My students at Manchester Dil Okulları learn new languages for many reasons. To move ahead in their studies and careers. To gain a deeper understanding of other cultures and people. For the sheer joy of learning new ways of thinking. But sometimes, it’s important to learn a new language because otherwise you have no idea what’s going on.
Such was my lesson learned last night on our language-school fieldtrip to see the play, Jackson’ı Kim Öldürdü? It was a psychological drama, or so I’m told, although all I saw were long monoglogues all taking place in one room. The total list of words I think I understood was “Micheal Jackson” three times, “very” twice and “beautiful” once.
But what made the play incredible – the best I’ve seen in years – was the astounding cast of characters. To my right sat the amazing Meltem, of Wednesday Night Beginner’s Class fame. X-ray technician, trophy-winning tennis player, junior-grade ice-skater, a little bit kooky, and learning English to get a greencard and work in New York. Next to her is sweet little Hafize, a fully Islamic-scarved young highschool student who single-handedly convinced me to quit smoking because she said it made her sad. Squeezing into our dark theatre seats a head swivels around in dark row in front of me. “Ah! Hello Teacher!” It’s Ramazan! My advanced student. Great with English after having studied in Virginia Beach on his lifetime passion of learning exquisit cooking from around the world, I’ve spent a lot of time with Ramazan because of his standing invitation to visit the resteraunt he runs at any time I want. When a chef who’s won nationwide cooking awards in Turkey opens up his kitchen to you, you take that opportunity as much as you can. But my friendship with Ramazan is profitable in other ways, too. Because of his language skills and our long classes together, he and my other advanced student pour knowledge into my head about complex subjects like Turkish politics, culture, Islam and love. I’m not quite sure what I offer in return, but Ramazan always seems happy to see me, too.
And to my left? To my left the ridiculous, hilarous, uproarıous, ludicrous Gülistan! I’ve traveled around the world and can honestly say I’ve never met someone quite so silly, warm, happy and odd as Gülistan. An extremely devout Muslim whose name means Rose Garden, Gülistan’s wacky antics keep our entıre Monday Nıght Beginners class in fits of laughter. Her English has definately been improving since we met, but its still at a pretty fundamental state. That doesn’t stop her from jumping right in and trying to co-teach every class, though. In her hilariously frank simple English and the non-stop-flow of Turkish (which she doesn’t even seem concious of), Gülistan lectures me on English language and shepherds the class around like mother hen at break time. She walks them through extra learning games of her own devices. With Melten as her slightly dopey sidekick, anyone walking by our classroom is prone to hear a chorus of teacher and student voices crying “Quiet Gülistan!” over peels of laughter. “There’s only one Gülistan!” they’ve all learned to say.
Gülistan’s friendly ridiculousness is matched only by her warmth. Her handbag reminds me of a never-ending snack bag some loving grandmother might carry. As soon as she bustles in to class every student has some weird packaged chocolate treat or cracker in front of them. “Ooooh Teacher! Pupmick Seed!” She orders. “Eat! Yes! Good Teacher! Temam!” She even goes as far as to leap out of class and chase down other teachers and students in the hall. “Oooooh David! Yes Teacher! Teacher eat! Temam!”
Gülistan is also the culperate of a moment of sheer extasy I experienced the other day. After class several students and I headed to the big beautiful Erzurum city square for a post-lesson snowball fight. The square is gorgious – an anciant stopover on the Silk Road bearing witness to 5,000 years of Hitite, Assyrian, Greek, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Kurdish, Armenian, Ottoman and Turkik history- all under the shadow of an ornate towering Madrasah. Clothed in pure white snow, we snowball-fought a fierce battle, running in carefull little baby steps to keep from falling. I hit Gülistan in the back of her headscarf (the sneak that I am). Then she came after me. I was laughing and running away with my carefull baby steps when the moment of sublime extasy hit: I turned around and saw Gülistan running like a fast-hobbling crazy person – in each hand a comically enormous hunk of snow – Muslim-scarved-head bobbing back and forth – yelling “Teacher Teacher Teacher Teacher! Oooooh Teacher Teacher Teacher!” And in that moment slow-motion-shuffling away from her, I experienced one of those breathtaking moment of pure bliss and divinity. Afterwards she walked around barking orders to assemble for pictures – holding the snow chunk like a baby – and told my roommate through gestures that she intended to carry it all the way home and eat it for dinner.
Gülistan has single-handedly solved the old riddle: accross a seemingly huge cultural rift, she has proved to me that- Yes, a rose by any other name smells just as sweet.
