One of the things that I love most about living in London and attending a London university is the extremely diverse nature of the people around me. Over the years I have encountered friends from all regions of the globe, whether this was Albania, Dominica, Indonesia, Australia, Sri Lanka, Poland or Algeria. The list very truly goes on! Even during my time at primary school as a young girl, I revelled in getting to know the heritage of my classmates, and learning about the languages they spoke, food they ate and traditions they observed. In a previous post of mine, I spoke very briefly about my own background and I have no doubt that my mixed make-up is what gave me this fascination. But, in case you didn’t catch that post, I will summarise once again 🙂 I was born in London (Croydon represent!) to an Iraqi Kurdish immigrant father and a London-born mother who herself was the child of a Turkish immigrant father and Finnish immigrant mother.
So, what does this tell you? Well, for one, I certainly grew up eating a great range of varied foods. And yes, language and identity did in fact become a very confusing thing for me! However, the purpose of this post is to specifically discuss my Turkish roots and link to my darling late Dede (granddad), so this is what I shall do 🙂 Being incredibly close to her father, my mum grew up spending almost every summer in Turkey and even when she started teaching she would make a point to visit during most school holidays. Subsequently, she picked up the language extremely well, and despite what she says now when she criticises her London accent, I remind her that she is still in fact pretty fluent. Because my mum felt such a strong tie to her paternal heritage, I grew up hearing a lot of Turkish music (İbrahim Tatlıses, Zeki Müren and Muazzez Ersoy among others), eating a lot of Turkish food and occasionally, when the satellite wouldn’t play up, watch a stupid soap opera on the TRT network. I remember as a little girl I would sit down whilst my mum would brush my hair and speak to me in Turkish, making sure to show off to my Dede whenever I had learnt a new word.
But, as young children can sometimes be, I became frustrated. I am so ashamed now, as a 21-year-old, to admit that I was somewhat embarrassed of my speaking Turkish. I hated how I pronounced the words and felt like I sounded stupid, and so, I shouted at my mum and begged her to speak to me solely in English from then on. Having lived in London since the 1960s, my Dede spoke English wonderfully and so communicating with him was not an issue. I just made the conscious decision to linguistically remove myself from that part of my heritage and in a way, deny my association with it. And so, as the years flew by and I could no longer visit Turkey due to unrelated personal reasons, I slowly lost more and more of my linguistic knowledge until I essentially became a foreigner on that level. As I hit my teenage years, I was in no way embarrassed by my roots as I had been before and I loved speaking to my Dede about his time in Turkey, eating my Hala’s wonderful food and laughing with my mum about family gossip, as good Turks do 😉 In that time, I felt like I was Turkish, albeit partly Turkish, as 75% of me “belonged” to other nations, and so I kept that arrangement going and was fairly comfortable with it.
All that changed in early 2018.
It was January, the start of the second semester of my first year at King’s College London, and I had my first ‘Introduction to American Studies’ seminar. You may ask, what on earth has an American studies class got to do with your Turkish identity crisis, Leyla? Well, I’ll tell you. I had randomly sat next to a girl on my course whom I did not know (a nice girl too, and if you’re reading this then merhaba! <3) and during our icebreaker conversation, she revealed that she was Turkish. I excitedly responded that my mum was half-Turkish and so I was a quarter Turkish, but when she discovered that I did not in fact speak the language, she was surprised. Shocked, even. It wasn’t until that precise moment that I suddenly felt like an imposter within my own heritage. I felt like because I no longer spoke the language, I didn’t have the right to claim that part of me as my own and engage in a national kinship with this girl. Yes, culturally and in terms of tradition, I had lived a decently “Turkish” life. But, I was lacking, and I was lacking in something so, so important. That day when I journeyed back home, I had a good, long think about my experience. I thought about how I went wrong and how I wished I had never demanded to my mum that she only speak English in our house. I thought about how my Dede was ill, for he would pass away a mere four months later, knowing that I never got to share moments with him in his own beloved language, the language of my ancestors. When he died, I made a promise to myself that I would undertake a quest at reclaiming my Turkish heritage and reconnecting with my roots. This quest of course consisted of me relearning the language I had rejected 15 years prior.
Throughout 2018, to 2019 and the start of 2020, I dabbled in Duolingo on-and-off and tried, on a most basic level, to begin again. I remembered a few things once I relearnt them and felt as if I was on the road to success, but anyone who has ever used Duolingo for language learning knows that sometimes you just get bored of its format and find yourself slowly slipping away until you start receiving those sassy emails from Duo the owl, and just to spite him, you refuse to use the service. I’d bet at least one of you reading this right now has had the same experience!
