This afternoon I was at a memorial meeting for Etem Erol who taught Turkish language classes at Columbia University. I took classes with him in 2006 and 2007 that were a real delight. Not long after I took these classes, he took a job at Yale where he taught until his death in January 2016. This is from the Yale Herald, a student newspaper:
When I walked into my Elementary Turkish class last Friday, no one was dressed in all black. There were no flowers, and no one was crying. Instead, there was birthday cake and a bottle of Sprite and cheerful echoes of Nasılsın? Iyiyim, teşekkürler. Death had slipped unnoticed into our tiny classroom—we just didn’t know it yet.
When Meriç, our TF, told us that she had learned of Etem’s whereabouts, I expected a story of how the fishing that week was too good for him to pass up, or of how Alpha Delta Pizza had needed a line cook on short notice, and, knowing that we would be alright without him for a few days, Etem had volunteered. I pictured him grilling freshly-caught sea bass or enjoying a full Turkish breakfast at home, complete with honeyed kaymak spread and spicy, cured pastırma. I wondered if he was chortling his full-belly laugh and playing backgammon with his friends.
But when Meriç started to cry, we slowly lowered our half-raised forks of double fudge supermarket cake and tried to believe what she was saying: that Etem Erol, our Etem Erol, would not return to us, would not fish again, would never down another peach-flavored shot of rakı. A heavy, tired silence draped itself over everyone. We could barely move ourselves to swallow our cake and continue reviewing prepositions.
The tragedy was confirmed a few days later via an email that began as follows:
I am writing to confirm what you probably already know or have heard rumored: the terrible news that our well-liked Turkish lector, Etem Erol, passed away after a heart attack in early January, while on vacation in Bulgaria. The funeral was in Turkey, and he was buried in his birthplace, as he wished.”
But even in the email, there was so much already missing, so much already on its way to being forgotten. In a few years, no one here will remember that Etem’s birthplace is an idyllic Mediterranean seaside town a stone’s throw across the straits from the Greek island Lesbos. No one will know that he was in Bulgaria furnishing the summer home he planned to retire to, or that he died in his brother’s arms. No one will know that he had a fondness for seftalı, or Turkish peaches, which he claimed to be an entirely different species than the faulty specimens we are subjected to in this country. People will forget that he could read coffee grounds, and that he believed that buying a lottery ticket was like buying yourself imagination for a week. No one will know that when faced with an impossible question in class, our default answer was “Etem çok yakışıklı,” or “Etem is very handsome.”
Etem has only been gone for a week, and already I feel him slipping away, piece by piece, until all that’s left of him is what we hold onto for safekeeping. Few among us will even care. And I don’t hold onto pretensions of special closeness with Etem; he was my professor, and I liked and respected him. I call him Etem only because he asked us to. But I don’t want to forget him. Not now and not ever. In fact, I’m afraid to forget him—if I do, what will that say about me? What will that say about our world and the place of death in our consciousness? Most of all, I’m afraid that I’m going to learn a cold truth: that these days, there is no space for death of the everyday, individual variety. We have no place for it anymore.
This is from my 2006 article on learning Turkish:
For most of the first semester of elementary Turkish I just completed, I felt like I was barely treading water and in over my head. Learning a new language at the age of 61 is tough enough as it is, but studying it at an Ivy League institution like Columbia University is even more daunting. Twice I came this close (picture a thumb 1/8th of an inch away from a forefinger) from dropping it, but just received my grade: an A-!
Learning a language in some ways is like rehearsing for a play. You have to memorize your lines. In my final exam, I remembered most of the words I was expected to use in an essay question about a father taking his daughter to the playground (a sandbox is a ‘kum havuzu’; a pail and shovel are ‘kova’ and ‘kurek’), but drew a blank when I tried to remember how to say ‘for 3 days’ (uc gundur).
My main problem is that my brain doesn’t work the way it did when I was the age of my classmates. It used to be like a camera, now it is like a sieve. Five days after I learn how to use a verb ending, the memory becomes faded. Oddly enough, the Spanish I learned in high school 46 years ago adheres better.
Despite the difficulties and despite my deep aversion to taking tests and being graded, I have found learning Turkish to be a deeply rewarding experience. Being finally able to converse with my wife’s friends and relatives in Istanbul and Izmir would make my trips there much more pleasurable. Since we would eventually like to have a summer place in Izmir, this makes learning the language a necessity.
Perhaps the main reason I stuck with the class was the teacher Etem Erol, who is without doubt one of the finest I have studied with ever. Erol brings an enormous amount of patience, enthusiasm and good humor to the subject that shows up even when the class is going through the most tedious of drills. Additionally, he is passionate about Turkish culture and history and leavens each class with comments about a wide range of topics, from the Kurdish question to Turkish cuisine. It is impossible to imagine a more qualified and more dedicated professor.
Since my understanding of Turkish culture and history are about as rudimentary as my understanding of the language, I treasured observations the professor made during the course of the semester. To begin with, I suppose that most people understand that the Turkish language is a relatively modern invention. After Mustafa Kemal led a successful revolution that led to the creation of the modern Turkish state in 1923, he instituted a number of reforms that were intended to modernize the country along the lines of certain Enlightenment ideals. One of them was to replace the Ottoman alphabet (a mixture of Arabic and Persian letters; words are read from right to left) with Roman letters. (There are additional letters in the Turkish alphabet that are distinguished by the presence of an accent or a symbol. For example, an i without the dot is pronounced “uh”; with it, it is pronounced more like the i in “in”.)