Back to the dark theatre, and I don’t have a clue what’s going on on stage. But I have a pretty good understanding of what’s going on in the auditorium. The mildly bored but cheerful audience is leaning back in chairs, whispering to friends and embarassedly silencing cell phones. My row, in particular, is starting to get a little antsy. The crew starts snickering, cracking jokes and even mildly heckling the cast on stage. Suddenly I’m transported back to my teenage years –hanging out with the troublemakers and spitting Gülistan’s “Pumpmick” Seeds on the ground. And I certainly look the hooligan part, too: I’m sporting a wicked black-eye from Erzurum’s treacherous icy streets, and wearing my nasty traveling cloths which have been slightly modified to try to be “teacher appropriate” – with the result of somehow looking even scruffier. Scribbled all over my face are the awkward first stages of the burly Turkish mustache I promised my students I’d grow, and I have a 2 ½ foot braided rattail which has a tendancy to shoot right out the side of my head and end up… wherever it is that a 2 ½ foot braided rattail feels like ending up. Yeah – I look like a guy who might be causing trouble in a theatre audience… But my compadres? My posse? They’re all smiley good Muslim girls wearing headscraves…
Luckily the heckling was all in good-natured fun. The cast on stage even played into it at one point, with a character saying “Something something something Manchester Dil Okurlları!” to great applause. Yes! Manchester Dil Okurllari! That’s my school! I understood another word! Hey- and it IS really funny when you suddenly pick out one random word from a bunch of gibberish… no WONDER my students are always laughing in class!
The cast of supporting roles in the play was great, too. At intermission I hug-wrestled a big bear of a beginner student. Ah! There’s my intermediate student Esra who tried her little heart out when Gülistan took us all ice skating! Ah! And here’s fiery Selima, Fatima and the rest of the class who took me on my other language-disaster event this week! (They took me to see the new Hobbit movie, only to realize in horror at the last moment that it was dubbed into Turkish rather than subtitled as they had thought. List of words I understood: “Thank you” once, “Please” twice, and “Food food food food food!” when some giant spiders were trying to eat fake dwarves.) And here’s the native Turkish teachers who eat lunch and laugh with me in our cramped little break room! And over there is The Goke- my hilarious vampire-boss with the world’s greatest gut laugh!
My favorite part of the whole play, though, came at the very end of intermission when Big Ür introduced me to Little Ür. Big Ür is a postal worker a few years older than me with stylish glasses and a heart of gold. In his class the other day, my all-dude beginner dream-class which both laughs and works harder than any other class, I was joking around about growing my Turkish mustache. “Then all I’ll need is one of those beaded prayer-thingies that all the guys in Turkey play with!” Without thinking or hesitating Big Ür reached into his bag and handed me his own tespy. A tespy! A tespy for me! So now I spend a lot of time learning how to use a tespy. And man! It’s awesome! A tespy is basically two completely different things in one: its 33 beautiful beads strung together for the purpose of counting out the 99 different names or aspects of God. So it can be used for prayer or meditation on the qualities of divinity. But what it’s really used for is completely different- a somewhat machismo elaborate finger spinning toy/stress ball type deal. It’s real addictive and real fun. It’s even kind of a tuff-guy thing, associated with gangsters and roughs (even though just about all Turkish men do it). I can already tell I’ll be fiddling with a tespy for the rest of my life, and I’ll think of Big Ür every time I do.
So it was a very special treat when Big Ür introduced me to his nine-year-old son who I always hear him gushing over in class. By the look on his face, the boy might not have understood the play any more that I did, but man am I ever glad he came! We high-fived. It was a very special treat indeed.
Shh! The play was about to continue! I squeeze back into my seat ın between Meltem and Gülistan. Somebody is droning on stage… on and on… talking talking talking… and then… Hey! I know that guy! That’s Abdul Semet! At the very end of the play, two silent policemen appeared to remove the long-monologue-guy (apparently it was that kind of play), and much to my suprise one of them was my student! Hooray! Look at my Wednesday Morning Beginner Class shining in the spotlight!
At curtain call, as I clapped and clapped (especially for my student), something occured to me: maybe you don’t need to understand anything. Or rather, maybe things are better when all words are stripped away and you just realize the full ridiculousness of the comedy playing out around you. Maybe this low-budget production of Jackson’ı Kim Öldürdü was the best play I’ve ever seen, and maybe I was the only person in the audience who knew it, precisely because I couldn’t understand anything…
After the play Gülistan ordered some of her friends, the new teacher Haris and I to all go bowling. As could only be expected, more moments of supreme happiness in the presence of Gülistan ensued. And on the way home… when she insisted on taking us all the way across town on the bus so that we wouldn’t be snatched by ghosts… I hit my friend with a snowball.