Now, onto the main focus of my post: Diriliş: Ertuğrul (trans. Resurrection: Ertuğrul). Perhaps a few months ago, in the latter half of 2020, my mum came home one evening from my grandma and uncles. She excitedly mentioned that they had started watching a new show on Netflix, a historical Turkish drama about the events leading up to the rise of the Ottoman Empire (yes, still a very problematic empire, no doubt about it!), set in the 13th century. Because I’m a bit of a history buff and I love historical re-enactments, whether accurate or inaccurate, I thought that I would give it a go and watch the first episode. Suffice to say, I loved it. After research I discovered that the show became a massive hit in Turkey and in nations such as Pakistan, it even being referred to as “the Turkish Game of Thrones“, just without the sex because, you know, this is Turkey we’re talking about.
The show had everything in its formula that would make me fall in love with it: humour, deception, plot twists, family, love, action…the list goes one. But what it provided for me that I most value, is a sense of community, and a very Turkish one at that! Several characters possessed characteristics and catchphrases that I could easily tie to members of my own family, and I started to realise just how much I loved that. I remember gasping on one occasion when Ertuğrul was leaving for a mission and, for luck, Hayme Ana threw water behind him as he rode off into the sunset. For my whole life my own mum had done the same thing whenever I had ventured abroad for a Super Mario Kart tournament and it had always provided me with a sense of warm safety. It was at this moment that I beamed because I felt so very connected to my Turkish roots, especially because the tradition I had experienced originated centuries prior. I felt that these people I was watching on the TV were my people, as they weren’t typical western characters that I was used to seeing, but rather people who shared a part of my culture.
In the first season there was a character, briefly present, called Leyla. She was a princess (of course, what else? 😉 ) and like every other woman in the show, fell in love with Ertuğrul. Surprise surprise. This may sound like such a silly thing to say but I honestly became SO excited when I saw that there was a character who shared the Turkish spelling of my name. Normally in TV whenever there is a character with the same name as me, it is spelt far differently, but this wasn’t the case here. She had my spelling and it was then that my mum reminded me of how old and meaningful my name actually is in Turkey and the Middle East. I had a “backstory” of sorts, a connection to oral storytelling of the land and its subsequent literature. I’m honestly struggling here to think of any other word to describe this other than COOL! 😀 It sounds silly but it served to heighten my love for my heritage because I felt like I truly belonged to something.
As we progressed through the seasons and very many episodes, I began noting down new words that I had learnt and received daily grammatical lessons from my mum alongside our watching of the show. I’m going to be honest and say that re-learning Turkish from a show set in the 13th-century might not be the greatest idea as I still can’t ask someone for directions to the bathroom but I can call them a traitorous dog for stealing my castle and declare my desire for revenge. Baby steps, eh? A massive feeling of pride always overcomes me whenever I look away from the TV and I perfectly understand what the characters are saying, without subtitles. It tends to be little things but considering that a year ago I had next to zero knowledge of any vocabulary and I have never taken a Turkish language class, I’d say I’m doing quite well!
And so, the purpose for this brief post is just to put to words how significant the role of Diriliş: Ertuğrul has been in reconnecting me with my Turkish heritage. It has made me realise that I am lucky enough to be a part of so many nations, and thus I can learn and experience a great many things. It has made me greater love and appreciate where I come from, as well as exacerbate my desire to reclaim my lost language. Additionally, watching Ertuğrul has also provided me with yet another connection to my boyfriend, a Pashtun from Afghanistan. Who would’ve thought that Turkish and Pashto actually had so many similarities?! Of course, you may laugh at me for never realising this as Turkey and Afghanistan aren’t exactly millions of miles away from each other, but it had never occurred to me that they could have so much in common on a linguistic level. How romantic that we can both understand each other when we declare in our respective languages that we crave revenge against the traitors who stole our castles! ❤
Overall, it’s always quite bittersweet whenever I watch Ertuğrul with my mum. A beautiful framed picture of my Dede, positioned above our sofa, beams down upon us day by day, and we can’t help but think of how much he would have loved to share this experience with us. He would have been able to provide so many informative details, whether about clothing, food, or historical events, and this would have undoubtedly enriched our watching of the programme. Adding it to my Netflix repertoire has not only made me feel closer to my Turkish roots, but it has made me feel even closer to my Dede. These are his people, his land, his language…and now, they are mine.