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Turkish Delights


Istanbul, Turkey

Lara Calloway

burka lady

        In my own feeble and poorly executed attempts to learn a foreign language, I have always worried and wondered excessively about joke-making. How long would it take to acquire the affluence, accent, and linguistic ability necessary to makes effective jokes in another language without everyone just thinking that you don’t know what you’re saying?

         I can’t answer how long it takes, but I can at least now rest assured knowing that it is, in fact, possible. Picture: I’m in Istanbul, Turkey, sitting around in a 3rd-story apartment with friends I’ve met on the street just hours before. Sitting in a circle is Holissan and his brother Yachob, their roommate Jihan, and two girls, Eminou and Zeldtha. Holissan speaks English fluently, Jihan and Yachob are on their way, and the girls know just enough to ask us our names and tell us theirs. It’s Zeldtha’s birthday and Holissan invited me and my trusty traveling companion, Amy, over to help them celebrate with cake and wine.

It was soon apparent that Yachob was the practical joker, to the point where sometimes even the girls would laugh at what he said to us in English. They couldn’t understand a word of it, but his expression and intonation was enough indication that he was clearly pulling our leg. The majority of the time, I couldn’t even catch all of what he was trying to say, and he still had Amy and me rolling on the floor. We believed him when he told us that both Zeldtha and Eminou were his girlfriend, until context clues eventually suggested that only Eminou was. At another point, he had us convinced that his mother was coming over at midnight and bringing more wine and tequila.

            Several times, he would make plays on obvious but stereotypical and false cultural differences, playing on the typical "western idea" of a Turkish person. Wrapping a towel around his head and insisting it was "turban time," he tried to convince us that every night at 2 a.m. all muslims must stop what they're doing and put on their "ceremonial turbans." In this instance specifically, I was strongly reminded of the politics of traditional verse modern Turkish culture that Yael Navaro-Yasin discusses in the article The Historical Construction of Local Culture, referring to the jokes that the modern Turks made about the "islamic takeover" after the municipal elections in 1994. With the confidence of someone completely capable of communication, Yachob actually used his broken English (and the advantage that we knew very little about him, his friends, and his lifestyle) to make connections through humor.

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