned to speak some Turkish, met some fascinating people, visited places along the three seas surrounding Turkey (and beyond), as well as having opened my eyes and heart to this culture. Lucky me.

Many of my Turkish friends have commented that these weekly missives have opened their eyes as well. They’ve revisited Turkey through the eyes of a yabanci (foreigner). They’ve been forced to scrutinize their world a bit more carefully, and also to notice the precious details they take for granted: the call to prayer, the sparkling Bosporus, the sun setting over distant hills, the occasional Christian church, the bustle of a street market, even a beggar along Istaklal.

I’ve had an opportunity to view America through different eyes as well. I’ve listened to student presentations about media’s negative influence in their lives and others about the exploitation of third world workers by U.S. corporations. I’ve heard countless diatribes (from both students and adults) against the War in Iraq. I visited an antiwar rally/tent in Kadikoy. I’ve been asked repeatedly, “What do you think of Bush?” and been treated warmly when I responded “Not much.” I’ve worried about the impression America has made on the rest of the world, and it isn’t pretty. I’m afraid the days of Americans basking in admiration may be behind us.

Just this week I listened to a public radio podcast, “Death to America.” It’s part of a program called The Changing World, and in the May 30th program (available online at, host Michael Goldfarb deals specifically with Turkey. His presentation is a bit unsettling, albeit true. America is not greatly loved on this side of the Atlantic (an understatement).

According to a survey by the Pew Memorial Trust, in 2000 over half of the people in Turkey reported a favorable view of America. A recent poll shows that figure has fallen to 12%. It’s not only Turkey; only 37% of Germans report a positive view of America, and 23% of Spaniards. In fact, only two of the countries surveyed had over 60% of their population reporting a positive regard for America: Japan and Nigeria. Very disturbing.

This disenchantment is not only about the war; it’s also about broken promises, hidden agendas, and exploitation. People have lost faith that America is an honest nation that acts according to honest values. Hmmm…

There’s a strong contingent of fundamentalist Muslims who hate America and would love to see it destroyed. That was made more than clear in the podcast. A Turkish journalist said, “No one in the Middle East, including Turkey, believes America has good intentions.” The faith in American values has been replaced by skepticism, fear, and hatred. Turkish students no longer clamor to attend American colleges; many feel unwelcome, and even fearful. What a sad commentary.

One of my readers back home sent me a very disturbing e-mail expressing the exact reverse view: he feels that Islam is the scourge of the world and wants to see the Muslim world destroyed. It’s painful to see this fundamentalist hatred on either side. Many people perceive recent global conflicts as a religious war between the Christian and Islamic worlds. Others perceive recent American actions as imperialism. This extremism is disturbing, though I’ve seen little of it personally.

I have to admit, in spite of anti-American sentiments over here, my experience  has been positive. I feel safer here than I do at home. People have been both warm and friendly, probably because as people we deal with each other as individuals, not as representatives of a country or a faith. It’s not me that the Turks dislike, it’s my government, its war, and its aggressive capitalism. I get that. They don’t hold it against me, though they often ask me why it’s happened. I wish I could explain, but I can’t.

What I do know is that everyone—all across the globe—needs to work on humility, tolerance, and benevolence. Isn’t that what both Christ and Muhammed  taught us? Somehow those crucial lessons have been lost in the shuffle—in the struggle.

It will take years for America to rebuild the trust that other countries once had in us. I hope it’s not too late.